Blessed Cardinal Newman and the Conscience

Michael Lane

Moral relativism bothers me for numerous reasons, but the greatest annoyance I have is relativism’s consistent use of illogical reasoning and justification. Besides selfishness, relativism’s only consistent attribute is being illogical. I find this frustrating because several friends buy into relativism lock, stock, and barrel without a second thought.

By illogical I should say I mean kindergarten logic, which is in itself illogical. “I want what I want because I want it and you cannot tell me no because I want it and therefore you cannot deprive me of what I want because I want it.” Umm…I don’t..uh..what? Someone get me off this not-so-merry-go-round.

Along with claims to unfettered desires for worldly experiences and goods, without a thought to consequences or an objective right and wrong, moral relativists will make an old claim to conscience. Catholics and Protestants since the sixteenth century have also thrown down claims of the superiority of conscience and its guidance, and yet held divergent views on central tenants of faith.

Conscience has been the supreme trump card everyone played. If I were a betting man, however, I would wager a hefty sum that very few Christians, atheists, and agnostics today could define exactly what they mean by ‘conscience’. The ambiguous use of the word means someone can use ‘conscience’ to defend anything, or at least attempt to defend anything, however groundless the position may be.

The Guiding Light

Blessed John Cardinal Newman writes;

Conscience does not repose on itself, but vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions, as is evidenced in that keen sense of obligation and responsibility which informs them. And hence it is that we are accustomed to speak of conscience as a voice,…imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole world of our experience. (Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent)

To make an appeal to conscience is, in a concrete sense, an appeal to God’s guidance and supreme authority. To admit God’s role as such is to say our desires and decisions are subject to a higher judgment than our personal preferences. Without this understanding, appealing to conscience is no different than saying “because I said so,” which, frankly, only God has claim to.

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…These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being: we are not affectionate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog; we have no remorse or compunction on breaking mere human law: yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions…; and on the other hand sheds upon us a deep peace. (Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent)

Our conscience, then, is not a tool to justify our every decision. Newman draws attention to two important aspects of our conscience. First, the more we listen to our conscience our understanding of its guidances is proportionately increased. “And…as we listen to that Word, and use it, not only do we learn more from it, not only do its dictates become clearer, and its lessons broader, and its principles more consistent, but its very tone is louder and more authoritative and constraining.” Thus, the conscience is a not a green light to all desires, but a way of discerning the proper course.

Second, when the conscience’s whisper is heard and we have begun to overcome the confusion between God’s guidance and our own prideful and selfish ways, we will long for something more, “so that the gift of conscience raises a desire for what it does not itself fully supply. It inspires…the idea of authoritative guidance, of a divine law; and the desire of possessing it in its fullness.” The proper disposition, then, is one of humility and charity to look beyond ourselves.

Trusting the Church

What we search for in discernment, vocations and otherwise, is a deep, abiding peace. Our conscience causes internal disruptions or joy depending on our relation to God’s path. When someone, say a priest or the Church’s teachings, challenges us in charity (Matt 7:1-5, 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:9-13) to alter our ways and our immediate impulse is to balk we should question why. My first guess, for myself, is always either ignorance, pride, or both. If the Church states X, Y, and Z are all mortal sins, those sins which break one or more of the Ten Commandments in some way, and we insist the Church is wrong, what are we saying?

Think of this. Holy Mother Church is who first told us about the man called Christ and His Word. This man, in fact, was God and is both truly God and truly Man. Not only that, but He came into the world willing accepted humiliation and crucifixion, and died for the sins of men that they might attain salvation.

If you accept this Good News, what else are you accepting? God’s abiding love of you, the nature of God and his relationship to creation, an answer to the supreme question, “why are we here?”, the promise of Heaven and the reality of Hell, His promise to remain with us until the end of the age (Matt 28: 16-20), and so much more. We are willing to trust the Church’s teachings about eternity, and yet we are unwilling trust the Magestrium’s guidance in matters like social teachings. Simply put, give me Heaven, but keep the rest.

