Lecture 8: John Paul II and Newman on Conscience

This lecture supplements tape 8 that deals with Humanae Vitae and Conscience. Tape 8 discussed what the conscience is (the voice of God within) and why Catholics who have a well formed conscience and a healthy understanding of what the Church is (the Bride of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit), should be very willing to embrace the teachings of Humanae Vitae. In this lecture, I explain further the connection between conscience, freedom, and doing God's will. I also provide more commentary on the work of John Henry Newman on conscience since his works have played an important role in the discussion on Humanae Vitae and Conscience.

Pope John Paul II1

The emphasis on self-determination emerging in Church documents reflects the concerns of Pope John Paul II in his philosophical work, which in turn are a response to modern philosophic concerns. While Pope John Paul II is fully aware of the undue emphasis that our age puts on human freedom, he also recognizes interest in it as a positive development of the modern age. Veritatis Splendor states:

Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom. As the Council's Declaration of Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae had already observed, "the dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly more aware." Hence the insistent demand that people be permitted to "enjoy the use of their own responsible judgment and freedom, and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion." In particular, the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person. This heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, certainly represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture. (no. 31)

Pope John Paul II embraces what is good about the language of rights and the emphasis on freedom and seeks to find a foundation for them in the Christian view of the human person.

There is a surprising passage in Veritatis Splendor that indicates how willing Pope John Paul II is to adopt the language of the modern age. I have not done a thorough word search, but I suspect the word "autonomy" has made few appearances in Church documents. Veritatis Splendor no. 40 states: "At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a 'rightful autonomy' of man, the personal subject of his action."

The word is one allied closely with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (though Veritatis Splendor no. 38 cites a passage from Saint Gregory of Nyssa that speaks of the soul being "swayed autonomously by its own will"). In its etymological roots it means "self-rule"; in Kant it is used to describe the necessity that man be a self-legislating entity; that he not be heteronomous or one who is ruled by another -- and for Kant, even being ruled by God is unacceptable heteronomous submission.

Autonomy would seem to be very much at odds with Christianity, for humans are to do God's will and obey God's law rather than to be willful and to be their own sources of what is lawful. Kant, of course, was not a relativist; indeed he wished to formulate all moral dictums in terms of universal absolutes. Relativism, however, quite naturally grew out of Kant's metaphysical skepticism, and his rejection of any heteronomous source of moral norms. So both the Kantian understanding of autonomy, which roots moral obligation in the rational nature of the human person, and a more modern notion of autonomy which is identical with relativism, makes the term an unlikely candidate for being a part of the Church's moral vision.

Yet, the Church's understanding of conscience in some very important ways amounts to an advocacy of autonomy. Certainly we are not to be the source of moral norms; we are to recognize that God is the source of moral norms. God, however, wrote the first principles of practical reasoning on man's consciousness and directed man to devise laws for his governance in accord with these principles that are a part of his nature. Man, then, in being a law unto himself is not a law apart from God.

The Catechism, in fact, quite directly though very briefly addresses the concern of autonomy:

Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, "to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God ..." "For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart" (no. 2126).

In the Church's understanding, it is only when one is acting in accord with the most secret desires of the human heart that one is acting truly autonomously, and since God placed those desires there, there is no conflict in following the most secret desires of one's heart, following God, and being fully autonomous.

Genuine Autonomy and the Law of God

The Church denies that true autonomy risks putting the moral agent at odds with God; it also denies that there can be a conflict between the conscience and the Church; the Catechism states: "No opposition between individual conscience or reason on the one hand, and the moral law or the Church's teaching authority on the other, can be admitted" (no. 2039).Veritatis Splendor states that

The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator. Nevertheless, the autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values and moral norms. Were this autonomy to imply a denial of the participation of the practical reason in the wisdom of the divine Creator and Lawgiver, or were it to suggest a freedom which creates moral norms, on the basis of historical contingencies or the diversity of societies and cultures, this sort of alleged autonomy would contradict the Church's teaching on the truth about man (no. 40).

The dignity of the human person lies in his ability to understand that the good he is to do freely is indeed a good for him. For a human to do good out of fear or coercion is not to do good in a human and meritorious way. Human dignity lies in the ability to do what is good, freely. He is to make the good his own good. He is to personally appropriate what is good. Man is to form his conscience to be so in accord with the good that when he is acting out of obedience to the good he is actually acting in accord with the good that he dictates to himself. Veritatis Splendor states: "The acting Subject personally assimilates the truth contained in the law. He appropriates this truth of his being and makes it his own by his acts and the corresponding virtues" (no. 52). Such a cooperation between God and the human person, leads Veritatis Splendor to suggest that we ought to speak neither of autonomy or heteronomy but of a participated theonomy -- man is not under God's law but participates in God's law (no. 41).

What is ultimately good for the human person is a proper relationship with God. Man is to worship God freely. Thus the Church places such an enormous emphasis on the importance of conscience because conscience is properly allied not with radical autonomy but with the freedom to worship. In a letter on the eve of the Madrid Conference on European Security and Cooperation, (Sept. 1, 1980), Pope John Paul II stated:

... freedom of conscience and of religion ... is a primary and inalienable right of the human person; what is more, insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that it upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other liberties. Of course, such freedom can only be exercised in a responsible way, that is, in accordance with ethical principles ...

