A survey in a national daily newspaper some years ago on the attitudes of Irish Catholics to faith and life asked Catholics if they would follow, when making serious moral choices, the teaching of the Church or the light of Conscience. The newspaper made much of the fact that the vast majority opted to follow conscience. This option was widely interpreted as a rejection of authority, and, specifically, of the authority of the Catholic Church. But the problem perhaps was in the original question whose wording assumed that Catholics who listen to and obey the teaching Church are going against Conscience and are then alienated from their true selves! There used to be a saying once upon a time that if you ask a foolish question you are going to get a foolish answer! This view, quite widespread today, assumes that authority is opposed to conscience, and conscience is opposed to authority. To paraphrase the famous line, conscience is conscience and authority is authority, and never the twain shall meet! The issue of conscience is vital not only for Catholics but for all human beings. Conscience in fact is a central constituent of the human person, as much so as memory or intellect or will or the aesthetic sense. If human beings are to flourish, then the wholesome formation and operation of this component of our humanity is vital. In Catholic theology, contemporary discussion focuses on the concepts of freedom and norm, autonomy and heteronomy, self-determination and external determination by authority. In this setting, conscience is perceived as the bulwark, the protection against authority. 'In this, two notions of the Catholic [order of things] are set in opposition to each other. One is a renewed understanding of the Catholic essence, which expounds Christian faith from the basis of freedom and as the very principle of freedom itself. The other is a defunct, "preconciliar" model, which subjects Christian existence to authority, regulating life even in its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempting to maintain control over people's lives.'(Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience , San Francisco, 2007, 11-12) The former can be developed to the point where Conscience is seen as the alternative to all authority and the only avenue to the freedom promised by the Gospel of Christ.
Now the assumption that the authority of the Church and the role of Conscience are inevitably in conflict has a long history to it. When the First Vatican Council (1869-70) defined an aspect of that divinely given authority, namely, the ability of the Pope to teach without error in the fields of faith and morals (infallibility) when, and only when, very precise and restrictive conditions are fulfilled, the prime-minister of England, William Gladstone, protested that this teaching would make Catholics "mental and moral slaves" in their religion, and in their civil lives "the subjects of a Foreign Power"! It would follow that Catholics could not be relied on to be good citizens! This challenge became the context of a striking intervention by John Henry Newman, then a priest working in a suburb of Birmingham. His reply to Gladstone appeared in 1874 with the title, A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk on the Occasion of Mr Gladstone's recent Expostulation . It is a work full of practical insight and brimming with wit and humour.
Gladstone's Expostulation against the 'Vatican Decrees' turned on the issue of papal authority and individual conscience. In doing so, it raised again a central debate of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. But it also raised the further issue of the true meaning of conscience and our access to moral truth. What was emerging in Gladstone's and Newman's day is now a universal mindset even among some Catholic Christians. The debate centres on the concepts of freedom and norm, self-determination and determination by an external authority. Going along side-by-side with these two orientations there are two models or orientations in vogue in Catholic moral theory: the morality of conscience and the morality of authority . The difference hinges on two very different notions of conscience. One underlines the freedom of the Christian, the other the duties of the Christian.
What should one say about these two models? It needs to be said at the very outset that one must always follow a clear verdict of conscience. Or at least that one may not act against such a verdict or judgement. [But it is quite a different matter to assume that the judgement of C is always correct, that is, infallible. Conscience in fact is not infallible.] The point is well made by Cardinal Newman in Norfolk when he writes, 'Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem the right thing), I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.' ( Norfolk , 261). Now it is difficult for people today to see in this statement anything other than a setting up of an opposition between authority and conscience, between the teaching office ( magisterium ) of the church and the rank and file believer. But when Newman wrote these lines in 1874 he meant it to be a clear confession of his recognition of the Petrine ministry!! And he also wanted to make a point about erroneous forms of authority, or rather erroneous understandings of authority, in fact, of papal authority as defined only four years previously in an ecumenical council of the Church.
