|Synopsis of a Talk on Newman and a Drama |
10 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)
Australian Cardinal George Pell delivered an address to members
of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago last
fall, on the "primacy of truth" and the "primacy of conscience."
ZENIT offers this synopsis of the Sydney archbishop's speech.
* * *
Newman and the Drama of True and False Conscience
Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal John Newman's view of
conscience is far from that usually held by those who speak of
"primacy of conscience" today. Newman believes a good Catholic
conscience can never accept a position of dissent against central
Church teaching. Moral truth is the key to conscience, and this is
very difficult to deny coherently.
People who claim primacy
of conscience rarely see the problems this raises in the moral life.
Furthermore, this view causes a range of problems for the practice
of the faith and for the Catholic sense of belonging. Newman's view
of conscience has a more transcendent importance: Conscience is the
normal means by which most people know of the existence of God. ...
People from across the theological spectrum would agree with
Newman that conscience is "a connecting principle between the
creature and his Creator" ("Grammar of Assent," Chapter 5). But
while some see conscience as God's invitation to embrace his law as
free subjects, others see it as a radical call to personal freedom.
For many people today, conscience suggests freedom to judge God's
law by our own personal resources and the right to reject the notion
or reformulate this law as we think best.
I imagine that to
non-Christians this must seem rather odd: If moral and religious
teachings bind only to the extent that one's individual mind and
will enthuse about them, then pretty clearly the teachings do not
bind at all. What "binds" is simply the autonomous self, with all
the limitations that our selves are prey to. And to say "I am bound
by me" is hardly to make a meaningful moral utterance. Rather, it is
to reject the need for morality and creed and to claim that I should
be allowed to live as I choose within the constraints imposed by
family, friends and society.
Of course, this theory is often
dressed up with the claim that conscience is a special faculty that
speaks to us, rather like an oracle. The theory may also be elevated
to the status of a doctrine the
"primacy of conscience."
But annunciating grand titles does
not change moral reality. Conscience is simply the mind thinking
practically, thinking morally; the mind thinks well when we
understand moral principles and apply them in clear and reasonable
ways; the mind thinks badly when we ignore or reinvent moral
principles, or apply them in ambiguous and unreasonable ways.
"Good conscience" simply means good grasp and good
application of moral truths it is
the truth that is primary, it is the truth that is grasped and
applied by the practical mind, or, if you prefer, by the conscience.
Newman carefully distinguishes himself from those who
equate conscience with integrity, sincerity or preference. In the
famous passage of the "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" (Part 5),
which the Catechism (1778) part-quotes, he writes: "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
grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His
representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ."
When we receive messages, we listen to them. We do not make
them up and reword them to reflect what we wish had been said. If we
disagree with the Church's message so seriously that we cannot
follow its terms, then we cannot reinvent it to make it easier or
Rather, we enter into a period of prayer,
study and inquiry to try to understand the message and to understand
why we find ourselves opposed to it. And we should realize that if
the matter that puzzles us is one of a binding Church teaching or a
central moral teaching, then prayer and study of this may be a
A Catholic conscience cannot accept a
settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral
teaching. Any difficulties with Church teaching should be not the
end of the matter but the beginning of a process of conversion,
education and quite possibly repentance. Where a Catholic disagrees
with the Church on some serious matter, the response should not be
"that's that; I can't follow the Church here"; instead we should
kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our
fragile minds, as Newman recommends in Sermon 17 "The
Testimony of Conscience."
Of course, Newman's view of
conscience is profoundly counterintuitive to modern ears. For
Newman, conscience is objective, hard work, a challenge to self, a
call to conversion, a sign of humility; and this sits uncomfortably
for those who see freedom as the right to reject what is
unpalatable. Many will say: "You can interpret conscience this way
if you want to I'll
even defend your right to do so! But my own view is very different."
The only answer to this is to explain and to defend the
existence of moral truth. In theory, this should not be too
difficult. After all, everyone agrees that there is a basic truth of
the matter in cases of social justice, children's protection, the
immorality of torture, lying and cheating in public life, and so on.
But the twist is that many people who accept moral truths in
some area of life reject moral truth especially in areas such as
sexual morality, and perhaps also in life issues such as abortion
and euthanasia. Moral truth is a great ally when it is on your side;
but when it grates against your own convenience it can be tempting
to treat it as an anachronism. But either there are or there are not
moral truths, and if there are, these will have something to say
about unpopular matters as well as more fashionable causes. ...
