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9th October – Feast of Blessed John Henry Newman

Newman, Teacher of Conscience

Fr. Hermann Geissler FSO

A year ago, on the 19th of September 2010 Pope Benedict XVI beatified the famous English theologian John Henry Newman. During his Christmas audience with the Roman Curia, on the 20th of December 2010, the Holy Father spoke again of Newman and his affinity to our times, highlighting his understanding of conscience. As the Pope explains, the word conscience has come to signify in contemporary thought: “that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. … Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, ‘conscience’ means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him.”

Newman found that conscience and truth belong together in partnership, that they support and enlighten each other – indeed, that obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the truth. In the rest of this article, we wish to touch upon the connection between conscience and truth in the fundamental element of Newman’s teaching. By referring to his own experience in his teaching about conscience, Newman reveals himself as a modern and personalistic thinker, influenced by Augustine. It might be useful in our reflections first to enter briefly into Newman’s notion of conscience.

Newman’s Notion of Conscience

The notion of conscience has many diverse interpretations, some contradictory. Newman describes the crucial reason for these contradictions with the following words, “Conscience – there are two ways of regarding conscience; one as a mere sort of sense of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, the other as the echo of God’s voice. Now all depends on this distinction – the first way is not of faith, and the second is of faith”.[1]

In his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874) Newman looks closely at two contrary notions of conscience. The interpretation of conscience as restricted to the material world he describes like this, “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… 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… 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”.[2]

This description is essentially valid in our time too. Today also, conscience is confused with personal opinion, subjective feelings, and self-will. For many, it no longer implies the responsibility of the creature towards its Creator, but complete independence, total autonomy, overall subjectivity and arbitrariness. The sanctuary of the conscience has been “desacralised”. God has been banned from conscience. The consequences of this godless notion of conscience are painfully before our eyes. Because of this emancipation from God, man is also inclined to separate himself from his neighbour. He lives in his egocentric world often without caring for others, without being interested in them, without feeling responsible for them. Individualism, the pursuit of pleasure, honour, and power, and unbounded unpredictability make the world dark and the ability of people to live together in society ever more difficult.

In the face of this purely worldly interpretation, Newman holds fast to his transcendental interpretation. For him, conscience is not an autonomous but a fundamentally theonomous reality – a sanctuary by which God turns intimately and personally to every soul. In union with the great teachers of the Church, Newman affirms that the Creator has implanted his own law into his rational creatures. “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”.[3] We have to obey our conscience because it claims to be the echo of the voice of God, but we also have the duty to form it so that it allows God’s law to shine through as purely as possible and without refraction.

Newman himself describes the importance and the dignity of conscience with magnificent words: “The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. 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. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway”.[4]

In his conscience, man does not only hear the voice of his own self. Newman compares conscience with an angel – a messenger of God who talks to us behind a veil. Indeed, he even dares to call conscience the original Vicar of Christ and to attribute to it the offices of prophet, king and priest. Conscience is a 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 a priest because it blesses us after a good deed – this means not only the 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 conscience and of the negative effects of sin on men and their surroundings. It is a principle that is written in the being of every person. It asks for obedience and refers to one outside of itself: to God – for one’s own sake and the sake of others.

Conscience and God

Newman is convinced that in our conscience we hear the echo of God’s voice. Even more, he sees conscience as the way to come to recognize the living God.

In his great work An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), he attempts to prove the existence of God based on the experience of conscience. In his analysis, he distinguishes between the moral sense and the sense of duty[5]. By moral sense, he means the judgment of reason of whether an act is good or evil. By sense of duty, he means the authoritative command to follow good or to avoid evil. Newman bases his reflections particularly on the second aspect of the experience of conscience.

Because conscience is “imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience”, it has “an intimate bearing on our affections and emotions”.[6] Very simply paraphrasing, we could summarise Newman’s train of thought – which must not be misunderstood in the sense of a mere psychologism – with the following words: if we follow the command of our conscience, we are filled with happiness, joy and peace.; if we do not obey our conscience, we are overcome by shame, terror and fear. Newman interprets this experience in the following way: “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away… and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive”.[7]

Newman knows that conscience does not automatically lead people to God. It can only refer to God, then, if the voice of conscience is not defined as something solely immanent, but rather is seen in its transcendental character. If so perceived, it can imprint on people the image of a personal God, of a supreme lawgiver and judge. In this sense, conscience is not only the first principle of ethics, but also of religion.

Newman prefers a pathway to God beginning with conscience to the traditional proofs of the existence of God. Some consider this a limitation in Newman’s thought and reproach him for having overemphasised interiority. Newman does not reject the classic proofs of the existence of God, but he is convinced that they lead to a merely abstract image of God – to the image of a God who is the first cause of everything, who orders everything, who is the creator and leader of the world.  Newman’s way to God, however, points to a God who has a personal relationship with every person, who addresses him, who directs and guides him, who rebukes and reprimands, who shows him his mistakes and calls him to conversion, who leads him to the perception of the truth and who spurs him on to do good, who is his supreme Lord and Judge.