The convert comes, not only to believe the Church but also to trust and obey her priests, and to conform himself in charity to her people….Moreover he comes to the ceremonial, and the moral theology, and the ecclesiastical regulations, which he finds on the spot where his lot is cast. And again, as regards matters of politics, of education, of general expedience, of taste, he does not criticize or controvert. And thus surrendering himself to the influences of his new religion, and not risking the loss of revealed truth altogether by attempting by a private rule to discriminate every moment its substance from its accidents, he is gradually so indoctrinated in Catholicism, as at length to have a right to speak as well as to hear. (Newman, Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered)

Newman’s intellect, prayer life, and conscience led from the Anglican (Church of England) to the Catholic Church. His conversion cost him his position at Oxford where he had helped begin the renewal of the Church of England through what became known as the Oxford Movement. Many of his friends and family disowned him (a not uncommon theme amongst converts) for a long while when Newman made his conversion public.

His social reception into the Catholic Church was marred by mistrust and his past harsh words against the Catholic Church. But, through this, Newman continued to work to build up the Church in England, including establishing the Birmingham Oratory and publicly supporting Catholic education and the re-establishment of Catholic Sees in England.

Written upon Our Hearts

“[We] may silence [our conscience] in particular cases or directions, [we] may distort its enunciations…[we] can disobey it, [we] may refuse to use it; but it remains.” Without Jesus Christ, the moral law is not inscribed on our hearts by God but superimposed by society. Without a divine law, without God, there is no right and wrong in any sense other than cultural or societal, which is to say morality is subjective.

The word ‘conscience’, then, has very little meaning.I can be for or against whatever I wish, and you cannot say otherwise. Giving offense is merely a matter of perspective and ego. This, also, completely discounts the reality of sin and its impact upon the human family.

To see truly the cost and misery of sinning, we must quit the public haunts of business and pleasure, and be able, like the Angels, to see the tears shed in secret, -to witness the anguish of pride and impatience, where there is no sorrow, -the stings of remorse, where yet there is no repentance, -the wearing, never-ceasing struggle between conscience and sin, -the misery of indecision, -the harassing, haunting fears of death, and a judgment to come,….Who can name the overwhelming total of the world’s guilt and suffering. (Newman, Oxford University Sermons)

We must nourish our conscience as much as our soul. We cannot take our conscience for granted as if we will always clearly hear its voice uncorrupted by pride, secularism, and selfishness. If our conscience is guiding us towards the truth of the matter, we must keep our eyes wide open and unclouded.

Of the two, I would rather have to maintain that we out to be begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt of everything…we soon discover and discard what is contradictory to itself;…that when there is an honest purpose and fair talents, we shall somehow make our way forward,…Thus it is that the Catholic religion is reached, as we see, by inquirers from all points of the compass, as if it mattered not where a man began, so that he had an eye and a heart for the truth. (Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent)

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12 thoughts on “Blessed Cardinal Newman and the Conscience”