This brings us to the question of the true sense of conscience. It is interesting to recall the fact that when Gerard Manley Hopkins was considering becoming a Catholic, he visited Newman in the Birmingham Oratory. The Oratorian listened very carefully as Hopkins explained the reasons for his impending decision. When Hopkins had finished, Newman asked, 'And do you find these reasons convincing?' When he replied in the affirmative, Newman said, 'I do, too.' One should only do something as life-changing as changing one's religion in obedience to one's conscience. On becoming a Catholic, Newman saw many others taking the same step. The phenomenon caused him some anxiety: was it because, like Hopkins, they were convinced that the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, or was it because it was becoming fashionable to become catholic? He followed a clear policy in the whole matter of conversions: converts should enter the Catholic Church only if their consciences command them to do so.
What is conscience ? Conscience is 'the guide of life, implanted in our nature, discriminating right from wrong, and investing right with authority and sway.' ( Historical Sketches , vol. 3, 79) Conscience, in other words, is both a moral judgement and a moral imperative . It enables us to know what is right: it is the faculty that tells us what is right. Having done that it then commands us to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong . It is therefore a mistake to set conscience and authority in opposition, as if conscience itself is not an imperative, an inner command, 'investing right with authority and sway'! Authority for its part should teach what it teaches only because what it teaches is true and therefore presupposes the faculty of conscience.h3> <- Sharpening the topic via a concrete Case
Listening to a discussion on religious faith recently, I found intriguing the views of one of the panellists. He put forward vigorously the position that one should actually be grateful to God that He allows there to be so many unbelievers in good conscience. He explained that if their eyes were opened to the truth and they were to become believers, they would not be capable, in this present-day world, of bearing the burden of faith with all its moral obligations. But because of being in good conscience, they can go another way and still reach eternal life with God.
An eminent contemporary theologian has commented on this very prevalent mindset. 'What shocked me about this assertion was not in the first place the idea of an erroneous conscience given by God himself in order to save men and women by such artfulness - the idea, so to speak, of a blindness sent by God for the salvation of those in question. What disturbed me was the notion it harboured that faith is a burden that can hardly be borne and that was, no doubt, intended only for stronger natures - faith almost as a kind of punishment - in any case an imposition not easily coped with.' (Ratzinger, 14) An erroneous conscience was preferable to real faith because it was the instrument by which God kept men and women in the dark - a divine mushroom treatment.
Here one meets an experience of faith that is disturbing and disquieting. In fact, 'its propagation could only be fatal to the faith. The almost traumatic aversion many have to what they hold to be "preconciliar" Catholicism is rooted, I am convinced, in the encounter with such a faith, faith seen only as an encumbrance. Can such a faith be an encounter with truth? Is the truth about God and man so sad and difficult? Does this truth not lie in freedom?.What a caricature of faith!'
'What is shocking here is not so much the idea of an erring conscience bestowed by God himself as a cunning device that allowed him to save men and women, but rather the idea that faith is virtually an intolerable burden, something only the really strong could shoulder. In other words, faith made salvation harder rather than easier. One should therefore rejoice if the obligation to believe is not imposed upon one, since that would mean being crushed by the burden of the morality of the Church.' (Ratzinger, 14). In other words, the truth does not set you free! (Jn 8:32)
Now a moment's reflection here is enough to see that this paralyzes faith-life, it discourages the telling of the faith, and undermines witnessing to the faith. And when conscience is then invoked to justify closure in oneself against Pope and Bishop, against tradition and authority, we get something like a description of a significant strand of our times. Conscience justifies us remaining in our own subjectivity and in not having to seek the truth which, instead of making us free (Jn 8:32), burdens and enslaves and crushes! 'Conscience here does not mean man's openness to the ground of his being.Rather, it appears as the subjectivity's public shell, into which the human being can escape and there hide from reality.' (Ratzinger, 16) It is what Newman diagnosed as the right of self-will, the right of speaking and acting independently of the truth!
So what is conscience? Here's Newman: conscience is "the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation........it is a messenger from Him, who both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil". And it is a universal phenomenon: "Whether a man has heard the name of the Saviour of the world or not.....he has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion, or impression, or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others.......What I am insisting on here is this, that it commands, that it praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen"( Oxford University Sermons , 64). Conscience, then, is a "sense of duty": "Do this!", and, "Don't do that!"
