Addresses and Statements

“Conscience, Relativism and Truth: The Witness of Newman”

12 Oct 2019

Conference on Newman the Prophet: A Saint for Our Times

Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum), Rome

1. Conscience today

Tomorrow the Church will canonise a man whose life and work has been described by Pope Benedict XVI as ‘one great commentary on the question of conscience’,[1] who was praised by St John Paul II for his “deep intellectual honesty [and] fidelity to conscience and grace”,[2] and who is celebrated by many as one worthy of the title of Doctor of the Church and specifically ‘doctor of conscience’.[3]

That such a high authority on conscience is being celebrated in this way could not be more timely: for rights of conscience are regularly flouted today and the very idea of conscience much contested. Some treat it as mere sincerity or subjective intuition; others as personal rivalry with authority; others again dismiss it altogether. Oxford don Julian Savalescu sounds like Newman’s nineteenth-century critics as he writes off appeals to conscience as “idiosyncratic, bigoted, and discriminatory”.[4] Behind disputes over whether religious or moral believers engaged in healthcare or other pursuits should have the space to pursue their conscientious beliefs, and even have conscience protections,[5] is the deeper question of the meaning, basis and scope of conscience, and there is no-one better to explore this with than our almost-saint.

2. Conscience in Newmans day

Newman was heir to a long and rich tradition on conscience going back to Paul, Augustine, Aquinas and Thomas More.[6] Joseph Butler mediated much of that tradition to Newman’s generation. He described conscience as “moral Reason, moral Sense, or divine Reason… a Sentiment of the Understanding, or a Perception of the Heart” by which an agent reflects on action prospectively or retrospectively, applying moral principles available to all.[7] Butler reflected the turn away from metaphysical to more psychological explanations on ethics in that age. In Newman’s own century new views of conscience were emerging: for Nonconformists, conscience was freedom of religion along with moral constraints on anything that made you smile; for the Kantians, it was stern-faced practical reason holding duty up before the agent for his or her acquittal or condemnation; for the liberals, it was about ‘doing it my way’ constrained only by law and education; for the Darwinists, an evolved mechanism for managing conflict between competing natural impulses or species; for the Marxists and Nietzcheans, a social policeman, the construct of a controlling community… It was against such a background that Newman sought to teach his version of the tradition on conscience.

His most famous treatment of conscience was in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,[8] but we find thoughts in his sermons, treatises, hymns, even novels. Conscience rates a mention 588 times in his letters and diaries alone. But as with Thomas More, we see in Newman someone not just speculating about moral theory but often personally agonising over what to do.[9]

“Dr Newman” by Sir Leslie Ward for Vanity Fair 1877

Newman gave his witness to Catholic conscience in an environment in which it was not always well-respected. Pope Emeritus Benedict attributes Newman’s youthful conversion from rationalism to Christianity to the discovery of “the objective truth of a personal and living God, who speaks to the conscience and reveals to man his condition as a creature.” This first conversion – and the subsequent two, to High Churchman and then to Catholic – were not well received by all. Yet from the Calvinist Thomas Scott he learnt “his determination to adhere to the interior Master with his own conscience, confidently abandoning himself to the Father and living in faithfulness to the recognized truth.” Though “he was subjected to many trials, disappointments and misunderstandings… he never descended to false compromises… He always remained honest in his search for the truth, faithful to the promptings of his conscience, and focused on the ideal of sanctity.”[10]

After ‘poping’ in 1845, Newman’s honesty was impeached by Revd Charles Kingsley. This provoked his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a spiritual autobiography that detailed his tussles of conscience and responds to the accusations of bad faith. A few years later (1845) Newman spoke out against a former Dominican friar and graduate of this university, Giacinto Achilli, who was an anti-Catholic demagogue and serial rapist.[11] Newman was tried and convicted for criminal libel, despite overwhelming evidence from Achilli’s victims.[12] He escaped imprisonment and his fine and court costs – the equivalent of more than £1.5M in today’s values – were paid by admirers. But first he received a humiliating tongue-lashing from the judge about his moral deterioration since becoming a Catholic.