  1. James may have pushed your buttons with his terseness in the first response but it is a classic case. The young person does well to trust the Church but he or she ought to read further in Church history whereupon as they age and read, they will become more circumspect in that trust. Christ in Luke 9 rebukes the disciples for wanting to bring down lightning on an heretical Samaritan town who would not show them hospitality because they were headed for Jerusalem not Mt. Gerizim. Many of the first millenium saints in that spirit opposed killing heretics qua heretics ( physical rebellion is a separate charge ). Pope Innocent IV made burning heretics qua heretics mandatory on secular rulers in the mid 13th century ( see Inquisition/ newadvent/ under “punishments” last pars.) which was when Aquinas was approving it also in the ST.
    In 1520 due to Exsurge Domine by Pope Leo X, Catholics were excommunicated latae sententiae if they agreed with Luther that killing heretics qua heretics was against the Holy Spirit ( art.33 condemned). Now the entire Church agrees with Luther ( who himself became violent later ) in section 80 of ” Splendor of the Truth”… which forbids as intrinsically evil…” whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit.”
    So which Church does the layman trust? St. John Paul II and the first millenium…or the Church of mid 13th century to Vatican II?
    St. Alphonsus de’ Ligouri was the first writer of natural law nuance in that he noted that the natural law is clear only in the elementary areas whereas he noted in his Theologia Moralis that saints differed on the natural law in complex areas…he then asked humurously if those saints who were incorrect were
    damned. There were holy Catholics on both sides of the slavery issue, the usury issue, the Chinese ancestral rights issue.
    Should we trust the Church? We should trust and read. Often Catholic writers seek without realizing it to instruct those who are light readers for life. And light readers for life should trust the Church more than theology majors will. A current reason for the better read to be more circumspect is the death penalty position of the newest catechism. It paints a Thomas Kinkaide super sweet picture of modern penology which ignores God’s requirement that the state execute His wrath ( Rom.13:4) with the sword understood as synecdoche ( up to and including sword). Mexico, the 2nd largest Catholic population, is a murderous mess partly because cartel soldiers have no fear ( no death penalty) and they control 60% of the prisons according to a Mexican justice official. Brazil, the largest Catholic population, has a similar murder rate and porous prisons. The catechism and St. John Paul II never looked beyond the anti septic prisons of Europe. Six non death penalty Catholic countries in northern Latin America are in the top 25 worst murder rate countries and numbers 1&2 worst are largely Catholic. This has macro evangelistic implications to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and China…all of whom have very low murder rates and the death penalty. You are sixty times safer from murder in Shinto Japan than in Catholic Mexico. Why should they believe Catholicism is about Love…if even we are safer in their country than in most Christian countries of the West?

    1. “The young person does well to trust the Church but he or she ought to read further in Church history whereupon as they age and read, they will become more circumspect in that trust”

      Mr Bannon, let’s hope that your body does not reek as much as your rhetoric, otherwise you would do better spending the time in the bath than in com boxes.
      Those of us who trust the Chruch know better: there is nowhere else to find the Words of life, no place to receive the Risen Lord, nowhere to beg His forgiveness, no institution has taught “love your enemies” so long or so consistently. We who trust the Chruch, ebven into old age, learn early and well to whom we should not listen!

    2. Charming. Do a spell check on Church. Your spelling when on your own, outside of your copied and pasted quote of mine, is phonetically interesting.

    3. Hmm. Ok seems I am late to this part of the discussion. Guys, please be kind. If you have nothing to contribute other than insults don’t contribute.

      Bill. Thanks for the comment and interest. I will get a response to you this week, but I am busy for the next few days. God bless!

    4. Take your time….I need three days of showering whenever I run into Bill Donohue impressionists.

    5. But you fail to see how this line of reasoning cuts both ways. As in His time on earth, the Body of Christ absorbs all illness and heals it. It is miraculous indeed that the Church has survived all the errors of indiviiduals, including popes, and that the average Catholic today can still encounter Christ just as the earliest Christians did. I see this as proof only that the Church does absorb all the evil of the world, and all the tortured twists which mankind can devise and, instead of embracing them as new doctrine, she eschews them and rights hHerself. What baffles me is an individual such as yourself, obviously obsessed with prosecuting the Church, who doesn’t see the perverse nature of his own need for the Chuurch. Truly baffling.

  2. Pingback: Francis of Assisi & Western Catholicism - BigPulpit.com

  3. You sound like someone who would have trusted the Church as they were burning
    heretics – no, on second thought, you might have been lighting the faggots.

    1. I was curious as I wrote this if I would get a reaction like yours. It seems I have found a kindergartner kid. If you have issue with anything I wrote or Newman wrote that’s fine. Marshal your arguments, if you have any, and I will respond in kind. Otherwise, keep your childish comments to yourself as I left the schoolyard years ago.

      Also, if you had read Newman closely, you will notice one of his themes was educating your conscience over time. Finding the truth and getting rid of falsehoods. I am not sure where the heresy thing is coming from. Probably you had to decide between the Crusades and burning heretics when picking a sensational or sad historical event. Unfortunately, you should try reading history before using history in an insult. The Church many times convicted heretics after questioning them (Inquisition ie ‘to investigate’). Then, heretics were given time to recant. However, if they decided not to, the heretic was handed over to the state for execution. So, if I were ‘lighting the faggots’ I would have been a member of the state not a cleric. Never mind that the main Protestant branches during the Reformation also burned ‘heretics’ during the 16th century. Or, is it Newman’s use of ‘indoctrinated’? He was writing in the 19th century when the term had no negative connotation but simply meant ‘to instruct’.

