Reading Leading to Heaven

The Conference of Archbishop Anthony Fisher –“Conscience, relativism and truth”

Conference on Theological Anthropology at the beginning of the Third Millennium

University of Notre Dame Australia, St. Benedict’s Broadway Campus

1. Conscience today

On 13 October last the Church canonised 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 celebration is especially timely in an age in which rights of conscience are regularly flouted and the very idea of conscience much contested. Behind those contests there is, of course, a contest about the very nature of the human person and the very possibility of a theological anthropology. Thus the subjectivist strand of modernity calls ‘conscience’ what is really only sincerity: my personal preference with an exclamation mark added. The relativist strand of modernity means by conscience private intuition or loyalty-group-think, for there is no objective good for the mind and will to grasp. The individualist strand uses ‘conscience’ as code for personal rivalry with authority. But the materialist-atheistic strand of modernity dismisses the conscience idea altogether, as the fantasy of those who believe in the soul, revelation, tradition and other artefacts of religion. Aussie-turned-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 persons engaged in healthcare or education or even sacramental confession should have the space to pursue their conscientious beliefs, and even have conscience protections,[5] are  the deeper questions of the what of conscience (its meaning, basis and scope), and the who of conscience (the kind of being that has a conscience. There is no-one better to explore this with than our most recent saint.

2. Conscience in Newman’s 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 the Nonconformists, conscience was freedom of religion along with moral constraints on anything that made you smile; for Kantians, it was stern-faced practical reason holding duty up before the agent for his or her acquittal or condemnation; for liberals, it was about ‘doing it my way’ constrained only by law and education; for Darwinists, an evolved mechanism for managing conflict between competing natural impulses or species; for Marxists and Nietzcheans, a social policeman, the construct of a controlling community. It was against such a background that Newman sought to articulate his version of the tradition on conscience.

His most famous treatment of the subject was, of course, 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 in various texts, but also often personally agonising over what he should do.[9]

Newman gave his witness to 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.” That 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 ‘pope-ing’ 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 (1852) Newman spoke out against a former Dominican friar, 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 from around the world. 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 followed the First Vatican Council. In 1874 former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, published a pamphlet declaring that the English Catholic was required by the 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.

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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. This claim is clearly pregnant with assumptions and implications for theological anthropology. Conscience applies that natural or heart 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] As Pope Benedict 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 he 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 for the believer, then, is recognized as the voice of a God who is known, loved, and trusted, and whose instructions have even more imperative force than their own reasoning would have.[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, 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 the 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 – assistance that the faithful should 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 be 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]

In this Newmanesque theological anthropology the human being is the consciencing animal with a divine law writ within. 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 Pater 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. And behind this is a particular view of the human person as the image of God – rational, free, loving, made for knowing and choosing the good – which speaks directly to our conference theme (cf. Gen 1:27), without which it would be difficult to make any sense of the meaning of conscience and why we should take any claim of conscience seriously.

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

This article was originally published by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. View the original article here.