Another occasion on which Newman gave witness to conscience was in 1874 when former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, published a pamphlet declaring that the English Catholic was required by the Vatican Council “to forfeit his moral and mental freedom, and to place his loyalty and civil duty at the mercy of another”.[13] It fell to Newman to defend Catholics against these charges of disloyalty to the nation and subjection to papal tyranny in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

3. Newman on the voice of conscience

Writing on the occasion of the first centenary of Newman’s death, John Paul II observed that Newman’s “doctrine on conscience, like his teaching in general, is subtle and whole, and ought not to be oversimplified in its presentation.”[14] Sadly, the time allowed today requires considerable simplification.

Newman insists that conscience is not simply the English “sense of propriety, self-respect or good taste, formed by general culture, education and social custom. Rather is it the echo of God’s voice within the heart of man, the pulse of the divine law beating within each person as a standard of right and wrong, with an unquestionable authority.”[15] This “voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation”[16] is what tradition calls the natural law. Conscience applies that law in judgment that “bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done.”[17] Newman begins his account here.

But such obedience to natural conscience can be a prelude to obedience to divine revelation.[18] Thus in his novel Callista the saint says:

I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His presence. He says to me, ‘Do this: don’t do that.’ You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature, as it is to joy or to grieve. I cannot understand this. No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me… It carries with it proof of its divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness – just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend… An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.[19]

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman explained whose voice that is:

Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, Who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.[20]

Yet talk of inner lights and strange voices has a decidedly gnostic or even psychotic feel to it. If we hear voices no-one else can hear, we should probably see a doctor or an exorcist! And were conscience really a voice from outside our reasoning, it would play no part in moral philosophy and might suggest a double truth in moral theology: my merely-human practical reasoning tells me to do X, but my ‘divine voice’ says to do Y, not X.[21]

So, does Newman think conscience is like an inbuilt sat-nav, or like the angel who appears on Fred Flintstone’s right shoulder whispering into his right ear about his duty in contradiction to the bad angel whispering temptations into his left – which we must decide whether to obey? Several things might be said about this.

First, conscience is for Newman “a constituent element of the mind” like perception, reasoning and aesthetic judgment, and its primary function is the rational judgment of the moral sense that interprets human nature.[22] It is the subjective experience of the objective moral law at play in the actor’s life. Its reliable use requires moral education and practice. Here Newman is following the classical notion of synderesis and conscientia mediating a divine law even to unbelievers. The use of the metaphor of voice, then, is to emphasize that conscience does not invent its own principles but receives and recognizes them.

Secondly, it is this quality of conscience as “the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and angels”[23] that gives it its authority both with respect to the agent – who might otherwise choose the more convenient course – and the state, which should respect the individual not merely as a voter but as a voice of God. “We are accustomed to speaking of conscience as a voice,” Newman explains in the Grammar of Assent, “because it is so imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience”.[24] Conscience must be obeyed: “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.”[25] The metaphor of voice, then, as he puts it in The Development of Doctrine, serves to emphasize the ‘directing power’ of conscience.[26] Thus, as Pope Benedict has observed, conscience for Newman is both capacity for truth and obedience to that truth, both moral sense and moral judgment.[27]

Thirdly, natural conscience serves to plant ‘seeds’ of faith and morals in the human soul, so that people are already ordered to receive the Gospel.

It is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men, it is thus and only thus, that he has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success.[28]

Fourthly, once a person has the gift of Christian faith, Newman implies this natural voice is transformed into the Christian sense of responsibility before God. In the Apologia Newman says believers would rather follow and, if need be, be wrong with their religious conscience, than follow and be right with their reason.[29] Conscience, then, is now recognized as the voice of a God who is known and loved and whose instructions have even more imperative force than before.[30] “Left to itself and disregarded, it can become a counterfeit of the sacred power it is, and turn into a kind of self-confidence and deference to a person’s own subjective judgment. Newman’s words are unequivocal and perennially valid: ‘Conscience has its rights because it has its duties’”[31] – duties to self, to one’s fellows, above all to God. Thus Reinhard Hütter argues that Newman’s understanding of conscience is ‘essentially theonomic’.[32]

Fifthly, in response to liberal tendencies of his day, Newman insisted that Christians must form their consciences in accord with the Scriptures, Tradition and magisterium.