Conscience and Faith

Newman goes even further and comes to the conviction that obedience to conscience disposes men’s hearts to faith in revelation. In his magnificent discourse, Dispositions for Faith (1856), Newman provides a few arguments that support this conclusion.

Again, he first bases his arguments on the fact that conscience is an authoritative voice that gives relentless commands. These commands demand obedience; and obedience is precisely the interior disposition which makes it easy for people to accept faith, the truth of Revelation: “…for, beginning with obedience, they go on to the intimate perception and belief of one God. His voice within them witnesses to Him, and they believe His own witness about Himself… This, then, is the first step in those good dispositions which lead to faith in the Gospel”.[8] Humility and obedience are the fundamental attitudes of the believer. He who willingly practices obedience to the voice of conscience will not find it difficult to accept revelation in obedience of faith. Why could Lydia, a seller of purple goods, accept the preaching of Saint Paul so quickly so as to be the first European to come to the faith (cf. Act 16:14)? For Newman, the answer is clear: she had lived in the fear of God and had already learned to obey the voice of God in her conscience. The correlation between this interior voice and the preaching of the Apostle made it easy for her to accept obediently the Christian faith.

In a second point, Newman explains that although the voice of conscience is peremptory and commanding, it is not infrequent that it speaks softly and unclearly. Often it is difficult for people to discern the appeals of conscience from those which come from passions, from pride and self-love. “So the gift of conscience raises a desire for what it does not itself fully supply. It inspires in them the idea of authoritative guidance, of a divine law; and the desire of possessing it in its fullness, not in mere fragmentary portions or indirect suggestion. It creates in them a thirst, an impatience, for the knowledge of that Unseen Lord, and Governor, and Judge, who as yet speaks to them only secretly, who whispers in their hearts, who tells them something, but not nearly so much as they wish and as they need… Such is the definition, I may say, of every religious man, who has not the knowledge of Christ; he is on the look-out”.[9] The demands of conscience are often unclear and therefore they oblige people to be watchful. They arouse the desire for a clear and secure orientation, which comes from God and which is not submitted to the influence of sin and error.

Another thought brings Newman to the same conclusion: “The more a person tries to obey his conscience, the more he gets alarmed at himself, for obeying it so imperfectly. His sense of duty will become more keen, and his perception of transgression more delicate, and he will understand more and more how many things he has to be forgiven. But next, while he thus grows in self-knowledge, he also understands more and more clearly that the voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing of mercy in its tone. It is severe, and even stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment. It suggests to him a future judgment; it does not tell him how he can avoid it”.[10] Conscience is a harsh master. Merciless, it holds our sins before our eyes, but cannot redeem us from this burden. So it arouses in us the longing for true peace and reconciliation with God. This longing finds its fulfilment only in the message of the Redeemer who has reconciled us with God through the sacrifice of his life.

Newman, of course, knows the essential difference between conscience and faith. At the same time, he keeps to his conviction that obedience to the light received is the way to receive more light. “Follow your own sense of right, and you will gain from that very obedience to your Maker, which natural conscience enjoins, a conviction of the truth and power of that Redeemer whom a supernatural message has revealed”.[11] Newman can testify from his own experience “that obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the Gospel, which, instead of being something different altogether, is but the completion and perfection of that religion which natural conscience teaches”.[12]

Obedience to one’s conscience prepares the heart for faith in the particular revelation of God, which in turn purifies and enlightens conscience. It is in Holy Scripture, according to Newman, that man will “find all those vague conjectures and imperfect notions about truth, which his own heart taught him, abundantly sanctioned, completed, and illustrated.”[13] By accepting Revelation in faith, conscience changes from a simple orientation to faith to actually being orientated by faith. Revealed truth enlightens the conscience and makes it capable of making surer judgments in practical situations and to live daily life in accordance with the Gospel. For this reason, the Christian conscience is qualitatively different from the conscience of someone who does not know Revelation, even if in its essence it remains the same.

Conscience and Church

Finally, Newman takes us another step further, one that is linked to the inner logic of his life and his thought: obedience to conscience leads people to faith in God as their Redeemer, and awakens in their hearts a longing that spurs them on towards the fullness of truth in the one Church of Christ.

According to Newman, the basic ethical attitudes brought about by obedience to conscience form an “organum investigandi given us for gaining religious truth, and which would lead the mind by an infallible succession from the rejection of atheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity, and from Christianity to Evangelical Religion, and from these to Catholicity”.[14] In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman writes the bold words, “I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other. And I hold this still: I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God; and if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience”.[15]

Newman’s most important statements in regard to conscience and Church are to be found in the previously cited Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. In this work, Newman refutes the accusation that Catholics could no longer be faithful subjects of the Crown after the doctrine of papal infallibility had been proclaimed, since they would be required to give their consciences over to the Pope. Masterfully Newman explains the relationship between the authority of conscience and the authority of the Pope.

