by Father Juan R. Vélez
Many people consider there is little more to life than thinking as they wish and doing as they feel. They speak of “my truth” and “my conscience,” refusing to acknowledge an objective moral order. Unfortunately, this cultural relativism is also prevalent among Catholics, who often wish to act according to their subjective beliefs rather than the objective teaching of the Catholic Church.
Catholics who disagree with Church teaching often attempt to find a basis for their arguments in the teachings of Blessed John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Benedict XVI last Sept. 19, and whose feast day is Oct. 9. This great teacher on moral conscience wrote, among other things, on the development of Christian doctrine, the consent of the faithful in matters of doctrine, and on the supreme role of the moral conscience.
Those who question objective truths or the Church’s capacity to command obedience to these truths often misunderstand the context and content of his teaching. In particular, Cardinal Newman’s notion regarding the “freedom to follow my conscience” is invoked to sanction disagreement with the Church’s teaching on obedience to the Pope, artificial contraception, the question of “divorce and remarriage,” ordination of women and the practice of homosexuality.
What is conscience?
Conscience is a natural faculty by which man applies what he knows of natural law and revelation to decisions regarding his choice of actions. In the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Cardinal Cardinal Newman explained that together with revelation — an external witness to God that comes to us through the teaching of the Pope and the magisterium — we have conscience, an internal witness which commands man to fulfill his duty. He described conscience as a messenger from God, an internal witness of God’s revelation, which like a high priest, is able to command, to judge and to bless.
The following is Cardinal Cardinal Newman’s description of conscience: “The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor state convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. 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 in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives.”
Conscience is not the “self” speaking; it is the voice of God. Cardinal Newman explains that conscience is like a messenger of God speaking to us behind a veil. He even goes as far as to call it the original Vicar of Christ, attributing to it the offices of prophet, king and priest.
“Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, 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,” said Cardinal Newman.
Father German Geissler comments on Cardinal Newman’s words: “Conscience is a prophet because it tells us in advance whether the act is good or bad. It is a king because it exhorts us with authority: ‘Do this, avoid that.’ It is a priest because it blesses us after a good deed — this means not only the delightful experience of a good conscience, but also the blessing which goodness brings in any case to people and to the world — and likewise: ‘condemns’ after an evil deed, as an expression of the gnawing bad conscience and of the negative effects of sin on men and their surroundings. It is a principle that is written in the being of every person. It asks for obedience and refers to one outside of itself: to God — for one’s own sake and the sake of others.”
Thus Cardinal Newman argues against conscience as a license for one’s own utility or pleasure. Conscience is always bound to the truth. It should never be used as a justification for a self-referential interpretation of what is good and evil which cuts man off from God and his Revelation. No one can rightly say: “my conscience tells me this” in contradiction to that which God reveals in an external manner through Revelation and entrusts to the judgment of the Church.
For, instance, it is wrong to claim that “my conscience tells me the use of artificial contraception is acceptable” when God mandates in the Scriptures that sexual love is to be fruitful, and when the Church authoritatively teaches this doctrine. To sanction this choice under the notion “freedom of conscience” would be to make God’s internal and external witness contradictory.
Conscience does not to decide on the truth about Natural Law or Revelation. Writer Jeff Mirus explains, “Conscience is a moral compass, not an intellectual one.” It acts upon revelation and is subordinate to it. However, like Adam and Eve, men and women often wish to establish what is good and evil. Man can and does err in his moral judgments when his conscience ignores revelation.
Judgments and authority
Catholic Tradition has taught of the importance of forming one’s conscience; people have the obligation to learn the truths of natural law and those revealed by God and taught by the Church. As Pope John Paul II taught in “Splendor Veritatis,” there are objective moral norms that always apply. There are some negative precepts that admit of no exceptions. No “conscience” can rightly justify them.
Otherwise, a person acts on what is called “a poorly formed,” or at times “deformed,” conscience. The same can be said about education of children; they need to be formed at an early age in the truths of the faith, and the best source for instruction and formation in conscience is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Newman’s teaching on conscience is found in his sermons and other works, but especially in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), a response to his friend, William Gladstone, the prime minister of England. It was a brilliant defense of Catholic citizens in which Cardinal Newman asserted that they are loyal citizens of any just state. He explained that the Catholic religion does not keep Catholics from fulfilling their obligations as loyal citizens, and that the Holy See does not have the custom of interfering in their civic duties.