The sense of right and wrong is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.[33]

Ecclesiastical authority, on this account, is not some external force commanding us to act against our best judgments, but rather a divinely ordained assistance for rooting out errors in our moral reasoning which the faithful willingly appropriate.[34] Famous for agreeing to toast the pope but only after toasting conscience first, Newman did not overstate the roles either of the magisterium or of personal conscience, but demonstrated their service to each other and the role of each in articulating God’s purposes.[35]

Sixthly, if the light of reason and/or revelation is properly given to the intellect, conscience is then a property or function of the intellect. Yet in many places in Newman conscience seems to a quality of the will as much as of the intellect: reverence and obedience make for sound conscience; self-sufficiency (‘I loved to choose’[36]), rebelliousness (‘pride ruled my will’), and sensuality (‘I loved the garish day’), on the other hand, distort judgment and action.[37]

The sound action of conscience thus requires a conversion or purification not just of intellect but also of will, a putting on of the mind and heart of Christ to follow Paul’s language, a trusting in the lead of the Kindly Light, not merely the consistent application of self-evident (or should-be-evident) principles. And without subjecting ourselves to the Church, which is the ‘undaunted and the only defender’ of truth, conscience easily fades, as Newman puts it in The Idea of the University.[38]

4. Newman on conscience in the contemporary magisterium

It is here, at the intersection of the sovereignty of conscience and the fragility of conscience without guidance, that we find Newman’s answer to the questions of relativism and truth which so often cloud discussion around his thinking. In his tussle with Gladstone, Newman insisted that the Pope’s authority rests precisely on the authority of conscience – for his magisterium is there to serve the consciences of the faithful by forming and informing them – and so can never contradict conscience without ‘cutting the ground from under his feet’. What’s more, he pointed out, the teaching of popes is mostly general and the judgments of conscience particular, so it’s hard to see how they could conflict.[39]

The idea of making Newman a bishop had been abandoned long before the First Vatican Council, and he was unwilling to attend as a peritus.[40] He was very present at the Second Council, however, held long after his death. That Council readily adopted his language of the voice, echo, messenger or sanctuary of conscience. In Gaudium et Spes the Council fathers said:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is his very dignity; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man: there he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.[41]

Conscience featured 52 times in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I need not rehearse that teaching today:[42] suffice it to say that it is very much in the tradition of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, More – and Newman. St Paul VI attributed to Newman’s wisdom much of the Council’s thinking in this area.[43] Subsequent popes have regularly praised Newman’s contribution on conscience and drawn upon it.[44] He is quoted directly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor in their treatments of conscience.[45]

5. Newman on conscience in contemporary society

If Newman’s influence on the Church’s understanding of conscience is clear, has he also affected civil understandings? Several authors have recently explored how Newman’s writings on conscience influenced the thinking and action of Sophie Scholl, leader of the White Rose resistance movement under Nazism.[46] In 1942 she gave two volumes of Newman’s sermons as a parting gift to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, when he was sent to the Eastern Front. From the horrors of the battlefield Fritz wrote to Scholl that Newman’s writings were ‘like drops of precious wine.’[47] Many others were also influenced by Newman’s teachings on conscience and took heroic stances for the truth at risk to their safety and comfort.