The Pope argues that in their consciences human persons
encounter moral truth, freely embrace it, and personally commit
themselves to its enactment. This account (see "Veritatis Splendor,"
54-64) builds upon Newman's theory of conscience as man's free
adoption of God's law. Conscience is neither apprehending an alien
law nor devising our own laws: rather, conscience is freely
accepting the objective moral law as the basis of all our choices.
Thus forming and following a Christian conscience is a dignifying
and liberating experience; it means not resentfully following God's
law but freely embracing it as our life's ideal. ...
specifically Catholic view rejects the mistaken primacy of
conscience doctrine and clearly asserts the primacy of truth. The
Pope writes: "In any event, it is always from the truth that the
dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct
conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man;
in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what
man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never
acceptable to confuse a 'subjective' error about moral good with the
'objective' truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end,
or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and
correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed
by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience" ("Veritatis
Newman and John Paul II, from their very
different traditions of Anglo and Continental philosophy, reach the
same conclusion: Conscience is the free grasp of objective law. Some
would pay lip service to the great work of Newman, saying, "Yes, I
accept the moral truth I
just reject the particular set of moral truths that the Church
This approach to morality has been tried many
times before. The endorsement of law as "form" which then allows us
to reject any determinate "content" and to construct our own content
is common to various subjectivists, intuitionists and Kantians. It
is found too in the still-influential writings of Lawrence Kohlberg.
For the earlier Kohlberg at least, morality is simply
certain rational constraints upon freedom; morality is content-free
requirements of form upon our reason. Kohlberg himself equivocated
over whether morality is truly empty of content, or gives at least a
little guidance. It is certainly hard to take seriously the notion
of morality as contentless-logic a
kind of color-in-the-picture-for-yourself ethics.
a real life situation that requires moral strength, honesty, and
accuracy would surely be repelled by the advice that "morality has
nothing to say about the details of your choice; it's all up to
you." This is purely abandonment of people when they most need and
expect guidance. ...
In a recent response to an article by
Brian Lewis on "The Primacy of Conscience in the Roman Catholic
Tradition" (Pacifica, 13 (3), 2000, 299-309), Frank Mobbs states:
"if conscience is not so to speak looking at itself, then it is
looking for objective truth" (cf. "Brian Lewis on Conscience," a
paper delivered to the Catholic Moral Theology Association of
Australia and New Zealand, last July 6).
The point is that
no one at
least, no Christian
believes conscience simply asserts the first thing that comes into
our heads. Conscience looks for real answers to our questions; and
where can it look except to the truth? But then the value of
conscience surely lies not in conscience itself but in the objective
truth to which conscience looks for answers. It is the truth that is
primary, and it is from the truth that conscience takes its value.
Searching for a needle in a haystack may be diligent, but
what gives the search point and value is the importance to us of the
needle. Conscience only matters because truth matters to us
So, conscientious thinking matters to
Christians because objective truth is so important to us. Why would
we take conscientious belief seriously at all unless we believed it
represented access to objective truth? After all, the bare fact that
it is my private belief is of no moral significance whatsoever. It
matters because objective truth matters. ...
Much of the
debate over conscience in Catholic circles focuses on the
possibility of a conscience against the Church's teaching. This
seems to me a peculiar notion. For a start, it would mean that
dissenters believed that following the Church on, for example,
contraception or same-sex relationships, would actually give them a
guilty conscience, not just frustrated wishes. Yet it seems clear
that most dissenters do not fear guilt if they obey the Church: What
they fear is precisely the frustration of their unsatisfied wishes.
On many occasions Newman explained that true conscience
recognizes an external Being, who obliges us to perform certain
actions and avoid others (for example, see "An Essay in Aid of a
Grammar of Assent," edited by I.T. Ker [Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1985], pp. 40, 47, 72-83). The mind is carried beyond itself
to the idea of a future tribunal, where reward and punishment will
be assigned. From our inadequacies we envision the need for
redemption and atonement. ...
Nonetheless, a false notion of
conscience has helped to carry many away from Catholic practice and
indeed from Catholic faith. If there are two opposing versions of
conscience, and there are, this is the obverse side to Newman's
claim that true conscience helps us to recognize the One True God.
A debased notion of conscience, a barely concealed
enthusiasm for autonomy disguised as an appeal to the primacy of
conscience, weakens our sense of obligation, damages our purity of
heart, and makes it harder and harder to see God.