The Education of Moral Conscience according to Newman
Explaining Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience, as well as many other topics of his philosophical and theological thought, is not easy. He builds his thoughts within the path of his inner life, as a need of his existence. His theology and philosophy are the answers to the problems of his life. He belongs, like Pascal, to the family of Augustine: speaking of himself, he spoke of every man. Newman is the Augustine of the modern church. In the following presentation, I will try to remain faithful to his theological style.
- “MYSELF AND MY CREATOR”: The beginning of the journey.
In the life of the spirit, there is a moment in which the person becomes their self entirely. He/She awakens as a free and rational individual.
Allow me to use, as an example, the experience endured by Augustine at the age of 19, reading the Hortensius, nowadays a lost work of Cicero. Augustine narrates: “Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers towards thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom and began now to arise that I might return to thee.” [Confessions III, 4.7; 61. NBA I, p. 63]. A new person “I” was born.
A similar event also happened to Newman. It is narrated in the following way: “When I was fifteen, (in the autumn of 1816,) a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.” [Apologia pro vita sua, cap. I].
This text is of paramount importance to understand Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience. It is not only the intellectual discovery of what Newman will explain later as the dogmatic principle, but it was the discovery of his whole person of the Light of Truth, which reaches us through dogma. The moral conscience for Newman, we can already say, is the witness of Truth [on common good]. Newman does not deny that there may be a moral conscience not interested in Truth, but this apathy is the deadly disease of the moral conscience. Skepticism is a deadly risk to moral conscience.
Also in 1816, accepting the invitation of his master, he read the book The strength of the truth by Calvinist Thomas Scott, and he was deeply upset. This is how Newman narrates the encounter with this author: he introduces him “In confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator” [ Apologia pro vita sua, cap. I].
The text is famous. Newman discovers that in the depths of his moral conscience, he is anchored to God the Creator. The theme is a classic in Christian theology: The creator has engraved his image in the human person. Newman’s originality lies in placing this human creator-creature relationship within the moral conscience. We can already say that in the young Newman we are able to perceive the two pillars that govern the whole arc of his doctrine on moral conscience: the “dogmatic principle”, and the natural relationship of moral conscience with God.
The dogmatic principle. Newman presents it thus . “That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it” [The development of Christian doctrine, chap. VIII; §1].
The opposite of the dogmatic principle is what Newman calls the liberal principle, as we will see later.
The moral conscience, in light of these two principles is not the ability to decide, even after serious discernment of what is good/evil. It is the ability to judge and tell the person what is good/bad, in the light of a Truth that is superior to it. Therefore, the first axiom of the doctrine on conscience is not: “Always follow your conscience”, but: “Seek the truth about good/evil”. We will return to this point later.
The relationship between moral conscience and God. The following words clearly express what Newman thinks about the relationship between God-moral conscience: “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” [Sermons notes; Faith—III, May 29, 9]. We could say: The first submits the truth to opportunity; The second opportunity to truth.
Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience is born.
- THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE DOCTRINE.
Newman always starts by describing the moral conscience as an experience that every human person witnesses within their self, every day. Today we can say it begins with a phenomenology of the conscience. He writes: “By conscience I mean the discrimination of acts as worthy of praise or blame” [Philosophical Notes, II, 47 – Proof of Theism]. Therefore, moral conscience is the faculty by which I can distinguish, discriminate among the various deeds that I can accomplish or have accomplished, the deeds worthy of praise and deeds worthy of disdain. He immediately adds: “But the accuracy or truth of praise or blame in this particular case is a not a matter faith but of judgment” [Philosophical Notes, II, 47 – Proof of Theism].
This is a fundamental point in Newman’s doctrine. In the moral conscience he distinguishes two aspects or two dimensions, described in the following way: “The feeling of conscience […] is twofold: it is a moral sense, and a sense of duty” [An essay in aid of Grammar of Assent, Part I, Chap. V, § 1]. Let me give an example.
Having arrived at this point, we can now attempt a first definition of moral conscience, according to Newman. Moral conscience is the simultaneous conjugation of the moral sense with a sense of duty. It sheds light on what is good/bad, and at the same time guides us in the daily choices we make in our lives. Newman generally prefers to speak of a moral sense, remaining mindful of the concrete person acting.
