On the (Belated) Feast of Bl. J. H. Newman


Since the second annual observance of the feast of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman was trumped by the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I feel justified transferring it to the present day (at least for readers of Whosoever Desires).  In honor of our displaced beatus, I thought I might offer a comment or two on Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” where he explains the relationship between Catholic conscience and papal infallibility.  He concludes the chapter on conscience with a famous “toast”:

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.

At least in certain senses, then, Newman exalts private judgment (i.e., conscience) above the authority of the Church (i.e., the Pope); if he had not intended this in some sense, he would not have so written.  However, I would argue that these “certain senses” do not include what one would nowadays call theological dissent.

Newman’s statement easily lends itself to misinterpretation because conscience, like being, “is said in many ways.”  In his “Letter,” Newman refers specifically to two.  1) First, and at the more general extreme, one finds what is classically called “synderesis,” the basic perception of moral values that inclines us toward good and away from evil.  To try to describe moral motivation to a creature lacking synderesis would be akin to trying to describe “redness” to a person born blind.  Conscience (as synderesis) is obviously prior to the Pope, since the exercise of papal authority presupposes subjects “awakened” to the realm of moral values:

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…. It is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men, it is thus and only thus, that [the Pope] has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success. It is his claim to come from the Divine Lawgiver, in order to elicit, protect, and enforce those truths which the Lawgiver has sown in our very nature, it is this and this only that is the explanation of his length of life more than antediluvian.

2) Second, and at the more particular extreme, Newman speaks of conscience as something like our “last, best judgment,” that is, as the application of general moral principles to particular ethical situations that confront us.  Here again, according to Newman, we are bound to avoid whatever our conscience judges to be sin—even if our conscience happens to be in error and even if it requires disobeying a papal order.  However, such occasions are actually relatively rare.  Since conscience is a “practical dictate,”

 a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.

Newman, who was writing while the Papal States were still in full vigor, was here at pains to dispel the idea that the Pope enjoyed divine authority in framing traffic laws or in reforming his curia.  On pain of sin, in fact, one must disobey concrete, papal directives out of deference to the imperatives of (even an erroneous) conscience:

Thus, if the Pope told the English Bishops to order their priests to stir themselves energetically in favour of teetotalism, and a particular priest was fully persuaded that abstinence from wine, &c., was practically a Gnostic error, and therefore felt he could not so exert himself without sin; or suppose there was a Papal order to hold lotteries in each mission for some religious object, and a priest could say in God’s sight that he believed lotteries to be morally wrong, that priest in either of these cases would commit a sin hic et nunc if he obeyed the Pope, whether he was right or wrong in his opinion, and, if wrong, although he had not taken proper pains to get at the truth of the matter.

Here again, in the realm of “real-time” ethical decisions, Newman would toast conscience first, and the Pope only afterwards.

3) Most intriguing, however, is what one does not find in Newman’s “Letter.”  One does not find, either in his hierarchy of toasts or in his defense of the rights of erroneous conscience, a broad right to dissent from authoritative doctrinal or ethical teachings, even on the grounds that one finds the arguments for them unconvincing.  Authoritative teachings are neither inchoate ethical principles (synderesis) nor particular action-oriented judgments (“situation-conscience”)—the two domains where Newman insists that conscience “outranks” ecclesial authority.  As Newman points out, Church teaching is “engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.”  Hence, conscience is not the operative faculty here.

Newman was doubtlessly following the tradition that ascribed to supernatural faith, not to conscience, the power to assent firmly to revealed “general propositions.”  According to this tradition, it is characteristic of faith to proportion assent according to the authority of the witness (namely: God speaking in the Church) rather than according to the strength of supporting argumentation.  Aquinas, on whom Newman depends in his “Letter,” concluded from this peculiarity of faith that a person who obstinately denied even one article of the Creed could have no true faith in all the other articles, “but only a kind of opinion according to his own will” (ST II-II 5, 3).  .

This matter of dissent gets complicated, of course, as soon as one descends to the particular degree of authority that any given doctrine enjoys.  However, the general picture is clear.  If one has come to hold a general proposition that conflicts with a mandate from Church authority (i.e., that teetotalism is inherently Gnostic or that lotteries are intrinsically evil), then one should disobey any Church mandate that violates this proposition; in fact, one would sin not to prefer one’s conscience to the Church directives, even if one’s conscience were misinformed.