But it is also and even earlier a "moral sense" and a "judgement of reason", because it is the instrument for gaining moral truth. In the light of what one knows to be good or evil one is then obliged and commanded by conscience to do what is good and to avoid what is evil. The person who does what he knows to be good, enjoys the feelings of peace, harmony, and lightness of heart. If, on the contrary, he chooses and acts against this inner light and law, he feels the opposite set of emotions such as confusion, shame, haunting remorse and the like. Newman makes the point in a well-known passage in Norfolk, "This.is how I read the doctrine of Protestants as well as of Catholics. The rule and the measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, not 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 the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas."(248-9)
Conscience, then, belongs to the very nature of each man and woman. It is central to his or her identity and dignity, and that is why a "person cannot be forced to accept the truth" (Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 190). The Church has in fact always taught this truth. She acts in the light of this central truth which grounds the dignity of each person.
So much is this the case that it may be said that conscience is the foundation of the Pope's authority, and it would be suicidal for him to speak against it! It is because of this truth that Newman made the famous statement, "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 afterwards."(261) Pope John Paul the Great refers approvingly to these sentiments in his Crossing the Threshold of Faith (191).
The bridge between Pope and conscience is the reality of truth . Conscience is made for finding the truth, the moral right and wrong of things. When the Pope or Bishops teach, they teach what is true and propose it to believers as the truth. This action of theirs not only recognizes the reality of conscience, it presupposes conscience .
Conscience, however, is vulnerable on two fronts. First, there is the human condition where doubt and passion combine to confuse and lead human beings astray. Pick up any real issue of yesterday or of today and you will find a myriad conflicting answers on even the most central moral and ethical questions. Conscience is not infallible! Here is how Newman puts it, "The sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted,......so biassed by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, .......the Church, the Pope, the hierarchy, are, in the divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand." ( Norfolk, 253-4) The human condition is such as to make a divinely guided teaching Church a practical necessity.
There is a second front on which conscience is vulnerable. Newman saw this front growing vigorously all around him in the last century. He saw conscience, the instrument for gaining moral and religious truth, being changed into an instrument for the avoidance of the truth, and especially for the avoidance of the duty to seek, honour and speak the truth that ennobles human life and sets men and women free! He makes the point forcibly, "Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it 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." ( Norfolk , 250) Conscience is now the right not to have to seek and know and live by the truth!
Newman saw a revolt gathering against the true sense of conscience as shared by pagans and believers, by Catholics and Protestants. It is not only the world of the philosophers, but also the popular mind that speaks about 'the rights of conscience' in order to be emancipated from conscience altogether ! '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. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that or let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them.' ( Norfolk, 250) He explains the subversion of conscience in these words, ' Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it 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 .' ( Norfolk , 250)
When the eternal Son of God entered the world and lived among us, he taught the truth with authority (see Mark 1:21-8). However, he not only gave the truth, he also provided for its preservation and faithful transmission. And so the setting up of a succession of teachers destined to survive to the end of time becomes both a practical necessity and an expression of that tender love by which God who is rich in mercy loved us concretely (see Ephesians 2:4-6). In fact, Newman stressed the point that if God were not to provide for the preservation and the transmission of divine revelation, it would be tantamount to his not giving revelation in the first place!
In this paper, I have addressed the topic of Conscience as presented in Cardinal Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk . The context in which he wrote that work was that of the twentieth Ecumenical Council which defined the infallibility of the Pope in 1870.
The topic of conscience is today viewed in a very different context from that of any other era. I described the phenomenon via the idea of a 'morality of conscience' and a 'morality of authority'. Conscience is a protection against everyone and everything outside oneself: it is in fact the right to be free from the truth in order to enjoy the range of self-will.
We then looked at an historical instance of an eminent Victorian looking at the Catholic teaching on conscience as implied by the definition of infallibility in 1870. Gladstone read that Council as denying the role of conscience for Catholics. They became 'mental' and 'moral slaves' of a foreign power. Might if right, and not truth.
Newman engaged with Gladstone most vigorously. His big point was that the authentic Catholic position is not either the Pope or conscience , but the Pope and conscience , and that a Catholic conscience seeks formation since, in the human condition, conscience is the first but also the feeblest of teachers. Revelation, in fact, is the provision of the necessary guidance. This means that the bridge between conscience and the Pope is the truth.
'The guide of life, implanted in our nature, discriminating right and wrong, and investing right with authority and sway, is our conscience, which revelation does but enlighten, strengthen and refine. Coming from one and the same Author, these internal and external monitors of course recognise and bear witness to each other.' ( Historical Sketches , III, 79). In that way, Newman is 'the great synthesiser of interiority and Church.' (E. Przywara).
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