George A. Sprecace M.D.,
J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New
RIGHT WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH #56
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
What Comes First, Conscience or the Pope?
Cardinal Newman Offers Well-Founded Answer
By Father Juan R. Vélez
LOS ANGELES, California, OCT. 5, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Many people
is little more to life than thinking as they wish and doing as they
speak of my truth and my conscience, refusing to acknowledge an
order. Unfortunately, this cultural relativism is also prevalent among
Catholics, who often wish to act according to their subjective beliefs
than the objective teaching of the Catholic Church.
Catholics who disagree with Church teaching often attempt to find a
their arguments in the teachings of Blessed John Henry Newman, who was
beatified by Benedict XVI last Sept. 19, and whose feast day is Oct. 9.
great teacher on moral conscience wrote, among other things, on the
of Christian doctrine, the consent of the faithful in matters of
on the supreme role of the moral conscience.
Those who question objective truths or the Church's capacity to command
obedience to these truths often misunderstand the context and content
teaching. In particular, Cardinal Newman's notion regarding the freedom
follow my conscience is invoked to sanction disagreement with the
teaching on obedience to the Pope, artificial contraception, the
divorce and remarriage, ordination of women and the practice of
What is conscience?
Conscience is a natural faculty by which man applies what he knows of
law and revelation to decisions regarding his choice of actions. In the
to the Duke of Norfolk, Cardinal Cardinal Newman explained that
revelation -- an external witness to God that comes to us through the
of the Pope and the magisterium -- we have conscience, an internal
which commands man to fulfill his duty. He described conscience as a
from God, an internal witness of God's revelation, which like a high
able to command, to judge and to bless.
The following is Cardinal Cardinal Newman's description of conscience:
and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness
greatest number, nor state convenience, nor fitness, order, and the
Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be
with oneself, but it is a messenger from him, who, both in nature and
speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his
Conscience is not the self speaking; it is the voice of God. Cardinal
explains that conscience is like a messenger of God speaking to us
veil. He even goes as far as to call it the original Vicar of Christ,
attributing to it the offices of prophet, king and priest.
Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its
monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas,
even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to
it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway, said
Father German Geissler comments on Cardinal Newman's words: Conscience
prophet because it tells us in advance whether the act is good or bad.
It is a
king because it exhorts us with authority: 'Do this, avoid that.' It is
priest because it blesses us after a good deed -- this means not only
delightful experience of a good conscience, but also the blessing which
goodness brings in any case to people and to the world -- and likewise:
'condemns' after an evil deed, as an expression of the gnawing bad
and of the negative effects of sin on men and their surroundings. It is
principle that is written in the being of every person. It asks for
and refers to one outside of itself: to God -- for one's own sake and
Thus Cardinal Newman argues against conscience as a license for one's
utility or pleasure. Conscience is always bound to the truth. It should
be used as a justification for a self-referential interpretation of
good and evil which cuts man off from God and his Revelation. No one
rightly say: my conscience tells me this in contradiction to that which
reveals in an external manner through Revelation and entrusts to the
of the Church.
For, instance, it is wrong to claim that my conscience tells me the use
artificial contraception is acceptable when God mandates in the
sexual love is to be fruitful, and when the Church authoritatively
doctrine. To sanction this choice under the notion freedom of
be to make God's internal and external witness contradictory.
Conscience does not to decide on the truth about Natural Law or
Writer Jeff Mirus explains, Conscience is a moral compass, not an
one. It acts upon revelation and is subordinate to it. However, like
Eve, men and women often wish to establish what is good and evil. Man
does err in his moral judgments when his conscience ignores revelation.
Judgments and authority
Catholic Tradition has taught of the importance of forming one's
people have the obligation to learn the truths of natural law and those
revealed by God and taught by the Church. As Pope John Paul II taught
Splendor Veritatis, there are objective moral norms that always apply.
are some negative precepts that admit of no exceptions. No conscience
rightly justify them.
Otherwise, a person acts on what is called a poorly formed, or at times
deformed, conscience. The same can be said about education of children;
need to be formed at an early age in the truths of the faith, and the
source for instruction and formation in conscience is the Catechism of
Cardinal Newman's teaching on conscience is found in his sermons and
works, but especially in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), a
to his friend, William Gladstone, the prime minister of England. It was
brilliant defense of Catholic citizens in which Cardinal Newman
they are loyal citizens of any just state. He explained that the
religion does not keep Catholics from fulfilling their obligations as
citizens, and that the Holy See does not have the custom of interfering
their civic duties.