Cardinal Newman repeated the teaching of the constitution “Pastor Aeternus” of Vatican Council I, which asks Catholics for obedience to the Pope only in matters of faith and morals, and in matters of discipline and ecclesiastical government. Cardinal Newman explained that by obeying the Pope in such matters, the moral conscience is neither eliminated nor substituted by the Pope’s authority.
As Vatican I asserted, the Pope’s authority extends only to matters of doctrine and morals. We are obliged to believe, for example, what he teaches about the Holy Eucharist or marriage. His teaching does not extend on how to organize the water supply of a city, raise taxes, run elections, etc.
Cardinal Newman explained to his fellow Englishmen, who out of prejudice considered the teaching of the Pope’s infallibility as a threat to English government or sense of pride, that this doctrine does not make Catholics puppets: did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that “Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.” On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact…I am considering here the Papacy in its office and its duties, and in reference to those who acknowledge its claims.
Cardinal Newman pointed out that so many types of acts by a Pope, such as the excommunication of a person in error or the Pope’s blessing of the Spanish Armada, are not a matter of exercising his pontifical authority in an infallible manner, which would bind the faithful in conscience. Cardinal Newman wrote that Catholics are not bound by the Pope’s personal character or private acts, but by his formal teaching (although it should be pointed out that, in the case of a person excommunicated, that is a canonical act that is indeed binding, whether or not it is infallible).
If a scholar were to disagree with a doctrinal or moral teaching of the Church he should submit his judgment to the Church’s teaching out of humility and obedience. Here too Cardinal Newman offered advice and good example. A theologian or for that matter a pastor should not create unrest among the faithful, much less confusion. Such a person should have the humility to admit that his opinion is likely mistaken, especially if the magisterium has already pronounced on the matter.
Upon being received in the Church Cardinal Newman accepted all its teachings, including the ones he did not fully understand. As the declaration of papal infallibility drew near, Cardinal Newman accepted this teaching, even if he thought that despite its truth it was not an opportune moment to make it. The English hierarchy had only just been restored in England in 1850, and there was a lot of prejudice against Catholics in England. In that country the so-called Ultramontane Catholics who advocated a temporal power by the Pope were making matters worse. In sum, Cardinal Newman thought this was not the best time for such a declaration, but he submitted to it.
“Development of doctrine” is one of Cardinal Newman’s great contributions to theology. He argued that over time Catholic doctrine grows; it is explained better and conclusions are drawn from truths known earlier in time. At a cursory glance development of doctrine seems to imply that what was once held may now be shown not to be true. It would seem to undergird the idea that one can object in conscience to beliefs that later on may be shown to have been wrong in the first place. Cardinal Newman’s seminal work which, in fact, actually led to his conversion on Oct. 9, 1845, argues the contrary. Cardinal Newman put forth safeguards for reaching the conclusion that a development is a true development. One of the main safeguards is, precisely, that it does not contradict earlier teaching, and another is that the new teaching was already implicit in earlier teaching. In sum development of doctrine does not support the claim the truths are subjective and therefore can be accepted or rejected by a Christian based on his own conscience.
Cardinal Newman noted that on rare occasions a person’s conscience may collide with the Pope’s teaching, for two reasons: 1) the Pope is attempting to teach in an area that does not really pertain to faith and morals as such, or 2) the person’s conscience has not been formed properly. Cardinal Newman laid out the Church’s long-standing teaching that on such occasions that person must obey his conscience, even if it is in error. Naturally, however, the person is obliged to seek the truth about the matter in question; and once he discovers the error, he must re-evaluate his position.
After providing some examples of papal statements or actions that are not infallible Cardinal Newman proceeded to make an affirmation which is often quoted to justify dissent from Church teaching: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink — to the Pope, if you please — still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterward.”
Out of context, this casts doubt on all that Cardinal Newman taught, but properly examined, we understand that there should very rarely be opposition between conscience and the Pope. Since a well-formed conscience is God’s voice, Cardinal Newman naturally would give it preference in a toast.
Father Juan R. Vélez has written “Passion for Truth: The life of John Henry Cardinal Newman,” to be published in the Fall by TAN Books. He is co-author of “Take Five, Meditations With John Henry Cardinal Newman.”