Yet conscience today is more often asserted in defence of following personal inclinations according to a subjectivist or relativist ethic. Servais-Théodore Pinckaers noted that in Catholic circles “a certain allergic aversion to law [has] shifted the centre of gravity in moral theology away from law and toward personal freedom, the individual subject and conscience”.[48] ‘Follow your conscience’ has come to be code for pursuing personal preferences in sexuality, bioethics, remarriage and Church practice.[49] The language of ‘the primacy of conscience’, unknown to the tradition from Paul to Newman, more often implies contest with Catholic teaching than with the spirit of the age or culture.[50]This is not the Christian conception of conscience at all: as Ratzinger observed, it is rather ‘a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to elude the clutches of reality’.[51]

Newman was alert to this tendency. “In this century,” he said, conscience “has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will… an Englishman’s prerogative to be his own master in all things.”[52] Revelation, tradition, community, even reason itself, were increasingly seen as adversaries of the free agent. Instead of being informed by right reason and Church teaching, appeals to conscience were increasingly about personal preference.

He argued prophetically that conscience is only worthy of our respect because it is about hearing the truth and obeying God. But “left to itself, though it tells truly at first, it soon becomes wavering, ambiguous, and false; it needs good teachers and good examples to keep it up to the mark”.[53] In critiquing misconceptions of conscience, Newman argued that just as the value of memory is in remembering accurately, so the value of conscience is in yielding right judgment and godly action. Truth always had primacy for him.

The Second Vatican Council followed Newman’s lead in celebrating the dignity of conscience, but also habitually qualified the word with adjectives such as ‘right,’ ‘correct,’ ‘well-formed’, ‘upright’ or ‘Christian’ – allowing that not a few consciences are confused, deformed, secularised or otherwise misleading.[54] Conscience often goes astray, sometimes ‘invincibly’ (= by no fault of the agent) and so without losing its dignity, but at other times ‘voluntarily’ (= because of negligence or vice), in which case conscience is degraded.[55]

In response to the view that the Catholic conscience might come to conclusions at odds with the magisterium he said: “The Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand. Natural Religion… needs, in order that it may speak to mankind with effect and subdue the world, to be sustained and completed by Revelation.”[56] Thus on the eve of Newman’s beatification Pope Benedict noted that:

At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and [deepest] fulfilment…[57]

6. Doctor of conscience

My talk has barely scratched the surface of Newman’s teaching on conscience as the voice of God. Much is made of his insistence that conscience be respected and followed above all else. Yet the authority of conscience lies in its pointing us to moral and religious truth, prompting us to follow the divine will. Far from being a cause or excuse for relativism, then, conscience is its ultimate rejection. But because conscience is also relativism’s most vulnerable target, Newman insists on the Church’s role as its defender and formator. This brought a young peritus at the Second Vatican Council named Father Ratzinger to see that, without Church authority, conscience is the ready slave of personal passion and social fashion – what he would famously dub ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

On the centenary of the saint’s death, the now grown-up Cardinal Ratzinger paid tribute to Newman’s ‘liberating and essential’ truth that the ‘we’ of the Church develops from and guarantees the ‘me’ of personal conscience. For conscience, on Newman’s account, is above all about discipleship: the implicit discipleship of those who hear and respond to God unknowing, as they follow their best reason in their choices; and the explicit discipleship of the faithful, who know that conscience, guided by the Gospel and the Church, is our surest guide.

St John Henry Newman, Doctor of Conscience – pray for us!

[1]        Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Conscience and truth,’ in Values in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Crossroad / Ignatius, 2006), 75-100 at 84. Other texts of Ratzinger on conscience include: On Conscience (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007); ‘Conscience in its age,’ Church, Ecumenism and Politics (New York: Crossroads, 1987), 165-79; The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995); Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (with M. Pera, New York: Basic, 2006), 51-80. Cf. Vincent Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007); Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (OUP, 2008), 39-40 & 81-3.

[2]       St John Paul II, Letter for the Centenary of the Elevation of John Henry Newman to the Cardinalate (1979): “It is my hope that this centenary will be for all of us an opportunity for studying more closely the inspiring thought of Newman’s genius, which speaks to us of deep intellectual honesty, fidelity to conscience and grace, piety and priestly zeal, devotion to Christ’s Church and love of her doctrine, unconditional trust in divine providence and absolute obedience to the will of God.”