Pope John Paul II speaks of the freedom of conscience and of religion being the primary and inalienable right of the human person and that it is the foundation of all other liberties. It is because he has a conscience that man should be free and that freedom, thus, must be exercised responsibly, that is to say, in accordance with ethical principles.

Newman and Conscience:2

My work on Humanae Vitae has brought me into contact with John Henry Newman's marvelous work on conscience. The role of conscience has assumed a place of some importance in contemporary Catholic moral thought. It is a subject that has occupied Karol Wojtyla in his philosophical works and has been a frequent topic in the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul II has been instructing us on how our conscience enables us to discern objective moral norms and to rise above our subjective readings of reality; it is the Truth that will make us free; not the opportunity to fulfill all our desires. Our dignity resides in obeying our conscience for it is in our consciences that we hear the voice of God.

Some theologians, however, in the wake of Humanae Vitae invented what might be called a "conscience clause"; it is a clause that invokes freedom of conscience to enable Catholics to act in opposition to Church teaching. Such individuals evidently existed in Newman's day, too, for he tells of those who

When [they] advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights 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.

Such a view conflicts greatly with what conscience is. As Newman stated: "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 in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives."

Rather than being free from Church and papal guidance, the conscience greatly needs such guidance. Newman observes,

The sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, 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.

Many theologians seem to have decided that the Church and the Pope are an obstacle to freedom of conscience; they so loathe blind obedience that they are much more comfortable with blind disobedience. For several decades now, in many seminaries, seminarians have been taught not to trouble the consciences of the faithful about contraception; the "faithful" should be left free to follow their consciences on this issue. Textbooks used in many Catholic high schools generally feature this clause after perfunctorily noting the Catholic condemnation of contraception. It is fascinating that the "conscience clause" never appears in the sections on racism, or genocide, or social justice. These texts do not say that if your conscience tells you it's morally permissible to be a racist, then you are permitted to be a racist. It only appears in the sections on contraception.

Sadly sometimes Newman is invoked in support of the reprehensible position that conscience trumps church teaching. His famous toast in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: "I shall drink -- to the Pope, if you please, -- still to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards", taken out of context, may seem to suggest that Newman is an advocate of the liberty of conscience over Church teaching. Placed in context nothing could be further from the truth, for Newman is speaking not of a pope who is teaching the faithful Church doctrine, but who is dictating to the faithful what to do in concrete particular situations, an area in which the pope does not enjoy infallibility. Newman is not talking about such moral doctrines as the condemnation of contraception; indeed, Newman gives as examples of papal dictates possible papal teachings that we must be teetotalers or that it is mandatory to hold lotteries for the missions.

Yet even in these arenas, Newman does not allow the conscience to have free play. He states:

If in a particular case, [the conscience] 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. 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."

What Newman is saying here is that if the conscience of a Catholic goes against the Church, the Catholic should presume that the Church is right and he is wrong. And this is in reference to teetotaling and lotteries! Yes, we must all follow our consciences, the conscience must always reign supreme, but a Catholic conscience should be formed by the Church.

Newman would undoubtedly loathe the temporizing and laxity that goes under the name of following one's own conscience in our day, as he loathed it in his. He had a keen sense of how self-indulgent we are and how adept we are at finding rationalizations that enable us to convince ourselves that we are following God's will when we have not even made any attempt to discover what God's will is. In his homily "The Testimony of Conscience" he depicts the thoughts of the true man of conscience in this way:

I sacrifice to Thee this cherished wish, this lust, this weakness, this scheme, this opinion: make me what Thou wouldest have me; I bargain for nothing; I make no terms; I seek for no previous information whither Thou are taking me; I will be what Thou wilt make me, and all that Thou wilt make me. I say not, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest, for I am weak; but I give myself to Thee, to lead anywhither. I will follow Thee in the dark, only begging Thee to give me strength according to my day. Try me, O Lord, and see, the ground of my heart; prove me, and examine my thoughts; look well if there be any way of wickedness in me; search each dark recess with Thy own bright light, and lead me in the way everlasting.

What makes these words so moving and disturbing is not only what they demand of us but the fact that one needn't know much about Newman to know that when he spoke these words, he meant them and that indeed, he lived them. As Newman well knew, being faithful to one's true conscience can never lead one away from Truth, for it is God who speaks to the conscience and God who guides the Church. Newman followed his conscience and, predictably, it led him into the Church, and towards Church teaching not away from it.

Required Texts

Canadian Bishops. Formation of Conscience. Daughters of Saint Paul. 1974.

Catechism, 1776-1802

Additional Reading

Joseph Ratzinger. "Conscience and the Truth" in Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation. Pope John Center. 1991.

Ian Ker, Newman The Theologian: A Reader. Notre Dame Press. 1990.

Paper Topics

1. After reading Humanae Vitae closely, explain what passages indicate what Pope Paul VI believed to be the status of the teaching; a guideline? a Church law for Catholics only? a divinely revealed truth? a teaching of natural law binding on all?

1. This lecture is a small portion of my "Rights, the Person and Conscience in the Catechism," Dossier 3:1 (1997), 29-37.

2. This lecture is adapted from my "The Pope or Conscience?" Dossier 4:1 (Jan.-Feb. 1998) 48-9.


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