Here most of us admire the Blessed John Henry Newman quite a lot, as we should. After all, most of us who write here are orthodox Christians of one flavor or another. Nor are we alone.
A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a discussion of The White Rose, one of the main resistance groups in Nazi Germany, and how it was almost completely driven by Christian ideals, although its leadership was a combination of Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox.
But how did that come to be, can we see the roots of this? Why yes, yes, we can.
An article in Catholic Herald last week by Paul Shrimpton tells how a goodly share of what Hans and Sophie Scholl believed and would lead them to the guillotine, seventy-five years ago yesterday, came from Newman.
From their letters and diaries we know that they were strongly influenced by St Augustine’s Confessions, Pascal’s Pensées and George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. Now it has become clear that their lives were also shaped by the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman.
The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. Haecker had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. Strange though it may seem, the insights of the Oxford academic were ideally suited to help these students make sense of the catastrophe they were living through.
Haecker’s influence is evident already in the first three White Rose leaflets, but his becomes the dominant voice in the fourth: this leaflet, written the day after Haecker had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”
When Sophie’s boyfriend, a Luftwaffe officer called Fritz Hartnagel, was deployed to the Eastern Front in May 1942, Sophie’s parting gift was two volumes of Newman’s sermons. After witnessing the carnage in Russia, Fritz wrote to Sophie to say that reading Newman’s words in such an awful place was like tasting “drops of precious wine”.
In another letter, Fritz wrote: “We know by whom we were created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil.” These words were taken almost verbatim from a famous sermon of Newman’s called “The Testimony of Conscience”.
The White Rose, which Hans and Sophie led, has become the most famous anti-Hitler resistance in Germany today, saving only the Zwanzigsten Juli conspiracy itself, in which the Rev Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was implicated. This founder (amongst others) of the Confessing Church would surely have also agreed with much of what Hans and Sophie learned from Newman’s writing.
In fact, I’m quite sure he was familiar with it, if in no other way, because of his friendship with Bishop George Bell of Chichester, now subject to a witch hunt led by his own church, to whom Bonhoeffer’s last message from Flossenbürg was addressed. Of course, Bonhoeffer was hanged a few weeks before the camp at Flossenbürg was liberated.
When Fritz visited Sophie’s parents, he gave them a collection of Newman sermons translated by Theodor Haecker. Haecker himself also visited the Scholls, and signed the visitor’s book with Newman’s own motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”).
So does it still.