[3]       E.g. Drew Morgan, ‘John Henry Newman, Doctor of conscience, Doctor of the Church?’ Newman Studies Journal 4(1) (Spring 2007), 5-23; P. Lefebvre and C. Mason (eds), John Henry Newman, Doctor of the Church (Oxford: Family Publications,  2007).

[4]       E.g. Julian Savalescu, ‘Conscientious objection in medicine,’ British Medical Journal 332 (2006), 294-7; Udo Schuklenk, ‘Conscientious objection in medicine: private ideological convictions must not supercede public service obligations,’ Bioethics 29(5) (2015), ii-iii; J Savalescu and U Schuklenk, ‘Doctors have no right to refuse medical assistance in dying, abortion or contraception,’ Bioethics 31(3) (2017), 162-70; U Schuklenk and R Smalling, ‘Why medical professionals have no moral claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies,’ Journal of Medical Ethics 43 (2017), 234-40; J Savalescu and U Schuklenk, ‘Conscientious objection and compromising the patient: Response to Hughes,’ Bioethics 32(7) (2018), 473-6; Doug McConnell, “Conscientious objection in healthcare; How much discretionary space best supports good medicine?’ Bioethics 33(1) (2019), 154-61.

[5]        See the special numbers of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 4(1) (Spring 2004), especially the contributions by M. Kramlich, N. Nikas, E. Furton, M. Latkovic and P. Cataldo, and The New Bioethics: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Biotechnology and the Body 25(3) (Sept 2019), especially the essays of D. Oderberg, M. Neal and S. Fovargue, T. Saad, N. Gamble and M. Pruski.

[6]       See Eric D’Arcy, Conscience and its Right to Freedom (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961); Anthony Fisher OP, ‘Conscience: The crisis of authority,’ Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium (CUP, 2012), ch. 2; Douglas Langston, Conscience and Other Virtues from Bonaventure to MacIntyre (Pennsylvania State UP, 2001).

[7]       Joseph Butler, ‘Of the nature of virtue,’ The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (2nd edn., London: Knapton, 1736), §1; Fifteen Sermons Preached at Rolls Chapel (rev. edn., London: Knapton, 1729), Preface, III.6, XIII.7. On Butler on conscience see: S. Darwall, ‘Conscience as self-authorizing in Butler’s ethics,’ in C. Cunlliffe (ed.), Joseph Butler’s Moral and Religious Thought: Tercentenary Essays, OUP, 1992), 209-42; A. Garrett, ‘Reasoning about morals from Butler to Hume,’ in R. Savage (ed.), Philosophy and Religion in Enlightenment Britain (OUP, 2012), 169–186; A. Rorty, ‘Butler on Benevolence and Conscience,’ Philosophy 53(204) (1978), 171–84; B. Tennant, Conscience, Consciousness and Ethics in Joseph Butler’s Philosophy and Ministry (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2011); Aaron Garrett, ‘Joseph Butler’s moral philosophy,’ Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy Online (as revised 18 February 2018).

[8]       John Henry Newman, ‘A letter addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk on the occasion of Mr Gladstone’s recent expostulation’(1875) in Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. 2 (BiblioLife, 2011; HardPress, 2013; Palala Press, 2015), 175-378 (hereafter Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

[9]       Some of these quandaries are explored by his biographers and commentators: Frederick Aquino and Benjamin King, The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman (OUP, 2018); Louis Bouyer, Newman: His Life and Spirituality (Ignatius Press, 2011); John Cornwell, Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint (Continuum, 2010);  John Crosby et al, The Personalism of John Henry Newman (Catholic University of America Press, 2014); Eamon Duffy, John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History (SPCK, 2019); Avery Dulles, John Henry Newman (Continuum, 2009); Reinhard Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and its Counterfeits: A Guide for Our Times (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2020); Ian Ker, John Henry Newman (OUP, 2010); Ian Ker and Alan Gill (eds.), Newman After a Hundred Years (OUP, 1990); Ian Ker and Terrence Merrigan (eds), The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman (CUP, 2009); Gerard Skinner, Newman the Priest – Father of Souls (Gracewing, 2010); Roderick Strange, John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive (Darton, Longman, Todd, 2008) and Newman 101: An Introduction to the Life and Philosophy of John Cardinal Newman (Ave Maria Press, 2008); Joyce Sugg, John Henry Newman: Snapdragon in the Wall (Gracewing, 2001);Frank Turner, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion (Yale UP, 2001);Juan Velez, Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman (Tan, 2012) and Holiness in a Secular Age: The Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publications, 2017).

