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.