The authority of the Pope is based on revelation, which God has given out of pure kindness. God has entrusted his revelation to the Church and takes care that it is infallibly preserved, interpreted and transmitted in and through the Church. If a person has accepted the mission of the Church in faith, nothing else but this person’s conscience commands him to listen to the Church and the Pope. Therefore Newman says: “…did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his 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 world’. On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact… The championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission”.[16] We do not obey the Pope because someone forces us to do so, but because we are personally convinced in faith that the Lord guides the Church through him, and through the bishops in union with him, and that He keeps his Church in the truth.

The conscience enlightened by faith leads to a mature obedience to the Pope and the Church. The Pope and the Church in turn enlighten the conscience, which needs clear orientation and accompaniment. “But 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”.[17] The Church in this sense is not only a great help for the individual, but it also renders an irreplaceable service for society as it is the defender of the irrevocable rights and freedom of human beings. These rights and this freedom, which are rooted in the dignity of the person, build the foundation of modern democracies, but cannot be subjected to the democratic rule of majorities. If the Church reminds us of the singular dignity of the human person, created by God and redeemed by Christ, it accomplishes a fundamental mission in society.

According to Newman, it is impossible for conscience to come into direct conflict with the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church, for conscience has no authority in questions of revealed truth; the Church is its infallible guardian. Newman knows that “as regards doctrine, the ‘supremacy of conscience’ is not an adequate account of what I should consider safe to say on the subject”.[18] Whether someone accepts a revealed truth that has been defined by the Church is not primarily a question of conscience, but of faith. Whoever thinks, therefore, that he must reject a doctrinal truth on grounds of conscience, cannot actually be referring to his conscience. Or better expressed: his conscience is not – or not yet – enlightened by faith. The conscience of the believer, however, is a conscience which is formed by faith and by the Church.

Newman does not deny that the authority of the Church and the Pope have limits. It has nothing to do with arbitrariness or worldly models of domineering; it is indissolubly linked to the infallible sensus fidei of the whole People of God and the specific mission of theologians. The authority of the Church reaches as far as Revelation. If the Pope makes decisions with regard to Church structures, discipline and administration, his statements do not claim to be infallible. This is even more so when the Pope takes position in regard to present-day questions, for example, with regard to politics.

The believer will normally listen to such decisions and announcements attentively and will accept them so as not to endanger the unity of the Church. In particular cases, however, the believer can come to a different conclusion in questions of this kind, one which does not accord with that of the Pope. However, here also Newman employs strict benchmarks. “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. On the other hand, in the fact that, after all, in extraordinary cases, the conscience of each individual is free, we have a safeguard and security, … that no Pope ever will be able … to create a false conscience for his own ends. “[19]

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman concludes his explanations about conscience with the oft-quoted words, “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink-to the Pope, if you please-still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”.[20] These words, which Newman probably formulated with a twinkle in his eye, mean above all that our obedience to the Pope is not a blind obedience but one based on a conscience enlightened by faith. He who has accepted the mission of the Church in faith will obey the Church out of his inner conviction founded on his conscience. Indeed, in this respect a conscience enlightened by faith comes first, and then the Pope.

Newman faithfully upholds the mutual interaction of conscience and Church. To refer to Newman’s words with the intention of pitting the authority of conscience against the authority of the Pope is incorrect. Each of the authorities, both the subjective and the objective, remain dependent and linked to the other: the Pope to conscience and conscience to the Pope.

Final remarks

In today’s language, there are various ways in which the word ‘conscience’ is used. Through his life and his teaching, John Henry Newman can help us to grasp anew the importance of conscience as the echo of God’s voice and to describe it, thus safeguarding it from deficient notions. Newman understood how to show the dignity of conscience clearly without differing from objective truth. He would not say “yes” to conscience, “no” to God or faith or Church, but rather “yes” to conscience and therefore “yes” to God, to faith and to the Church. Conscience is the defender of truth in our hearts. It is “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”.


[1] John Henry Newman, Sermon Notes, Herefordshire – Notre Dame 2000, 327.

[2] John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Vol. II, Westminster 1978, 250.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] Ibid., 248 f.

[5] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, London 1891, 105.

[6] Ibid., 107f.

[7] Ibid., 109f.

[8] John Henry Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, London 1908, 65f.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. VIII, Rivingtons 1878, 120.

[12] Ibid., 202.

[13] John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. I, Rivingtons 1877, 217.

[14] Grammar of Assent, 499.

[15] John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, London 1865, 198.

[16] Certain Difficulties, 252 f.

[17] Ibid., 253f.

[18] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. XXIX, Oxford 1976, p. 388.

[19] Certain Difficulties, 258.

[20] Ibid., 261.




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