[10]     Benedict XVI, Message to Symposium of the Friends of Newman (2010), citing Newman’s, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ch. 1.

[11]     John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1852; University of Notre Dame Press, 2000; HardPress, 2018; Wentworth Press, 2019).

[12]     The Times recognised the verdict for the travesty it was, reporting: “We consider… that a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country, and Roman Catholics will have henceforth only too good reason for asserting that there is no justice for them in matters tending to rouse the Protestant feelings of judges and juries.” Wilfrid Ward, Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2010), 292. On the trial see: M. C. Mirow, ‘Roman Catholicism on trial in Victorian England: The libel case of John Henry Newman and Dr Achilli,’ Catholic Lawyer 36(4) (1996), 401-53; Edward Short, ‘How the Achilli trial changed John Henry Newman,’ Catholic World Report 18 March 2018.

[13]     William Gladstone, Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation (1874).

[14]     St John Paul II, Letter on the First Centenary of the Death of John Henry Newman (1990), 3. Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Address on the First Centenary of the Death of John Henry Newman (1990).

[15]     John Paul II, Letter on the First Centenary, 3.

[16]     Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,247.

[17]     Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 134.

[18]     John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. VIII (1843; BiblioLife, 2010; HardPress, 2018), 202: “Obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the Gospel, which, instead of being something different altogether, is but the completion and perfection of that religion which natural conscience teaches.”

[19]     John Henry Newman, Callista: A Tale of the Third Century (1855; BiblioLife, 2010; HardPress, 2013), 314-5. See Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II (OUP, 2014), 134-8; Terlinden, ‘Newman and conscience,’ 210.

[20]      Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 129. The quote continues:  “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”

[21]      St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor: Encyclical on the Church’s Moral Teaching (1993), 56 noted a similar kind of ‘double truth’ operative in attempts to legitimize supposedly ‘pastoral’ solutions to moral dilemmas contrary to objective moral truth and also in seeking personal exceptions in conscience from universally binding norms.

[22]     Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 248. Cf. Gerard Magill, Religious Morality in John Henry Newman: Hermeneutics of the Imagination (Springer, 2015), 199-201.

[23]     Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 246.

[24]     John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870; University of Notre Dame Press, 1992; BiblioLife, 2010), 40, 47 & 72-83.

[25]     Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 138.

[26]       John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845; BiblioLife, 2010; HardPress, 2013; Leominster: Gracewing, 2018), 361. In Difficulties of Anglicans, vol. II, 248, Newman describes conscience as “a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil”.

[27]     Benedict XVI, Christmas Address to the Roman Curia (2010).

[28]     Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 132.

[29]     John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864/1865; BiblioLife, 2010), 455.

[30]     John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 60.

[31]     John Paul II, Letter on the First Centenary, 4, quoting Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 250.

[32]     Reinhard Hütter, ‘Conscience “Truly so called” and its counterfeit: John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas on what conscience is and why it matters,’ Nova et Vetera 12(3) (2014), 701-67: “Conscience is not simply a human faculty, but is in its root constituted by the eternal law, the Divine Wisdom communicated to the human intellect. It is upon its theonomic nature and upon it alone that the prerogatives and the supreme authority of conscience are founded.”

[33]     Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 132.

[34]     Ryan Marr, ‘Newman contra liberalism: conscience, authority, and the infidelity of the future,’ Public Discourse 22 July 2019.

