Conscience: the Catholic (and Cardinal Newman’s) View

Conscience: the Catholic (and Cardinal Newman’s) View July 30, 2018


A Catholic wrote, troubled about something he had read (his words will be in blue):


[A self-described Catholic] columnist wrote this in a recent article in my diocesan newspaper that “the deepest strand of Catholic tradition insists that even if one’s conscience is in error one must follow the directives of conscience.” The same author notes that Pope John Paul II repeats this in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope and is championed by John Henry Cardinal Newman. What is the truth about his statement and its relation to the Pope and Newman?

I think they both accept conscience to the extent that it is indeed valid — which is very far-reaching, presupposing that it is informed in good faith and in accordance with the moral law and with the utmost respect for Church authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church approvingly cites Newman, from the same work, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, that your friend cites (#1782). But it goes on (#1785) to stress that conscience must be “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” And of course Newman would agree. In #1792, the Catechism speaks disapprovingly of “erroneous judgment” for reasons of “a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching . . . ”

To see what he is getting to, we must look at the last paragraph of the article where he writes, “If well-formed and well-informed conscience finds itself at odds with official church teaching–birth control and capital punishment are two contemporary examples–what should one do?”

This is an illegitimate appeal to conscience with regard to contraception. It is neither “well-formed” nor “well-informed.” Church teaching is absolutely clear in this regard, and is as infallible as it can be in the “ordinary Magisterium” short of a definitive dogmatic pronouncement. So the appeal to conscience is disallowed on that score, and can only be based on invincible ignorance or deliberate disobedience. God would take into account the former, and that person would not be sinning subjectively. But the latter is a sin in any event, because the person knows exactly what they are doing. The ignorance of Church teaching runs very deep these days. Newman certainly would never have countenanced deliberate disobedience against the Church.

I don’t know what this writer thinks is Church teaching on the death penalty. It has always been allowed (e.g., CCC #2266, “in cases of extreme gravity”). Just war theory (or for that matter, the existence of police) presupposes the right of the state or persons acting in its stead, to take lives in a defensive posture, or in order to procure justice. So no Catholic can properly take a stand that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. If so, that would make God Himself evil, since He commanded the Israelites to do just that, in their very Law. At best, one can oppose it for this particular case, and that would be a legitimate use of conscience. The pope’s recent writing on this — I understand — are directed towards the fair and just exercise of capital punishment, and pastoral concerns, not the inherent evil of it, per the above.

He then quotes Newman which has him state that Newman “shall drink–to the Pope, if you please–still, to Conscience first, and to Pope afterwards.”

Well, there are, of course, many (most) instances where the pope is not speaking infallibly. In some rare circumstances, if the person is in absolutely good faith and wishes to be loyal and obedient to true Church teaching, dissent on the ground of conscience is permissible. Contraception is far from such an instance. On the other hand, Newman himself was reticent about the proclamation of papal infallibility in 1870 because the pope at that time, Pius IX, was indeed taking the argument too far (ultramontanism), and his attitude left much to be desired in the way of humility and prudence (as our Orthodox friends have noted).

In that situation, the pope’s views were indeed erroneous and too extreme. The Holy Spirit saw to it that the definition was moderated in the Council. Newman had been an inopportunist before the proclamation, but fully and cheerfully accepted it after the fact. There was nothing whatsoever improper about that. Strictly speaking, we have the same prerogative today with regard to Mediatrix and Co-redemptrix.

Well, I believe we can see the intent to dissent from this [writer]; for if a conscience is “well-formed and well-informed” it would not find itself at odds with church teaching at all.

Exactly. The usual motives with regard to contraception are clear: sexual license, selfishness, and oftentimes pure hedonism; irresponsibility. Christian sexual morality is difficult. As Chesterton said: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Bingo!

Fr. John Hardon (who received me into the Church) writes in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, p. 89):

    An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way . . . “These principles are presupposed as known to the mind, either from the light of natural reason reflecting on the data of creation, or from divine faith responding to God’s supernatural revelation. Conscience does not produce these principles; it accepts them. Nor does conscience pass judgment on the truths of reason and divine faith . . .

But can you show how he is twisting Newman and the Pope?