Let’s ask ourselves now: How does consciousness guide our choices? How does conscience reason when it imposes its regulations in a particular situation? A very profound text, from the XV sermon of the Oxford University Sermons, answers this question. In fact, the text has a general epistemological content, but it is also true about moral conscience. “Further, I observe, that though the Christian mind reasons out a series of dogmatic statements, one from another […] not from those statements taken in themselves, as logical propositions, but as being itself [the Christian mind] enlightened and (as if) inhabited by that sacred impression which is prior to them, which acts as a regulating principle, ever present, upon the reasoning, and without which no one has any warrant to reason at all”. [Oxford University Sermons, Sermon 15, 26.3].
The text is not easy. I will try to illustrate it with an example. When a person comes to the conclusion that Chastity has an intrinsic beauty and ethical preciousness, he/she expresses this perception as a proposition. For example: Chastity is a moral virtue. Each person understands that this proposition is not maneuverable; it is not malleable according to the spirit of the time. It expresses something great which has taken place in human spirit: the light of good.
It may be that the prescriptive judgment or sanctioning of the conscience appears to the mind as the conclusion of an argument that goes from the universal to individual. For example: stealing is dishonest, but the act you’re carrying out is a robbery, so you don’t have to carry it out. In fact, in the seventeenth century an art was born that teaches this way of arguing, which taught this: case law. However, according to the doctrine of Newman, the argument is generated by what he calls “the sacred impression which is prior to it”. It is the light of good, imprinted in the human spirit: signatum est Super nos lumen vultus tui, Domine says a Psalm.
At this point, we can now understand the deepest nature of the moral conscience, according to Newman: it is the bond between man and God. It is the natural and original way that leads us to the encounter with God, it is not simply learned as a notion but as a reality. The development of this idea is clearly exposed in the “An essay in aid of Grammar of Assent”.
The starting point is as follows: “We have by nature a conscience” [An essay in aid of Grammar of Assent, Chap. V, § 1]. In this context, conscience has a definite meaning: It is a mental act by which, in the face of an action to be done or already accomplished, we feel in us an approval or reproach and consequently we judge it as right or wrong. It is on the basis of this inner experience, which is consciousness, that we have a real apprehension of a Sovereign and Divine Judge. The heart of the argument is explained by Newman 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 […] These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being”. [An essay in aid of Grammar of Assent, Chap. V, § 1].
We must analyze this very famous text very carefully. Newman emphasizes two things: the absoluteness of the moral imperative that resonates in consciousness; the personal character of the ethical imperative.
Absoluteness in this context means two things. The first: The imperative is categorical not hypothetical. It does not say: if you want…; But it says: you must. The second: It is an imperative that does not allow exceptions, when it assumes the negative form. It is our daily experience that our freedom infringes. But the man feels, in this case, that he has betrayed himself: “The wicked flees though no one pursues” [Proverbs. 28.1].
Personal character consists of the fact that the imperative is addressed to me, in my uniqueness. Peter cannot answer the servant of the High Priest: “Others have followed Jesus, why question me and not one of them?” It is Peter who is asked for an act of fidelity. Personal character also results from responsibility: I feel that I have to answer to what I did to Someone.
Newman does not simply want to demonstrate the existence of God, but he wants to lead the person to an apprehension of his Reality, as a living presence in the conscience of every man. Conscience is the burning bush that God uses to speak to man. Newman places himself in the line of thought which starting from Augustine passed through Pascal, and he arrives at the adequate anthropology of K. Wojtyla-John Paul II.
We can at this point attempt a synthesis of Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience. The moral conscience is the place where the mystery is made originally present; It is the original revelation of God as the guide of Man.
We can at this point attempt a synthesis of Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience. The moral conscience is the place where the mystery is originally made present; it is the original revelation of God as the guide for man.
- THE CONSCIENCE AND THE CHURCH.
In October-November 1874, William Gladstone, the first conservative and the later head of the British Liberal Party strongly attacks the decrees of the First Vatican Council, arguing that they cannot be reconciled with intellectual autonomy and loyalty to the state. In January 1875 Newman responded with A letter addressed to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, on occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s recent Expostulation. And in chapter five he addresses the subject of moral conscience; more precisely: the affirmation of the primacy of conscience in relation to the magisterial and governmental authority of the Pope [Munus Docendi, Munus Regendi]. No one escapes the centrality of the theme.