[35]     On reading this highly contentious remark see: Benedict XVI, Christmas address to the Roman Curia (2010); Austin Cooper OMI, ‘Newman and the magisterium,’ in P. Lefebvre and C. Mason (eds), John Henry Newman, Doctor of the Church (Oxford: Family Publications, 2007), 173-87; Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1977), 418; John Finnis, ‘Conscience in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,’ in Ker and Hill, Newman After a Hundred Years, 401-18; Gerard Magill, Religious Morality in John Henry Newman: Hermeneutics of the Imagination (Springer, 2015), 199.

[36]     John Henry Newman, ‘Lead Kindly Light Amid the Encircling Gloom’ from Verses on Various Occasions (1867; BiblioLife, 2010; HardPress, 2019).

[37]       Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 8, 67: “At first our conscience tells us, in a plain and straightforward way, what is right and what is wrong; but when we trifle with this warning, our reason becomes perverted and comes in aid of our wishes, and deceives us to our ruin.”

[38]       John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852 & 1858; OUP, 1976; BiblioLife, 2010), 414. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius, 2006), p 148.

[39]       Newman, Letter to  the Duke of Norfolk, 221-2, 256-7.

[40]     B. C. Butler OSB, ‘Newman and the Second Vatican Council,’ http://vatican2voice.org/3butlerwrites/newman.htm; George Weigel, ‘Newman and Vatican II,’ Catholic World Report 15 April 2015; Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II (OUP, 2014).

[41]     Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes 16. Cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 54; Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC) 1778, 1795.

[42]     Amongst the aspects of conscience identified by the Council are that:

  • human dignity consists in being creatures who by nature have the God-like ability to reason and choose; thus all are bound to seek, embrace and live the truth faithfully (Dignitatis Humanæ 1 & 2; Gaudium et Spes 16 & 41. Cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 31).
  • every human agent has the capacity and fundamental principles of conscience; conscience is experienced as an inner ‘voice’, ‘sanctuary’ or ‘tribunal’, yet one which mediates a universal moral law which is objectively given (by nature, reason, God) rather than personally invented (Dignitatis Humanæ 3; Gaudium et Spes 16. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 52-7; Evangelium Vitae 29 & 40; CCC 1778, 1795).
  • thus conscience summons us to inscribe the divine law in every aspect of life by seeking good and avoiding evil, loving God and neighbour, keeping the commandments and universal norms of morality (Gaudium et Spes 16, 43, 74 & 79; Lumen Gentium 36; Apostolicam Actuositatem 5; Dignitatis Humanæ 3. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 57-9; CCC 1777, 1796).
  • to follow a well-formed conscience is not merely a right but a duty; persons are judged according to how they form and follow particular judgments of conscience (Gaudium et Spes 16; Dignitatis Humanæ  1 & 11. Cf. CCC 1778. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 58-61; CCC 1778, 1798-1800).
  • whether because of their own fault or not, agents may err in matters of conscience (Gaudium et Spes 8, 16, 43, 47 & 50. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 62-3; CCC 1799-1801); Catholics should therefore seek to form their consciences so that they are ‘dutifully conformed to the divine law itself and submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel’ (Dignitatis Humanæ 8 & 14; Gravissimum Educationis 1; Apostolicam Actuositatem 20; Inter Mirifica 9 & 21; Gaudium et Spes 31, 50 & 87. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 64 etc.; CCC 1798).
  • claims of personal freedom or of obedience to civil laws or superiors do not excuse a failure to abide by the universal principles of conscience (Dignitatis Humanæ 8; Gaudium et Spes 79. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 32).
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion should be respected by civil authorities and people should not be coerced in matters of religion (Dignitatis Humanæ 3; Gaudium et Spes 79; Gravissimum Educationis 1, 6 & 8).

[43]     St Paul VI, Address to Symposium on John Henry Newman (1975).

