The decision to preside at the beatification ceremony of cardinal Newman is a token of the Holy Father’s esteem of the eminent English convert. Pope Benedict XVI’s appreciation of Newman dates back to 1946: he was a theology student at the seminary of the Diocese of Freising and his prefect was Alfred Laepple, who was working on a dissertation on the theology of conscience in Newman. Those were the years of post-Nazi dictatorship and young Ratzinger recalls that his friendship with Laepple enabled him to discover Newman’s teachings on the primacy of individual conscience. Ratzinger read Newman in the German translations of Theodor Haecker, who was also a convert, the same translations that a few years earlier had influenced the members of the White Rose movement in their opposition to Nazism.
Newman understands conscience in its moral principles, which enable the distinction of good and evil, and in its sense of duty, which leads us to good behaviour. In many of his works he describes with incomparable suggestion the voice of our inner self, which guides us, prompts us to make certain choices and shun other ones. Newman was convinced of the authoritative power of conscience to the extent that he regarded it as the pre-eminent evidence for God’s existence since an internal law testifies to an external legislator. In one of the sermons preached in Dublin he said: “This Word that dwells within ourselves, not only does it guide us up to a certain point: it also necessarily elicits in our souls the idea of a Master, an invisible Master. And as we listen to that Word and adopt it, not only do we learn more from it, not only do its dictates appear clearer and its lessons broader and its principles more coherent. Its very tone grows stronger and more authoritative and obligating”.
Moral law defers to an order that precedes us, which we do not create on our own and which therefore requires an author. This author, far from being an abstract principle, is in fact a person: a master who tells us about the heart’s secrets. That which is most intimate is also that which opens our heart to transcendence. Therefore, according to Newman, conscience possesses an incalculable value. In fact, it constitutes the bond between the Creator and His creatures.
In the welcoming speech of a symposium on Newman held in 1990, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, recalling the years of his theological formation, wrote: “So it was liberating and essential for us to know that the “we” of the Church does not rest on a cancellation of conscience, but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience. Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices – the exact opposite is the case”. Ratzinger equally underlines that conscience leads to obey to objective truth, and precisely because he was a man of conscience, Newman followed its dictates until he was faced with the difficult choice of conversion “from ancient bonds and certainties into what for him was the complex and singular world of Catholicism”.
The particularly delicate issue of the relationship between conscience and authority was addressed by Newman in one of his late works, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”, which he published in 1875 in response to the accusations of William Gladstone, a notable Liberal politician who served several times as Prime Minister. According to Gladstone, English Catholics – especially after the First Vatican Council on papal infallibility – were faithful to two authorities which he deemed incompatible: the Pope and the Queen. Catholics thus became unreliable subjects since they were led by a foreign power and had renounced their conscience being drawn by the choices of an individual.
In his reply Newman explains the appropriate use of papal authority, clarifying its limits and the forms of dissent admitted by the Catholic Church in exceptional circumstances. One of the chapters of the Letter is devoted to a detailed analysis of the features of the conscience according to Catholic tradition. Newman addresses a question which today we would describe as moral relativism: “Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. … Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will”.
Newman shows that according to traditional Church teaching nobody can be forced to go against his own conscience. Those who have committed a crime that could be avoided will respond to God, but if they believe that this is the truth they must act accordingly. Moreover, conscience is not a mere personal opinion. It is the dutiful obedience to the voice of God that speaks within us. To this light must be interpreted the famous – albeit misinterpreted – closing lines of “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”: “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”.
The foundation of authority is obedience to objective truth. When moral sense is lacking, authority becomes tyrannical, grounded as it is on opinion and not order, which is prior to us. In proposing this hypothetical toast Newman challenged Gladstone to toast first for conscience and then for the Queen. In other words, he showed that English Catholics could be faithful both to the Pope and to the Crown since their obedience was primarily directed to the divine voice that is expressed through conscience, the absence of which implies the absence of civic and religious obligations.
In the afore-mentioned speech Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “It was from Newman that we learned to understand the primacy of the Pope. Freedom of conscience, Newman told us, is not identical with the right ‘to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations’. Thus, conscience in its true sense is the bedrock of Papal authority; its power comes from revelation that completes natural conscience, which is imperfectly enlightened, and “the championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is its raison d’être”.
Thus the future pope found in Newman those principles which are among the pillars of his teaching still today, namely the critique of relativism and conscience as the foundation of religious and political authority.
Professor of Philosophy at University College, Dublin and at Dublin Business School
(13 September 2010)