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Newman on the Conscience: an idea for our time?

  • THOMAS CARR

On October 13, 2019, tens of thousands of pilgrims crowded St. Peter's square to witness the canonization Mass of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the first Englishman to be raised to the altars in over 300 years.


newman789His canonization was some sixty years in the making, hindered only by the second of two qualifying miracles.  This came in May of 2013 when an expectant mother, Melissa Villalobos from Chicago, was instantly and permanently healed of a life-threatening internal hemorrhage.

Newman's journey into the Church Triumphant was a tumultuous one.  As a Theology don at Oxford, and as Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary, Newman led thousands of students to embrace High Church Anglicanism, a move which triggered opposition from his mostly Latitudinarian colleagues.  Upon his conversion to the Catholic Church, Newman again made enemies, this time among his fellow Catholics who considered him too out of step with the Ultramontane sentiments of the day. 

That opinion changed when, at nearly 80 years of age, Newman was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.  This honor allowed Newman's major theological and philosophical writings — particularly the Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845) and his philosophical work, The Grammar of Assent (1870) — to be considered "safe" enough to study.  Today, Newman is the subject of more doctoral studies at Rome's pontifical universities than that of any other modern figure. 

The ascendancy of Newman studies coincides with an era of great upheaval in Catholic scholarship.  In traditional models of theological reflection, reason is thought capable of producing theological judgments that are timeless and universal.  Today's "modern" approach holds that such objectivity is not possible.  It considers reason to be too embedded within the flux of history to offer anything more than provisional statements about what is true.  Newman's theory of development, which details the way doctrinal statements gain nuance over time, is seen by some to presage this shift of focus. 

This is one reason why some left-leaning media outlets, including National Catholic Reporter and America, have declared Newman a "saint for our time."  Newman's attention to historical conditioning, his empowering of the laity, his call to ecumenical unity, are thought to line up well with the reform agenda of Pope Francis.  This is especially true of Newman's rehabilitation of the role of private conscience in matters of Church discipline. 

Pope Francis' 2016 exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, mentions "conscience" no less than fourteen times.  Citing Gaudium et Spes, Francis calls conscience "the most secret core and sanctuary of the person" (222).  In the much-debated chapter on divorce and remarriage, Francis writes, 

"[C]onscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.  It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

Some have sought to connect the Pope's view of conscience espoused here — namely, as providing "moral security" in situations which fall short of the Church's "objective ideal" — with the view of conscience found in Newman's writings.  This is not without reason, for Newman held conscience to be "a magisterial dictate" (Grammar of Assent) and "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ" (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).  "If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts," he quipped in an addendum to the Letter, "I shall drink…to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards."  These and similar statements can give the impression that Newman, like Francis, advocates for the primacy of conscience over and above the teachings of the Church.

Francis biographer, Austen Ivereigh, made this very connection when he tweeted that "one cannot help but imagine that Cardinal Newman…would delight to be canonised on Oct 13 by a pope who…has restored the role of conscience."  So, too, Cardinal Cupich.  In a February 2018 speech at Cambridge University, Cupich cited both Newman and Amoris Laetitia in support of the view that "the voice of conscience…could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church's understanding of the ideal."

Clearly, Newman rejects any attempt to pit private conscience over and against Church teaching. 

Is this a fair assessment?  Are Francis and Newman really in full accord on the role of private conscience in moral matters?  Before we answer, let us first distinguish between two prevailing views of conscience.  In the first view, conscience is thought to be primarily formed by, and is exercised in reference to, an objective authority of some kind — the laws of God, Church doctrine, natural law, etc. — whereas in the second, conscience is thought to be formed by subjective experience, and is executed as a private judgment.  We can think of these views as defining objective and subjective notions of conscience.

It is clear from a closer reading of Newman's writings on conscience that he held strictly to the first, more objective view.  For Newman, the voice of conscience is the voice of God.  "Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness," he wrote, "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 internal witness of both the existence and the law of God" (Letter, 5. 248).  It ought rightly to be considered "not as a rule of conduct, but as a sanction of right conduct" (Grammar, 5.1).  Clearly, Newman rejects any attempt to pit private conscience over and against Church teaching. 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI agrees with this assessment.  Writing as Cardinal Ratzinger in his 1991 essay, "Conscience and Truth," he states,

"Conscience for Newman does not mean that the subject is the standard vis-à-vis the claims of authority….Much more than that, conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject himself.  It is the overcoming of mere subjectivity in the encounter…with the truth of God." 

Pope Francis' position in Amoris Laetita, as Cardinal Cupich makes clear, is that in certain pastorally sensitive situations, "what God is asking" individuals to do is to live within the "limits" of one's conscience rather than abide by the "ideal" standards of the Church.  This is the subjective notion of conscience.  Clearly such a view is one to which Newman would never raise a toast. 

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Acknowledgement

Carr2Thomas Carr. "Newman on the Conscience: an idea for our time?" The Catholic Education Resource Center (January 3, 2020).

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Carr. 

The Author

carrtinyDr. Thomas Carr is a convert to Catholicism and a Lay Dominican novice.  He holds an M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and M.Phil. (Patristics) and D.Phil. (Theology and Philosophy) degrees from Oxford University.  He was a tenured professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies for 17 years and currently writes independently.  He and his wife and children reside in Northern Virginia. Dr. Carr is the author of Newman and Gadamer: Toward a Hermeneutics of Religious Knowledge.

Copyright © 2020 The Catholic Education Resource Center
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