I just did, I think. Both Newman and the pope were speaking primarily of religious freedom and the right to not be compelled against one’s will and/or conscience. But then the discussion — for the Catholic — must immediately move into the question of what a well-formed conscience is, and its relationship to Church authority. Protestantism made the conscience more or less fully autonomous, but that can never be an option for a Catholic, who ought to seek to understand his Church’s teaching and be completely willing to submit to it, except for the most rare and extraordinary (permissible) circumstances.


Later, I had the following series of exchanges (edited somewhat for subject matter) with an articulate non-Catholic Christian on my Apologetics/Ecumenism discussion list (his words will be in green):


You seem to allow no room for the individual conscience. We are talking here about devout Catholics who hold the Church and its apostolic authority in the utmost regard, but who are also bound by their own consciences.

Part of the duty of a Catholic is to form their consciences in conformity with the Church. Protestantism operates on the principles of private judgment and absolute primacy of conscience, but not us. We believe conscience is very important, too (crucial, in fact), but we believe it can’t (and won’t) go contrary to Church teaching. At most, an orthodox Catholic could hold personal intellectual doubts and questions about this, that, or the other, but they would have to be willing to submit to the higher wisdom of the Church (realizing their own inherent limitations). I think it is mainly a question of what it means to submit to the wisdom of the Church and its authority, where we don’t fully understand something

These are not rebels against the Church.

They may or may not be, to some extent. That’s not for me to judge. They have to examine themselves; and only God knows what the whole truth of the matter is. I can only render an opinion about the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of their viewpoints.

Many Catholics love and revere their church but they are unable to persuade themselves of the rational and/or moral basis of some of the magisterium’s edicts.

Then that is the time for them to do all the studying they can to try to understand the teaching of the Church on the matter. That’s what an obedient Catholic does. If they truly love the Church, then they will be more than willing to do that, no?

With all due respect, you seem to display a quasi-legalistic zeal which I’ve observed in other converts from to Catholicism,

However you describe it, this is the teaching of the Church. I didn’t invent it; I merely submit to it and defend it.

as opposed to those who have always been at home in the Catholic Church and are more tolerant of the role of individual conscience.

At times (or to a degree) they have adopted a Protestant principle which is in opposition to the Catholic one. The formal principles of authority are entirely different. This should come as no surprise. People don’t live in a “Catholic vacuum.” They take in all sorts of influences from the “outside.”

I’m not really sure what explains this phenomenon, but it could be that [some lifelong Catholics] communicate more successfully from their hearts as well as their brains.

I think it would be absurd to make a blanket statement that converts (as apologists are also often accused) are all mind and no heart (or even as a matter of emphasis). When one merely upholds a moral law or a Church law, one is often accused of being “heartless.” That just goes with the territory, I reckon. They call Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger the “Panzer-Cardinal” too, and the pope gets called a host of slanderous names by the self-described “progressives.”

But I would agree to the extent that the apologetic and the pastoral functions are distinct. Speaking personally, I mostly operate in an “apologetic/truth-telling” mode in a list such as this. When speaking or writing to someone one-on-one, however, I often assume quite a different tone, as that becomes a more personal relationship of love and understanding – not just a matter of “X is true . . .” This is just how reality is, in my opinion. The two functions have to somehow be held together — somewhat paradoxically — just as apologetics and ecumenism do (which is actually a very analogous situation).

Suffice it to say here that I can’t imagine betraying my gay friends by embracing the blanket condemnation of their relationships which is still mandated by the Catholic Church.

The fallacy here is that you must “betray” them as persons by simply disagreeing with their behavior. You have swallowed their false rhetoric which equates criticism of behavior with a blanket condemnation of them as absolute scoundrels and wicked sinners. This doesn’t follow. But the reasoning of the radical activists is that if they simply repeat a lie enough times, people will believe it. To disagree with sodomy is to be a “homophobe.” Even you — a highly intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious guy (and I mean that sincerely) — are taken in by this most basic of fallacies.

I haven’t similarly engaged traditionalists on contraception, but I find the Church’s intransigence on this issue equally objectionable. It is self-evident to me . . .

I know it is. But your task is to convince people like me why your “self-evident truths” hold more weight than unanimous Christian Tradition up to 1930. Good luck!

that God blesses sexual love between committed partners quite apart from their willingness to create children.

We don’t deny the pleasure aspects of sex (read Song of Solomon). We just object to making that an end in itself. This is just as unnatural as eating for pleasure’s sake alone, apart from the nutritional aspects of food, which I think all would agree is its primary purpose.

