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Newman and the Drama of True and False Conscience

by Cardinal George Pell


Australian Cardinal George Pell delivered an address to members of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago last fall, on the "primacy of truth" and the "primacy of conscience." This synopsis of the Sydney archbishop's speech was provided by ZENIT.

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Publisher & Date, February 10, 2005

Cardinal John Newman's view of conscience is far from that usually held by those who speak of "primacy of conscience" today. Newman believes a good Catholic conscience can never accept a position of dissent against central Church teaching. Moral truth is the key to conscience, and this is very difficult to deny coherently.

People who claim primacy of conscience rarely see the problems this raises in the moral life. Furthermore, this view causes a range of problems for the practice of the faith and for the Catholic sense of belonging. Newman's view of conscience has a more transcendent importance: Conscience is the normal means by which most people know of the existence of God. ...

People from across the theological spectrum would agree with Newman that conscience is "a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator" ("Grammar of Assent," Chapter 5). But while some see conscience as God's invitation to embrace his law as free subjects, others see it as a radical call to personal freedom. For many people today, conscience suggests freedom to judge God's law by our own personal resources and the right to reject the notion or reformulate this law as we think best.

I imagine that to non-Christians this must seem rather odd: If moral and religious teachings bind only to the extent that one's individual mind and will enthuse about them, then pretty clearly the teachings do not bind at all. What "binds" is simply the autonomous self, with all the limitations that our selves are prey to. And to say "I am bound by me" is hardly to make a meaningful moral utterance. Rather, it is to reject the need for morality and creed and to claim that I should be allowed to live as I choose within the constraints imposed by family, friends and society.

Of course, this theory is often dressed up with the claim that conscience is a special faculty that speaks to us, rather like an oracle. The theory may also be elevated to the status of a doctrine — the "primacy of conscience."

But annunciating grand titles does not change moral reality. Conscience is simply the mind thinking practically, thinking morally; the mind thinks well when we understand moral principles and apply them in clear and reasonable ways; the mind thinks badly when we ignore or reinvent moral principles, or apply them in ambiguous and unreasonable ways.

"Good conscience" simply means good grasp and good application of moral truths — it is the truth that is primary, it is the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind, or, if you prefer, by the conscience. …

Newman carefully distinguishes himself from those who equate conscience with integrity, sincerity or preference. In the famous passage of the "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" (Part 5), which the Catechism (1778) part-quotes, he writes: "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."

When we receive messages, we listen to them. We do not make them up and reword them to reflect what we wish had been said. If we disagree with the Church's message so seriously that we cannot follow its terms, then we cannot reinvent it to make it easier or more palatable.

Rather, we enter into a period of prayer, study and inquiry to try to understand the message and to understand why we find ourselves opposed to it. And we should realize that if the matter that puzzles us is one of a binding Church teaching or a central moral teaching, then prayer and study of this may be a lifetime's work.

A Catholic conscience cannot accept a settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral teaching. Any difficulties with Church teaching should be not the end of the matter but the beginning of a process of conversion, education and quite possibly repentance. Where a Catholic disagrees with the Church on some serious matter, the response should not be "that's that; I can't follow the Church here"; instead we should kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our fragile minds, as Newman recommends in Sermon 17 — "The Testimony of Conscience."

Of course, Newman's view of conscience is profoundly counterintuitive to modern ears. For Newman, conscience is objective, hard work, a challenge to self, a call to conversion, a sign of humility; and this sits uncomfortably for those who see freedom as the right to reject what is unpalatable. Many will say: "You can interpret conscience this way if you want to — I'll even defend your right to do so! But my own view is very different."

The only answer to this is to explain and to defend the existence of moral truth. In theory, this should not be too difficult. After all, everyone agrees that there is a basic truth of the matter in cases of social justice, children's protection, the immorality of torture, lying and cheating in public life, and so on.

But the twist is that many people who accept moral truths in some area of life reject moral truth especially in areas such as sexual morality, and perhaps also in life issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Moral truth is a great ally when it is on your side; but when it grates against your own convenience it can be tempting to treat it as an anachronism. But either there are or there are not moral truths, and if there are, these will have something to say about unpopular matters as well as more fashionable causes. ...

