Conscience & Conversion in Newman. A Developmental Study of Self in John Henry Newman

By Christie, Robert C. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Conscience & Conversion in Newman. A Developmental Study of Self in John Henry Newman


Christie, Robert C., The Catholic Historical Review


Conscience & Conversion in Newman. A Developmental Study of Self in John Henry Newman. By Walter E. Conn. [Marquette Studies in Theology, No. 71.] (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. 2010. Pp. 158. $17.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-874-62777-0.)

Walter Conn's concise, interdisciplinary case study of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman's psychological self-development and conversions mines not only the English churchman's relevant major works but also his private letters, diaries, and journals, which, to paraphrase Newman, reveal the true character of a man. Conn succeeds in his hope that "some readers will find it a useful review of Newman's life" (p. 9), since it offers a specialized perspective, with well-chosen source references, surveying well-traveled ground. Tracking Newman's various conversions chronologically, each of the four chapters opens with a discussion of the events and Newman literature of the period, followed by Conn's use of psychological development theories from Erickson, Piaget, Kohlberg, Fowler, and Kegan to support his analyses of Newman's various conversions, although to those unfamiliar with this literature, the brevity of the psychological analysis can be challenging reading at times. However, a helpful chart on the final page of the appendix compares the stages of each developmental theorist with the four conversion stages drawn from Conn's prior research. Readers may profit by reading the very helpful appendix first, which provides a succinct overview of Conn's previous research on conversion.

Conn's thesis for interpreting Newman's conversion experiences is grounded in the dynamic relationship of conscience, "the radical drive of the personal subject for self-transcendence" (p. 132), and basic conversion, "an 'about-face' which moves one into a new world" (p. 22). These occur within the subject's fundamental dynamism for self-transcendence. Conn identifies Newman's multiconversions as they unfolded chronologically in three stages. First was a "basic Christian moral conversion" with evangelical overtones at age fifteen, accompanied by "important affective, cognitive, and religious dimensions" (p. 8).This led to a "structural cognitive conversion" (p. 8) during his twenties, with changes in both what and how religious knowledge was acquired. Finally, Conn suggests a "new interpretation" of Newman's "ecclesial conversion" as a "negative deconversion" from Anglicanism and a "positive conversion" to Rome at age forty-four, "best understood as a moral (religious) decision responding to a judgment of personal conscience . …

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