The reason this is self-evident is because the alternative – the view you have described as official Church dogma – entails that my own marriage is fundamentally and essentially immoral (because we decided not to create children and did not rely on NFP).

Not “essentially.” I would say, rather, that your notion of the purpose of marriage is seriously flawed. In my opinion, you are not so much “essentially immoral” as you are lacking in the traditional understandings of matrimony and how God intended it. And again, this is not my self-generated opinion, but that of Christian Tradition. I don’t mean to hurt you in saying this, but in proclaiming the Church’s teaching, one can hardly avoid stepping on some toes.

This notion that the single best thing in my life is essentially sinful in God’s eyes is literally incredible, which is to say that I can’t conceive of believing it. For me it functions as a reductio ad absurdum of the Catholic dogma on contraception.

What you fail to grasp here is that we need not denigrate marriage, abstractly considered for a moment apart from children: the sexual intimacy and togetherness, etc. by saying that procreation is also central to marriage. What you have is good. It is just incomplete. If the Church opposed all sex which was non-procreative, it would forbid post-menopausal women from having sex. But obviously it doesn’t. The sin is in the “contralife” will.

My curiosity here concerns your rather extreme displeasure about dissent from magisterial dogma, and your references to wishing such people were not in Church.

This is a very Pauline (therefore biblical and apostolic) attitude. Go read Col 2:8, 2 Thess 3:6 (especially), and Gal 1:9,12. But then, you can always dismiss what you disagree with in Scripture. Very convenient, isn’t it? So that makes you quite a slippery fish to deal with in discourse. You have the freedom to “escape” from biblical orthodoxy whenever you need to. The Church cannot change any of the teachings you dispute, because they are all entrenched in the Tradition, and there has never been any other teaching, They are apostolic teachings, and the Church does not have the power or authority to change them.

Catholic dissidents have a basic misunderstanding of what the Church can and cannot do. They appear to lack faith in the infallibility of the Church, and its continual guidance by the Holy Spirit. The Church — in their mind — has gotten all these things entirely wrong all these 2000 years. Such a state of affairs cannot possibly be the case from a Catholic perspective. It is fundamentally hostile to apostolic succession, and the notion of the Church as “guardian” of the apostolic deposit. It is not at liberty to change doctrines which it merely “received” and “passed down” – which is the root meaning of the word tradition (paradosis in Greek).

As for the specific place of conscience, I cite Cardinal Newman:

From: Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1874, Chapter 5: “Conscience” (emphasis added at the end):

    It seems, then, that there are extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word . . .

Note how Newman characterizes such cases as “extreme” as opposed to “routine.”

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.”The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, etc.). This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience”; and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience.

“The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, aedificat ad gehennam.'” [“Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation.”]

This view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man . . .

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it 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.

And now I shall turn aside for a moment to show how it is that the Popes of our century have been misunderstood by the English people, as if they really were speaking against conscience in the true sense of the word, when in fact they were speaking against it in the various false senses, philosophical or popular, which in this day are put upon the word . . .

. . . no dead-lock, such as is implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.

4. But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession”; that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Prima facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded.

If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.

So my argument is that your disputed doctrines are not “rare” at all in the mind of “progressive” Catholics. Nor is there any dispute about Church teaching concerning them. The popes have spoken often and repeatedly concerning women’s ordination, contraception, hell, and homosexuality. Therefore, these teachings are already infallible by virtue of the ordinary magisterium (and the extraordinary magisterium, as expressed in Vatican II). The Church has never taught anything other than what it does now. This is precisely the improper use of so-called “conscience” which Newman critiques above. Therefore, according to Newman, such instances are an objectionable appeal to an ersatz “conscience” which is no Catholic conscience at all.

Frankly, at this point when I contemplate the rather farfetched possibility of joining an apostolic church, I lean more toward the East than the West.

That doesn’t surprise me, because their views are closer to yours than ours are. You can believe in contraception; you don’t have to as specifically define things like hell, purgatory, original sin, and transubstantiation. You can frown upon Thomistic-type rational analysis if you like; you can believe in divorce and married priests. You can avoid the reproach for the Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, and Pope Pius XII’s alleged “silence” and inaction about the Nazi Holocaust (one of the most unsconscionable lies of this century – the precise opposite of the truth).

The Catholic theological and moral tradition seems so much more legalistic, for want of a better word, than that of Orthodoxy.

