Scholars of St John Henry Newman have criticised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for misunderstanding the new saint’s teaching on conscience.
Speaking in the Dáil last week, Mr Varadkar rejected Archbishop Eamon Martin’s recent comments that Catholic politicians are obliged to support laws that uphold the dignity of every person from conception to death. The Taoiseach said he was reminded of some words of St John Henry Newman.
“When he learned about the new doctrine of papal infallibility,” Mr Varadkar said, “he said he would drink to the Pope, but would first drink to his own conscience. What St John Henry Newman was encapsulating in that was the idea in the Catholic faith that allows people to act according to their conscience, even Catholic politicians.”
Prof. Vincent Twomey, however, has refuted the suggestion that Newman was reacting to a “new doctrine”, and explained that the saint understood conscience as the “human capacity to recognise the objective truth about good and evil”.
“Newman was not taking about ‘my own conscience’, in other words about a purely subjective judgment or opinion, as it is understood today, even among some Irish moral theologians,” he wrote in a letter to The Irish Times. “He developed an understanding of conscience as our antenna for objective truth, as the voice of God echoing in the heart of every human being.
“This human capacity, Newman stressed, is fragile and open to distortion by personal and cultural forces. The church’s God-given authority to speak the truth in season and out of season is thus needed to awaken conscience as much as God’s grace is needed to follow it.”
Pointing out that those who act on their conscience are willing to suffer for it rather than following majority opinion, he said: “Lucinda Creighton paid for it with her expulsion from Mr Varadkar’s own Fine Gael party.”
The Iona Institute’s Dr Angelo Bottone, meanwhile, criticised the Taoiseach for quoting St John Henry “totally out of context”, and did so in the context of Catholics being accused of drinking toasts to the Pope before Queen Victoria.
“This is why Newman puts conscience first. It comes before the Pope, or the Crown, or anything else,” Dr Bottone said.