Gladstone’s thesis is as follows. Because the Pope enjoys infallibility in Doctrina fidei et morum; because it has full jurisdiction over faithful Catholics, the moral conscience of the individual must simply carry out what the Pope teaches.
Newman’s response is articulated and refined, he starts from the conception of the moral conscience, elaborated throughout his previous work. He writes in the letter: “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.” [Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5].
From where does this sovereign dignity reach the conscience? By the fact that the divine law, supreme rule of human actions becomes such by means of the conscience. The whole sovereign magnitude of the conscience stems from the fact that it is the organ of the apprehension of divine law. “This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;”. Conscience is sovereign because it is subject; or, as Newman writes: “Conscience has rights because it has duties” [Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5].
The real problem or the root of so many problems is that this idea of conscience is fought intellectually and is in fact rejected by the majority of people. Newman writes in the letter: “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century, it has been superseded by a counterfeit, […] It [counterfeit] is the right of self-will”. And again: “When men stand up as defenders of the rights of conscience, this does not mean at all to stand defenders of the rights of the Creator, nor of our duties in his regard… for rights of conscience they mean the right to think, to speak, to write, to act, as they like, without giving you any thought of God”. (Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5). It is this fabrication of conscience that makes any true relationship of conscience impossible with the Ministry of Peter.
Who truly has a faithful relationship with the Pope, knows that, Newman writes, “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” [Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5].
The referent of conscience is divine law, and the Pope exists to help enlighten conscience with Divine Truth. Therefore, for the Pope and for conscience the referent is the same: the light of the Divine Truth. Both look in the same direction.
“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” [Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5].
Newman does not reduce the Magisterium to a mere reproduction of natural moral law. Newman writes “But still it is true, that, though Revelation is so distinct from the teaching of nature and beyond it, yet it is not independent of it, nor without relations towards it” [Letter to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, Chapter 5].
I would like to try to concisely illustrate Newman’s thought on the Moral-Pope conscience relationship.
Newman starts from an affirmation, explicitly said many times: God the Creator infused in us something that we could define “original memory of the good and the truth”. That is, it is a conviction of the Christian thought that God the Creator has engraved us in his image and likeness. Newman interprets this anthropological argument by stating that every human person has a moral conscience, that is, the capacity before acting or after the action, to feel a harmony or a dissonance between his person and the action.
However, original memory needs an external aid to have the capacity to employ itself. A child has a natural ability to speak, but it necessitates the external intervention of another for this natural capacity to function. The mother does not impose anything from the outside, but brings to fulfillment a capacity that is already present in the child.
Similarly, this takes place in the Pope’s Moral-Magisterium-consciousness relationship. On a moral level, it does not impose anything from the outside. It prevents man from falling into the worst amnesia, that of good and evil; prevents man’s natural capacity from weakening; functioning so that man becomes increasingly capable of working. In the light of all this, we understand the profound truth of… Newman’s toast: First drink to the conscience, then to the Pope. “Because without conscience there would be no papacy. All the power that he has, is the power of the conscience: Service to the twofold remembrance, on which the faith is based, that must be continually purified, enlarged and defended against the forms of memory destruction, which is threatened so much by a subjectivity that it forgets about its foundation, the pressures of social and cultural conformism”. [J. Ratzinger, the conscience in time, in church, ecumenism and politics, Ed. Paoli, Turin 1987, p. 163].
On the morning of May 12, 1879 Newman received the official communication that Pope Leo XIII had appointed him Cardinal, accepting the proposal of many English laypersons, primarily the Duke of Norfolk. Newman expresses his gratitude to the Pope with a brief speech, passed down in history as the “Biglietto-speech”.
This text is of extraordinary importance both in order to understand Newman’s entire spiritual journey and the comprehension of his thought. I wanted this wonderful text to conclude my own reflections.
Summarizing his life, he writes: “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. […] Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. […] Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither” [Biglietto Speech, Rome (Liberalism in religion)].
Newman identifies the liberal principle as the main factor which reduces the conscience to mere a personal opinion, which no one has the authority to judge.
In the face of this fabrication of conscience what should we do? Newman’s answer is as follows:
“Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. […] Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties […] Mansueti hereditabunt terram, et delectabuntur in multitudine pacis” [Biglietto Speech, Rome (Liberalism in religion)].
Carlo card. Caffarra