The Pope argues that in their consciences human persons encounter moral truth, freely embrace it, and personally commit themselves to its enactment. This account (see "Veritatis Splendor," 54-64) builds upon Newman's theory of conscience as man's free adoption of God's law. Conscience is neither apprehending an alien law nor devising our own laws: rather, conscience is freely accepting the objective moral law as the basis of all our choices. Thus forming and following a Christian conscience is a dignifying and liberating experience; it means not resentfully following God's law but freely embracing it as our life's ideal. ...

This specifically Catholic view rejects the mistaken primacy of conscience doctrine and clearly asserts the primacy of truth. The Pope writes: "In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a 'subjective' error about moral good with the 'objective' truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience" ("Veritatis Splendor," 63).

Newman and John Paul II, from their very different traditions of Anglo and Continental philosophy, reach the same conclusion: Conscience is the free grasp of objective law. Some would pay lip service to the great work of Newman, saying, "Yes, I accept the moral truth — I just reject the particular set of moral truths that the Church proposes."

This approach to morality has been tried many times before. The endorsement of law as "form" which then allows us to reject any determinate "content" and to construct our own content is common to various subjectivists, intuitionists and Kantians. It is found too in the still-influential writings of Lawrence Kohlberg.

For the earlier Kohlberg at least, morality is simply certain rational constraints upon freedom; morality is content-free requirements of form upon our reason. Kohlberg himself equivocated over whether morality is truly empty of content, or gives at least a little guidance. It is certainly hard to take seriously the notion of morality as contentless-logic — a kind of color-in-the-picture-for-yourself ethics.

Anyone in a real life situation that requires moral strength, honesty, and accuracy would surely be repelled by the advice that "morality has nothing to say about the details of your choice; it's all up to you." This is purely abandonment of people when they most need and expect guidance. ...

In a recent response to an article by Brian Lewis on "The Primacy of Conscience in the Roman Catholic Tradition" (Pacifica, 13 (3), 2000, 299-309), Frank Mobbs states: "if conscience is not so to speak looking at itself, then it is looking for objective truth" (cf. "Brian Lewis on Conscience," a paper delivered to the Catholic Moral Theology Association of Australia and New Zealand, last July 6).

The point is that no one — at least, no Christian — believes conscience simply asserts the first thing that comes into our heads. Conscience looks for real answers to our questions; and where can it look except to the truth? But then the value of conscience surely lies not in conscience itself but in the objective truth to which conscience looks for answers. It is the truth that is primary, and it is from the truth that conscience takes its value.

Searching for a needle in a haystack may be diligent, but what gives the search point and value is the importance to us of the needle. Conscience only matters because truth matters to us passionately.

So, conscientious thinking matters to Christians because objective truth is so important to us. Why would we take conscientious belief seriously at all unless we believed it represented access to objective truth? After all, the bare fact that it is my private belief is of no moral significance whatsoever. It matters because objective truth matters. ...

Much of the debate over conscience in Catholic circles focuses on the possibility of a conscience against the Church's teaching. This seems to me a peculiar notion. For a start, it would mean that dissenters believed that following the Church on, for example, contraception or same-sex relationships, would actually give them a guilty conscience, not just frustrated wishes. Yet it seems clear that most dissenters do not fear guilt if they obey the Church: What they fear is precisely the frustration of their unsatisfied wishes. ...

On many occasions Newman explained that true conscience recognizes an external Being, who obliges us to perform certain actions and avoid others (for example, see "An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent," edited by I.T. Ker [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985], pp. 40, 47, 72-83). The mind is carried beyond itself to the idea of a future tribunal, where reward and punishment will be assigned. From our inadequacies we envision the need for redemption and atonement. ...

Nonetheless, a false notion of conscience has helped to carry many away from Catholic practice and indeed from Catholic faith. If there are two opposing versions of conscience, and there are, this is the obverse side to Newman's claim that true conscience helps us to recognize the One True God.

A debased notion of conscience, a barely concealed enthusiasm for autonomy disguised as an appeal to the primacy of conscience, weakens our sense of obligation, damages our purity of heart, and makes it harder and harder to see God.

Copyright 2004, Innovative Media, Inc.

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