[44]      E.g. St Paul VI, Address to Symposium on John Henry Newman (1975); St John Paul II, Letter on the Centenary of the Elevation of John Henry Newman to the Cardinalate (1979); Letter on the Centenary of the Death of John Henry Newman (1990); Address to Symposium on the Centenary of John Henry Newman (1990); Veritatis Splendor: Encyclical on the Church’s Moral Teaching (1993); CCC (1994); Letter on the Second Centenary of the Birth of John Henry Newman (2001); Benedict XVI, Address to Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of John Henry Newman (2010); Homily for the Mass of Beatification of John Henry Newman (2010); Message to Symposium of the Friends of Newman (2010); Christmas Address to the Roman Curia (2010).

[45]     John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 34; CCC 1778.

[46]     Dermot Fenlon, ‘From the White Star to the White Rose: Newman and the conscience of the state,’ in Günter Biemer and Bernd Trocholepczy (eds.), Realisation – Verwirklichung und Wirkungsgeschichte. Studien zur Grundlegung der Praktischen Theologie nach John Henry Newman (Frankfurt: Graf. Internationale Cardinal-Newman-Studien, 2010); Paul Shrimpton, Conscience Before Conformity: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Resistance in Nazi Germany (Gracewing, 2018); K. V. Turley, ‘How John Henry Newman’s writing fought the Nazis,’ National Catholic Register 29 August 2019, citing Fenlon, Shrimpton and Marr.

[47]     Turley, ‘How John Henry Newman’s writing,’ quoting Ryan Marr.

[48]      Servais Pinckaers OP, Morality: The Catholic View (St Augustine’s Press, 2003), 56-7.

[49]      On these see: David Bohr, In Christ a New Creation (Our Sunday Visitor, 1993), 170; John Finnis, ‘Conscience, infallibility and contraception,’ The Month, 239 (1978), 410-7; ‘IVF and the Catholic tradition,’ The Month 246 (1984), 55-8; ‘Faith and morals’: a note,’ The Month, 21/2 (1988), 563-7; G. Grisez, J. Finnis and W. E. May, ‘Indissolubility, divorce and Holy Communion,’ New Blackfriars, 75 (June 1994), 321-30.

[50]      See, for example, Richard Gula, ‘Conscience,’ in Bernard Hoose (ed.), Christian Ethics (London: Cassall, 1998), p. 114; L. Hogan, Confronting the Truth: Conscience in the Catholic Tradition (New York: Paulist, 2002); James Keenan, Commandments of Compassion (Franklin wt: Sheed and Ward, 1999), pp. 112 & 134; A. Patrick, Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Theology (New York: Continuum, 1996).

[51]      Ratzinger ‘Conscience and truth,’ 79. Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 32f.

[52]     Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 130 & 250. He also said here “When men [today] advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him… but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand… for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way… Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations.” In ‘Discourse 5: Saintliness the standard of Christian principle,’ Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849; Leominster: Gracewing, 2002; BiblioLife, 2010), 83, he observes: ‘Left to itself, though it tells truly at first, [conscience] soon becomes wavering, ambiguous, and false; it needs good teachers and good examples to keep it up to the mark and the line of duty; and the misery is, that these external helps, teachers, and examples are in many instances wanting.’

[53]     ‘Discourse 5: Saintliness the standard of Christian principle,’ Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849; Leominster: Gracewing, 2002; BiblioLife, 2010; HardPress, 2013), 83.

[54]     e.g. Vatican Council II, Apostolicam Actuositatem 5 & 20; Inter Mirifica 9 & 21; Gravissimum Educationis 1; Lumen Gentium 36; Gaudium et Spes 16, 26, 43, 50, 52, 76 & 87.

[55]     Cf. St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 62-63.

[56]     Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 254. Likewise Vatican Council II, Dignitatis Humanæ 14: “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself …  The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never – be it understood – having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. At the same time, the charity of Christ urges him to love and have prudence and patience in his dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the faith.”

[57]     Benedict XVI, Address to Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of John Henry Newman (2010). See also his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia (2010). Likewise John Paul II, Letter on the First Centenary, 4: “Few people championed the full rights of conscience as he did; few writers pleaded so persuasively on behalf of its authority and liberty, yet he never allowed any trace of subjectivism or relativism to taint his teaching.”

Illustration of François Chifflart (1825-1901) for Victor Hugo’s La Conscience

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