Cardinal Newman repeated the teaching of the constitution Pastor
Vatican Council I, which asks Catholics for obedience to the Pope only
matters of faith and morals, and in matters of discipline and
government. Cardinal Newman explained that by obeying the Pope in such
the moral conscience is neither eliminated nor substituted by the
As Vatican I asserted, the Pope's authority extends only to matters of
and morals. We are obliged to believe, for example, what he teaches
Holy Eucharist or marriage. His teaching does not extend on how to
water supply of a city, raise taxes, run elections, etc.
Cardinal Newman explained to his fellow Englishmen, who out of
considered the teaching of the Pope's infallibility as a threat to
government or sense of pride, that this doctrine does not make
puppets: did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the
he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from
feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and
strengthen that Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the
On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his
theory and his power in fact…I am considering here the Papacy in its
its duties, and in reference to those who acknowledge its claims.
Cardinal Newman pointed out that so many types of acts by a
such as the excommunication of a person in error or the Pope's blessing
Spanish Armada, are not a matter of exercising his pontifical authority
infallible manner, which would bind the faithful in conscience.
wrote that Catholics are not bound by the Pope's personal character or
acts, but by his formal teaching (although it should be pointed
in the case of a person excommunicated, that is a canonical act that is
binding, whether or not it is infallible).
If a scholar were to disagree with a doctrinal or moral teaching of the
he should submit his judgment to the Church's teaching out of humility
obedience. Here too Cardinal Newman offered advice and good example. A
theologian or for that matter a pastor should not create unrest among
faithful, much less confusion. Such a person should have the humility
that his opinion is likely mistaken, especially if the magisterium has
on the matter.
Upon being received in the Church Cardinal Newman accepted all its
including the ones he did not fully understand. As the declaration of
infallibility drew near, Cardinal Newman accepted this teaching, even
if he thought
that despite its truth it was not an opportune moment to make it. The
hierarchy had only just been restored in England in 1850, and there was
of prejudice against Catholics in England. In that country the
Ultramontane Catholics who advocated a temporal power by the Pope were
matters worse. In sum, Cardinal Newman thought this was not the best
such a declaration, but he submitted to it.
Development of doctrine is one of Cardinal Newman's great contributions
theology. He argued that over time Catholic doctrine grows; it is
better and conclusions are drawn from truths known earlier in time. At
cursory glance development of doctrine seems to imply that what was
may now be shown not to be true. It would seem to undergird the idea
can object in conscience to beliefs that later on may be shown to have
wrong in the first place. Cardinal Newman's seminal work which, in
actually led to his conversion on Oct. 9, 1845, argues the contrary.
Newman put forth safeguards for reaching the conclusion that a
development is a
true development. One of the main safeguards is, precisely, that it
contradict earlier teaching, and another is that the new teaching was
implicit in earlier teaching. In sum development of doctrine does not
the claim the truths are subjective and therefore can be accepted or r
ejected by a Christian based on his own conscience.
Cardinal Newman noted that on rare occasions a person's conscience may
with the Pope's teaching, for two reasons: 1) the Pope is attempting
to teach in an area that does not really pertain to faith and
such, or 2) the person's conscience has not been formed
Newman laid out the Church's long-standing teaching that on such
person must obey his conscience, even if it is in error. Naturally,
the person is obliged to seek the truth about the matter in question;
he discovers the error, he must re-evaluate his position.
After providing some examples of papal statements or actions that are
infallible Cardinal Newman proceeded to make an affirmation which is
quoted to justify dissent from Church teaching: Certainly, if I am
bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem
thing) I shall drink -- to the Pope, if you please -- still, to
first, and to the Pope afterward.
Out of context, this casts doubt on all that Cardinal Newman taught,
properly examined, we understand that there should very rarely be
between conscience and the Pope. Since a well-formed conscience is
Cardinal Newman naturally would give it preference in a toast.
* * *
Father Juan R. Vélez has written Passion for Truth: The life of
Cardinal Newman, to be published in the Fall by TAN Books. He is
Take Five, Meditations With John Henry Cardinal Newman.
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