Conscience, Newman and “White Rose” Resistance to Hitler

White Rose Memorial at Univ Munich

Benedict XVI learned about Cardinal Newman’s “theology of conscience” from a German scholar, a resident of Munich, a translator and cultural critic named Theodor Haecker (1879-1945). He is known for his consistent opposition to the Nazi regime, which took steps to silence him (see his “Journal of the Night”) Haecker, a Catholic convert, translated Newman’s works into German. Professor Haecker was close to the White Rose, a German resistance movement in the Second World War. Newman’s writings on conscience were a key inspiration of the White Rose – in particular of Sophie Scholl, a student beheaded in 1943 at the age of 21 for distributing leaflets urging students at Munich University to rise up against the Nazi regime. Find a summary here.

In 1983 Pope John Paul II said “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.” (General Audience, 17 August 1983) Conscience binds one to act in a way that nothing else can. No person, no human law can morally bind one to act against conscience. Conscience binds because it refers to a source beyond self.

Newman suggests, for example, that “conscience does not repose on itself, but vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions . . .we are accustomed to speak of conscience as a voice . . . or the echo of a voice . . . like no other dictate in the whole of experience.” Grammar of Assent. (By the way, Haecker translated this work into German which then served for the benefit of the young students in Munich and later for Josef Ratzinger.) In Difficulties of Anglicans, vol. II, Newman speaks of conscience as “the voice of God.” (It is actually written in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, but found in 2:246-249). This is a different view, he acknowledges, from the modern one, taken from literature or science wherein conscience is “another creation of man.” The rule or measure of the modern age is utility (expedience or greatest good for the greatest number) or state convenience or fitness or pulchrum (beauty). Newman argues that these standards are too abstract or impersonal to account for that “reaching forward” or that sense of apprehension or satisfaction that comes from the “voice of conscience.” Newman says conscience is “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” In 1990 John Paul wrote a letter on Newman. He pointed out that conscience, according to Newman, is as a way to acquire truth and to make “contact with the reality of a personal God.” This teaching on conscience is lived out his Newman’s life: “By following the light of his conscience, Newman made a journey of faith which he has described with force and clarity in his writings.”

In the modern world, conscience remains as perhaps the chief testimony to the presence of God. The courageous young students at the University of Munich were martyrs for the truth of conscience.

As for Haecker, Alexander Dru, his translator, said: “Haecker was among the few who immediately recognized the character of ihe Nazi regime. He published his first article attacking it at the moment in which Hitler came to power. In consequence, he was arrested and, after his release, forbidden to lecture or to broadcast. His Journal was written at night, and the pages hidden, as they were written, in a house in the country. This book, reminiscent in form of Pascal’s Pensees, is his last testimony to the Truth and a confession of faith that is a spontaneous rejoinder to a particular moment in history. It is written by a man intent, by nature, on the search for truth, and driven, by circumstance, to seek for it in
anguish, in solitude, with an urgency that grips the reader.”  A complete on-line version of this remarkable but little known journal may be found at the following site by clicking here..

1 Comment
  1. Thank you for this post. I have been thinking much about the matter of conscience over the summer, beginning with our discussion at the Forum. The reflection has continued as I have been reading works on conscience, in preparing for a seminar on citizen's relationship to the State held at the Center for the American Idea. I must admit I had a nascent understanding of the inviolability of conscience but had not really pondered the matter of the erroneous conscience. If conscience may be binding in that circumstance it shows, in a powerful way the grave duty not only to follow conscience but even more to see that it is formed rightly.

    I recently purchased Benedict XVI's book, Conscience. His reflections on anamnesis
    have started me thinking on whether our difficulties with conscience stem from the cacophony of our time that mutes this inner voice. Do we need to be more vigilant for that stillness, of which, the knowledge of God depends?

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