Exactly, and that’s what they say about us, which is why your affinity with them comes as no surprise.

Rome seems far more concerned than Byzantium with the exhaustive minutiae of doctrinal casuistry.

That’s because we place a higher premium on reason. Reason is often slandered in the way you are characterizing it presently, as mere sophism or “casuistry.” But if you want devotion and holiness, our saints do not take a back seat at all to the Orthodox saints.

Meaning no offense to any Catholics, when reading the work of some Catholics zealous in defense of their orthodoxy I’m sometimes reminded of the Pharisees whom Jesus vehemently opposed for their predilection for straining gnats while gulping down camels.

But He was attacking hypocrisy, not use of reason per se. Therefore, to make the analogy stick, you have to demonstrate hypocrisy on our part.

In any case, you don’t give the impression that your conscience mandates your dissent from anything officially taught by the Catholic Church — is that true?

Yes. The closest thing would be my detestation of much of what occurred in the Crusades and Inquisition, but the Church has already denounced the excesses of those endeavors and come down firmly on the side of religious freedom. My remaining difficulty, then, is to figure out the non-contradictory relationship between past Catholic teaching and practice on that, and current teaching. That is somewhat perplexing to me, yet I am fully confident that an answer is out there to be found, with enough study (because that has always been the case thus far), so I am not troubled by it in any “existential” sense. So it is a question of ecclesiology and the particular workings of infallibility (as opposed to a matter of conscience) for me. This is the area in which I argued most vigorously against the Church prior to my conversion.

If so, you might find it equally difficult to understand this issue. Simply put, what is one to do if one is convinced both that Church X is uniquely apostolic in its authority, while one’s conscience bears witness that Church X is wrong about Dogma Z.

One is to question their own understanding and fallibility at some point. There are greater entities than one’s own mind and opinion. I should think that is obvious. Hopefully Newman’s reflections will be helpful to you. He always offers wonderful food for thought.

I suppose a useful analogy for the situation you’re depicting is a young child whose parents are highly trustworthy, and who consequently places unreserved trust in their instructions, even on occasions when she is incapable of comprehending their reasoning. I’m not sure how accurate the analogy is, however.

It is a very good one, in my opinion.

I tend to think one ought to be capable of apprehending the Church’s reasons behind its teachings if they really have reason on their side.

Yes, but it is unrealistic to think that any one of us will be able to grasp it in totowithout any difficulty. After all, left to our own devices, I think it is obvious that no one would agree totally with any given denomination. But it is the same in other fields. No one would discover all that we know about natural science on their own. It is a corporate enterprise, which builds upon substantiated and received theories (somewhat analogous to religious “Tradition”). By coming to that area of knowledge, we must accept certain axioms, such as the table of elements, gravity, or the laws of thermodynamics. And we also must accept things which we may not understand, but which we accept based on the authority of those who do (Quantum mechanics, relativity, anti-matter, black holes, the cause of the Big Bang, whether light is a wave or a particle, etc.).

On some of the issues I cited as obstacles to my belief it just seems so plausible to attribute the dogmas to the influence of cultural prejudices rather than divine revelation.

I would deny that hell (and perhaps the opposition to contraception) would be examples of things which we would expect to find in a cultural, anthropological sense. E.g., if I knew nothing of the Bible or Christianity, I think I would be inclined to think that the wicked were annihilated rather than punished eternally. But I bow to revelation and God’s superior wisdom and goodness on this, whether or not I understand it. Much Christian sexual teaching is counter-intuitive, if we were to go by our natural inclinations.

But this will certainly require further reflection. I definitely should include Newman in my reading.

You will never regret his input. His writing is a feast of riches, both in content and the aesthetic beauty of the writing.

Chesterton implies that the history of the Church is cyclical, oscillating between apostasy and zealous orthodoxy. Why is that?

Because that is how human beings are. We tend to digress in our faith until a disaster or tragedy, or excessive hardship wakes us up. All of human history teaches us this. And Church history is no different. The heartening thing there, however, is that the Church always has this remarkable ability to revive itself from the “ashes” and the skeptical predictions of (and avid hopes for) its demise. This is ample proof of divine guidance, in my opinion. I don’t believe that the perpetuation of the Catholic Church can be explained by merely natural reasoning. It is too remarkable and implausible apart from some notion of a divine guidance and protection.


(originally from 1998)


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