Cardinal George Pell: Newman against the ‘errors of the age’

I received the following from the Oratorians at Birmingham.  It was under embargo until midnight, UK time:

August 11 2009

Cardinal George Pell: Newman against the ‘errors of the age’

On the anniversary of Newman’s death, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney has commented incisively on Newman’s significance and impending beatification. The full text of Cardinal Pell’s reflections will be published at on August 12. Here is a summary of his key arguments.

Dictatorship of Relativism

Aligning Newman with Pope Benedict XVI’s analysis of ‘the dictatorship of relativism’, Pell emphasises that Newman’s understanding of conscience is in ‘the mainline of the Christian tradition, which upholds the view that we do not create truth but stand underneath it.’ Even conscience, therefore, must be ‘judged by conformity to the truth, and to the Word of God.’ As Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk declares, conscience is in fact fulfilled and completed only when it embraces the Faith and Morals taught by the Catholic Church.

Detached from this vocation to objective truth, Newman knows that conscience degenerates from discerning what is right into ‘the right of self will’. From this flows ‘the dictatorship of relativism’, according to which truth is sacrificed to human passions and opinion.

Contemporary emphasis on the primacy of conscience, which often appeals to Newman’s inspiration, systematically overlooks this aspect of his teaching, according to Pell. For Newman it is in fact ‘truth, specified as the word of God, that has primacy.’ Without this, what people call ‘conscience’ becomes in Newman’s account a ‘counterfeit’. Pell suggests that the relativism promoted by ‘counterfeit’ conscience leads inexorably to ‘the dictatorship of numbers, power and manipulation’. When everyone’s ‘conscience’ is supposed to be ‘equally valid’, it is unavoidably those most determined and best-placed to assert themselves whose opinions hold sway.

Truth and Politics

Drawing on another connection between Newman’s thought and Pope Benedict’s, Cardinal Pell argues that Christian Faith has from the beginning presented itself above all as true. In this it crucially separates itself from what Pell calls ‘mythical’ conceptions of religion. Such conceptions of religion are ‘used to justify political and social arrangements—as today religion is said to perform an important therapeutic function—but do not claim that religion belongs to the order of reality as such.’ For Newman, however, Christianity cannot be aligned with other religions and reduced to an instrument of social cohesion. Its claim to truth makes it permanently resistant to the State’s recurring efforts to subdue and control it.

In his ‘very specifically Christocentric and God-centred understanding of conscience’, so also in his insistence on Christianity’s claim to truth, Pell argues that Newman can refresh the Church’s opposition to the tyranny exercised by secular ’science’ and power. ‘Knowledge which radically excludes the transcendent dimension of life’, writes Pell, ‘has partly blinded itself. The diminishment of knowledge without faith is one reason why Newman insisted that although the value of knowledge is absolute, knowledge itself is “emphatically not the highest good”’. Pell reminds us that Newman’s witness to this truth has the most urgent significance for our own time, when ‘the humanity of the unborn child, the humanity of the old, disabled and sick, and the wrongness of unjust working conditions’ are threatened by the dictatorship of professional expertise divorced from the light of Faith.

For all these reasons, writes Cardinal Pell, Newman’s beatification provides ‘a powerful spiritual help as we strive to respond to some of the most important and damaging intellectual errors of our age.’

The official website for the Cause for Cardinal Newman’s Canonisation:

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  1. Jack Hughes says:

    Newman Rocks !!!! :),

    Seriously though, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” is one of those books that you must read, not to mention “An Essay on the Development Of Christian Doctrine”.

  2. 4mercy says:

    I LOVE Cardinal Newman!! I wrote a paper on him in graduate school, right before my husband and I were married. He and the Blessed Virgin Mary are the reason we were obedient to the Church and rejected the use of birth control. I pray for his speedy canonization!!

    BTW…I remember learning that James Joyce parodied all the famous prose writers of his time (Ruskin, Carlyle etc) but was not able to parody Newman because his writings have no trace of egoism in them to mock.

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