      In closing, when I see responses like yours this is what I am really reading: “I have no real rebuttal to anything you wrote, and I am angry. I wish I had a good argument or response against what you wrote but, unfortunately, I cannot think of one.” Just an FYI for our future interactions.

      God Bless you and yours.

    2. I was curious as I wrote this if I would get a reaction like yours ”

      ” If the Church states X, Y, and Z are all mortal sins, those sins which
      break one or more of the Ten Commandments in some way, and we insist the Church is wrong, what are we saying?

      Guess I should feel honored to have had 2 CS columnists (you and Leila Miller) side by side tag team me over moral relativism related
      matters. For the record, tell me you weren’t following the com box
      next to yours and decided to chime in. Pretty big coincidence if you ask me. Occam’s razor says you planed this column to coincide with
      hers and that’s the only reason you were “curious”.

      “ So, if I were ‘lighting the faggots’ I would have been a member of the state not a cleric”

      And your primitive reasoning would have concluded that Jesus would have approved. You would have stood with the pope who thought Jesus would have been ecstatic at the outcome. Tells you something
      about those who didn’t recant, just like today.

    3. First, I chose the topic because my daily spiritual reading currently is a book of writings from Newman (The Heart of Newman). I liked what I read and decided to write on it. Truthfully, I haven’t had a chance to read Leila’s column but I am sure you enjoyed it. Given what the title is I assume you had a similar reaction to what I wrote. I write whatever I feel like or in answer to a question I have or someone has asked.

      Second, I’m not sure what primitive reasoning you’re talking about. I was simply pointing out your historical misunderstanding. Also, again, you provide no evidence, no logic, no….anything. You simply rant and rave with emotion that is,frankly, meaningless. Making wild assumptions about me really proves nothing except your lack of intelligence and inability to carry on a conversation like a normal adult.

      Third, “Tells you something about those who didn’t recant, just like today.” I’m not sure what contemporary event you’re comparing to burning heretics. I mean yes not recanting technically does tell you something about heretics who did not recant. The range goes from prideful and obstinate to devoted and faithful depending on your point of view.

      Fourth, an observation more than an point of argument. I really don’t know who you are other than your posts here. Have you had a chance to read the “Mission” page? It sounds like you’re angry that Catholics are writing about Catholic matters, faithfully, on a Catholic website to evangelize for the Catholic faith. What were you expecting to find here? If what we write makes you so angry stop reading. On the other hand, if you are searching for God then stay. Just tone down the rhetoric a bit and calmly join the discussions.

      Fifth, “tag team me over moral relativism related matters.” I am assuming you are a subscriber of moral relativism. If that is the case, then any argument you have has no foundation to stand on. Moral relativism states there is no objective right or wrong. The individual decides. So, I cannot be faulted for any view point I hold from your perspective.

      Lastly, you may notice that I rarely comment and, so far, I prefer to stick to my own articles. I find the sort of conversation we are having unproductive and a waste of my time. Eventually people resort to name calling and groundless emotional reasoning, or in your case begin with it. When someone has an honest question, point of disagreement, etc I am more than happy to respond and engage the readers. I am not perfect, and these articles are a way for me to grow and discuss. That said, I’ve notice other columnists have much more patience with you and will entertain your illogical comments. I will not. Post a disagreement, call me out on illogical fallacies, tell me I’m wrong and leave it at that, etc. But, throwing out insults and the like I will not tolerate. I will simply delete your comment.

    4. First, I chose the topic because my daily spiritual reading currently is a book of writings from Newman (The Heart of Newman). I liked what I read and decided to write on it.
      I don’t necessarily believe you. Why ?
      ” That said, I’ve notice other columnists have much more patience with you and will entertain your illogical comments.”
      Keep following. You may learn something yet. And skip the
      God blesses please, you don’t really mean it. Let’s agree to
      desist from further commentary, that way we won’t become an
      occasion of sin (anger) for each other.

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