Cardinal Newman-Special Supplement
Conscience was for Newman the connecting principle between man and God, writes Fr Stuart P. Chalmers
Blessed John Henry Newman is often quoted in relation to his toast to conscience and its dignity. However, at times the quote from his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk is misrepresented as if it were placing conscience and the Pope’s teaching at odds. However, this is not the case.
Newman’s canonisation provides us with an opportunity to get to know his rich writing more deeply. Here I can only touch the surface, but let us explore a little of Newman’s writing so we can appreciate more clearly how he understood the role of conscience and that of the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church.
Cardinal Newman sees conscience as a human capacity of perception, capable of both reflecting on the world around us and on what we are called to do in the world by the One who made it. Therefore, Newman sees conscience as a way-in to assenting to the reality of God, but then also as the means to understanding God’s will in our lives. Conscience for Newman thus becomes the hinge between us and God, both in our being and our moral action. He writes, “Thus, conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.”
This might, at first seem naïve – is the inference that there is a God so obvious? Clearly there are many who would not come to Newman’s conclusion. But Newman argues quite clearly that we make this assent to God’s existence, only “if we will”; if we choose to do so, having overcome objections in our own heart and the contradictory voices and opinions around us.
Newman sees our moral instinct (conscience) as intrinsically linked to our created relationship with God, who is the ground for both the existence and morality of things. Thus, it is through conscience as a type of first principle that we can both search for the ‘Hidden God’, and arrive at a real, personal assent of Faith in a Divine Sovereign and Judge, rather than some notional, abstract concept of a God.
Conscience is a rational capacity – we think things through. But Newman opposes the idea that it operates by some kind of strict deductive reasoning alone, reaching a particular conclusion only via general principles, as was held by St Albert the Great, St Thomas Aquinas and their successors.
By contrast, for Newman, there is both induction and deduction in moral reasoning. Indeed, rather than operating only by strict logical deduction, he says we also use the “subtle and elastic logic of thought.” By this he means that we can come to a swift (rational) conclusion without always having to set out all the steps. Thus, Newman talks of this “natural or material inference” as an “intuition,” or an “instinctive apprehension” about what is right. It is this natural capacity of right judgment in reasoning that he calls the ‘illative sense’.
Taken on its own, Newman’s statement that the illative sense, (our natural capacity of right judgment in reasoning) is “the authoritative oracle” could easily be misunderstood to mean that conscience is the ultimate moral norm; the last word in moral decision-making.
However, Newman is clear that conscience is subject to God’s law and properly functions only when in right relationship with him. Related to this, he also saw emotion (supported by the intellect) as an essential part of conscience. Not only are the reactions of remorse and satisfaction intimately connected to emotion, but he states that one is unable to have these reactions unless they are a response to a “living object”, that is another personal subject, and the ultimate living object is God. Newman therefore highlights the essential relational quality of conscience.
Conscience is therefore rational, emotional, and relational or rooted in our created nature. However, beyond this, Newman also points out that our conscience is called to reflect Christ, the Priest, Prophet and King.
“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 through the Church could cease to be, in it [conscience] the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”
For Newman, there is both induction and deduction in moral reasoning”
This calling blossoms through grace in Baptism, but the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ the high priest, is already incessantly active everywhere and for everyone, prompting all to respond to God’s law which has been planted in every heart (Romans 2:14-15).
Our origin and eternal goal are to be found in God, and our moral choices are called to reflect that origin (creation) and goal (eternal beatitude through Christ’s death and resurrection). Thus, we are called to seek to live and love as Christ would have us do. However, the awareness that conscience possesses of our origin and goal is either helped or hindered by our environment.
Therefore, while Blessed John Henry Newman emphasised the dignity of the individual’s conscience, at the same time he railed against the “counterfeit” notion of subjectivist conscience, based upon the “right of self-will”, calling people to recognise the individual’s need for help in moral decision making.
It is in this context that one can properly understand Newman’s toast where he would “drink, – to the Pope, if you please, – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards,” since conscience “is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings”
Yet, at the same time, despite its central importance, conscience as “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,” namely, that of support and assistance in revealing the truth of God’s Law.
Thus conscience and Church are not acting in opposition or are to be seen as opposing choices. Rather, conscience and the Church as a whole, the individual in the Communion of all the Faithful, seek to act in harmony to do God’s will, united as the Body of Christ.
Thus, Newman toasts conscience first, as it is the first to reveal God’s will, but it is the task of the Pope and the Magisterium to do the same and to support conscience in doing so. Thus, he likewise toasts the Pope.
Fr Stuart Chalmers is a priest of the Diocese of Aberdeen and presently the Spiritual Director of the Royal Scots College, Salamanca, Spain. For his research on conscience he was awarded a PhD from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He is author of Conscience in Context, 2014.