But this does not mean that one would remain justified in every respect.  One may still be at fault for having come to hold the dissenting general proposition in the first place.  The guilt, in other words, may not lie in the concrete act of disobedience itself (for which one may claim the immunity of conscience), but “farther back,” in having withheld the assent of faith.  A manifesto of theological dissent may, therefore, reflect the compresence of strong conscience and weak faith.

Given Scripture’s stern and numerous cautions about the difficulty of pleasing God without faith, however, one can understand how Newman could coherently champion the “rights” of conscience without claiming any “right” to theological dissent.  This nuance, however, is sometimes overlooked.


5 Responses to On the (Belated) Feast of Bl. J. H. Newman

  1. bill bannon says:

    There is in Catholicism however the lemming factor of excessive conformism whereby non infallible doctrinal statements are followed in their time and for centuries as being de facto infallible. Take Leo X’s condemnation in Exsurge Domine,1520, of Luther’s youthful position against burning heretics which burning Luther stated as being against the Holy Spirit. Leo condemned that position and thus supported burning heretics. This was not a command by Leo X but a statement of the ordinary papal magisterium that Luther’s listed positions were “against the Catholic Faith”…(see #33).
    The same Catholic writers, clergy, and laity who now follow the last two Popes in their current campaign against the death penalty…would in many cases I suspect have followed Leo X in his campaign for burning heretics. Burning heretics is a form of torture since it involves pain that is not germane to killing a man…the guilottine physically cut off pain messages quickly.
    Luther’s position at least in 1520 (not later) actually became the Catholic position on torture of Vatican II and of section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth”. Thus “faithful, non dissenting Catholics” of 1520 were actually incorrect by following a non infallible doctrinal document of a Pope. On the ground reality: Juan Antonio Llorente, General Secretary of the Inquisition from 1789 to 1801, estimated that 31,912 were executed, 1480-1808….Will Durant, a modern historian, said it was 6000. That’s 19K if we average the two.
    So ” faithful Catholics” are now opposing even the executions of serial child murderers whereas “faithful Catholics” for centuries supported burning Protestant people who now live on our block
    and lend us their rake at leaf time.
    We need actual catechisms to do a way better job on adult conscience and what varying Catholic concepts of conscience have done on the ground in the real world in history.

    • How is the inquisitor today reacting to political and religious environs as they unfold in 21st century, Authority is an awsome power and used as a wonderful loving shepard of a universal flock is angelic, but used as force of enslavement is an evil not topped by any forgiveness. Jesus often spoke to His Apostles and deciples concerning the evils of leading others astray, even to the point of condeming them to abyss. Judgement of actions will be made by history, lets hope decisions in future actions on part of inquisitor are made with faith, hope, and love and tweaked with a bit of heavenly prayer and mercy.

      • bill bannon says:

        History making judgements and hoping a leader is right is not enough. Don’t convert to Catholicism based on her errors in the OM….I see alot of that…..we are attracting pharisees who love the clarity of pan infallibility de facto because it facilitates judging others….can you spell Corapi. Catholics must be capable of seeing through the non infallible areas of Catholicism when those areas go astray….not constantly but when due. The catechism in its comments on conscience and Lumen Gentium 25’s religious submission clause… both would have facilitated the intrinsic evil of burning heretics if read in 1520. Popes have yet to take time out and write an encyclical on why that’s a bad thing and what an adult conscience looks like when confronted with papal or Bishop error. They don’t write on it because Rome is partly theatrical….the pretense that nothing went wrong through obedience historically. Yet every Portuguese slaver who read Pope Nicholas V’s “Romanus Pontifex”, 1455, and it’s permission to enslave the enemies of Christ in the newly discovered lands…each one loved an illegitimate childish concept of conscience and obedience which one can find in the catechism right now….a circular process of rereading until one agrees with the “Church”….poisonous in 1455 and in 1520 and thereafter. Until Rome faces such things, She will fail to convert many intelligent peoples who see Her history from a different angle as does Japan who looted Chinese treasures from Beijing along with Catholic rep France and Protestant England doing the same looting at the close of the Boxer Rebellion.

  2. Aaron,

    So the fault would be in holding that lotteries are intrinsically evil, not in disobeying the command of the Pope. Equally, the fault for a faithful Catholic couple who uses birth control to regulate their family would be in holding that birth control is not intrinsically evil rather than in disobeying the Pope.

    There seems to be an impasse here:

    They commit a sin if they obey the Pope, says Newman, since they believe that contraception is ok and that not using it could harm their family life, financially, emotionally, etc, (let’s suppose).

    But they also commit a sin if they don’t obey the Pope since they have withheld the assent of faith.

    But don’t they have to withhold the assent of faith, so that they don’t sin against their consciences? How does one avoid going in circles?

  3. Jim McCullough says:

    This post from a British priest blogger adds interesting context for the Newman quote:

    From the blog “Hermeneutics of Continuity” by Fr. Tim Finigan May 15, 2010

    That toast quote again
    A recent article by John Cornwell in the Times calls into question the miracle attributed to the intercession of the Venerable John Henry Newman. The website for the cause for the canonisation of Newman has responded briefly to Cornwell’s article: John Cornwell’s analysis of Newman’s miracle is seriously flawed. A further article is promised later this week.

    Damian Thompson has also responded to other aspects of the article. See: ‘Papal bull: Why Cardinal Newman is no saint,’ says Sunday Times. When is this going to stop?

    Cornwell’s article ends with the much misused and misunderstood toast quote from Newman about drinking to conscience first and the Pope afterwards. If any of the detractors of Newman were interested in knowing what Newman actually intended, his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk is now available, along with his other works, at the Newman Reader. Here is a link to the relevant section (5).

    Newman was responding to the charge made by Gladstone that the infallibility of the Pope made Catholics “moral and mental slaves” and compromised their loyalty and civil duty. He offers a brilliant answer to this particular charge in section 4 (Divided Allegiance), demonstrating along the way the manner in which Gladstone misrepresented Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus. He gives a sensible explanation of what is understood to be the proper exercise of the authority of the Pope, and the limit to that authority in the extreme circumstance of its misuse, quoting Bellarmine and others in support.

    It is from this point that Newman discusses conscience since he has admitted that “there are extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope.” He says that conscience is the apprehension of the divine law which is the supreme rule of conduct. He points out that this Christian understanding of conscience is opposed to the subjective view of conscience which sees it as a creation of ourselves rather than the voice of God. Newman describes the popular understanding which is familiar to us today, though sadly now within the Church as well as outside of it:
    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. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way.
    In a point which is relevant to discussions of our own time, Newman defends Quanta Cura and Mirari Vos by showing that when they condemned liberty of conscience, they were speaking of the popular and false understanding of conscience, not the Catholic sense. He compares it to the use of the word “reformation”, saying that if Catholics were to express their meaning fully, they would speak of “the so-called reformation”. He points out that if the Pope condemned the reformation, it would be utterly sophistical to say that he had opposed all reforms.

    On the question of a collision, in extreme circumstances, between “conscience truly so called” and a particular exercise of papal authority, Newman says:
    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. Primâ 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.

    Newman follows up on his argument by citing Catholic authorities in support of his description of Catholic teaching, and invites Gladstone to offer evidence from Catholic authorities for his (mis)understanding of the teaching.

    In his parting shot, Newman makes a sardonic allusion to a correspondence in the Times between Lord Arundell of Wardour and Lord Oranmore and Browne. This followed an article in the paper criticising Catholics for drinking the toast of Pius IX before the Queen. (Lord Arundell justified this in terms of the priority of the spiritual over the temporal order.) This much misused toast quote with which Newman finishes the chapter, is a gentle tour de force, turning the tables on Gladstone:
    I add one remark. 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.
    In the context of his carefully argued letter, Newman is allowing himself a witty reference to a slightly absurd controversy over after-dinner toasts. His implied challenge to Gladstone is for him to drink to conscience before the Queen. On Newman’s argument, Catholics are loyal to both Pope and Queen precisely because they have a true understanding of conscience as the “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature”. Gladstone needs to show how he can justify loyalty to the Queen and civic duty without a proper understanding of conscience and the law of God.

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