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Part of the pleasure in reading John Henry Newman is the huge range of topics he covered and the variety of styles he brought to them. As well as the great philosophical and theological treatises, he left us sermons, essays, poems, letters—a vast treasury that makes anything like systematic exposition difficult.

Still, among the topics that regularly caught Newman’s attention through the years, conscience ranks high. Nearly every theologian would agree with Newman that conscience is “a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.” 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. Indeed, for many people today, the word “conscience” suggests not law at all, but the freedom to judge by our own personal resources and the right to act as we each think best—a rejection, in other words, of the need for morality and creed; a claim that I should be allowed to live as I choose.

Of course, this view is often dressed up with the claim that conscience is a special faculty that speaks to us, rather like an oracle, and it may even be elevated to the status of a doctrine: the “primacy of conscience.” But however it is presented, it stands in contrast to the view that conscience is instead simply the mind thinking practically and morally. We think well when we understand moral principles and apply them in clear and reasonable ways; we think badly when we ignore or reinvent moral principles, or apply them in ambiguous and unreasonable ways. “Good conscience,” in this way of understanding, means a good grasp and a good application of moral truth—for it is the truth that remains primary, the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind.

John Henry Newman was well aware of this position, which represents the best of Catholic thinking on the topic (for instance, the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas in De Veritate). Newman carefully distinguishes himself from those who equate conscience with integrity, sincerity, or preference. In a passage in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), 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.”

This metaphor of “messenger” is key. When we receive messages, we do not make them up or rephrase them in order to make them say what we wish had been said. And thus, if we disagree with the Church’s message so seriously that we cannot follow its terms, we cannot reinvent that message to make it easier or more palatable. Rather, we enter into a period of prayer, study, and enquiry to try to understand the message and to understand why we find ourselves opposed to it. And if the matter that puzzles us is one of a binding Church teaching or a central moral teaching, then this may prove a lifetime’s work.

In other words, a Catholic conscience cannot accept a settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral teaching. Any difficulty 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 his Sermon 17, “The Testimony of Conscience.”

Of course, this view of conscience seems profoundly counterintuitive to modern readers. For Newman, conscience is a hard, objective thing—a challenge to self, a call to conversion, and a sign of humility. And this sits uncomfortably with those who see conscience as a sign of freedom, and freedom as the right to reject what is unpalatable.

When we imagine that conscience is primarily a mark of individual autonomy, we have to pay certain costs; among these is the decay of the idea of moral truth—even when that truth is something we agree with. More than twenty years ago I used to teach the rudiments of morality to trainee nurses in a hospital-based Catholic course. Many in the class were hostile to the idea of moral truth, sometimes asserting that moral opinions were entirely relative, a function merely of the culture in which they happened to appear.

To explain the weakness of such a position I used to ask them whether the British authorities in India were justified in banning the practice of suttee, where a widow was immolated on the funeral pyre of her husband. None of the nurses had any enthusiasm for the practice, but what was extraordinary was the variety of arguments they used to explain their objections—all desperate, convoluted attempts to dodge the general idea of moral truth, to avoid saying that suttee was simply wrong.

One master defender of moral truth in our lifetime has been Pope John Paul II. He is also a man learned in modern thought and passionate about freedom and the responsibility that arises from the possession of freedom. And what the pope has aimed at is a path between those who assert moral truth but ignore personal freedom, and those who assert freedom but ignore moral truth.

More, he has charted this path using coordinates established by the Scholastics, developed by Newman, and confirmed by the Second Vatican Council. The pope argues that in their consciences human persons encounter moral truth, freely embrace it, and personally commit themselves to its enactment. This account (in the pope’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, sections 54–64, for instance) builds upon John Henry Newman’s theory of conscience as man’s free adoption of God’s law. Conscience, in this view, is neither the apprehending of an alien law nor the devising of our own laws. Rather, conscience is the free acceptance of the objective moral law as the basis of all our choices. The formation of a Christian conscience is thus a dignifying and liberating experience; it does not mean a resentful submission to God’s law but a free choosing of that law as our life’s ideal.

This specifically Catholic view rejects the mistaken doctrine of the primacy of conscience and clearly asserts the primacy of truth. “It is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives,” the pope writes. “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.”

Of course, one might agree with much of this and still reject the strong conclusion; one might say, “Yes, I accept the idea of moral truth. I just reject the particular set of moral truths the Church proposes.” This approach has been tried many times. The endorsement of law as “form” which allows us to reject any determinate “content” and to construct our own content is common to various subjectivists, intuitionists, and Kantians. It is found, for instance, in the still-influential writings of Lawrence Kohlberg.

For the earlier Kohlberg at least, morality is simply certain rational constraints upon freedom; morality is the content-free requirement of form upon our reason. Kohlberg himself equivocated over whether morality is truly empty of content or gives us 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. Anyone in 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.” To say this is to abandon people when they most need and expect guidance.

Morality matters to all of us. This central fact of human experience is often missed by those who put forward some modern, liberal version of conscience. When approached for moral advice, the reply “just go with your conscience” has the effect of further isolating people, driving them back into themselves just when they have courageously stretched out to find answers. The replacement of Newman’s view of conscience with the liberal version has been a disaster in key areas of human life.

One place to measure that disaster is in technical thought about moral and religious practice. 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 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—for the bare fact that something is my private belief has no moral significance whatsoever.

So why would anyone try to oppose conscience to objective truth? Part of the answer lies in a distorted attitude towards the virtue of tolerance. “Tolerance” is often something of a weasel word. Of course, all human beings should tolerate the foibles and weaknesses of their fellows. But by “tolerance” many now mean “never judging.” And this is a much more debatable proposition. In fact, believers in tolerance themselves usually acknowledge unspoken limits. Tolerance rarely means refraining from judging racists, or sexists, or pedophiles, or political cheats—naturally enough: these are morally wrong and should be judged so. But the contemporary love of tolerance is severely limited. In effect, the only things we must be tolerant of are people’s sexual choices, or perhaps their choices about such life issues as abortion or euthanasia.

Why do people strain to accommodate absolute sexual freedom as a matter of conscience? Why does no one plead for the right to racism or sexism as a matter of conscience? Could it be because the liberal concept of conscience has been specially formulated in order to facilitate the sexual indiscipline that our culture upholds?

Much of the debate over conscience in Catholic circles focuses on the possibility of a conscience set against the Church’s teaching. This seems to me a peculiar notion. For a start, it seems to mean that dissenters believe that following the Church on, say, contraception or same-sex relationships, would actually give them a guilty conscience. 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 desires.

There are many motivations for believing in a conscience against the Church. For example, people often project their personal dilemmas onto external bodies. So someone reared a Catholic might say, “I have a problem with the Church,” when his real problem is a contradiction within himself. In truth, most real-life dilemmas are not between the inner person and external authority but between competing desires and reasons that the person has trouble reconciling. As a way of sidestepping the terrible tension a moral dilemma can create, people may identify one side of the dilemma with their own conscience and the other with an external power such as the Church.

It hardly needs saying that this may not be the most accurate way to represent our situation. What conscience actually asks of us is that we make our best moral effort. This is difficult; it has costs and it may well require us to give up what we most want. An informed conscience does not mean finishing up with the judgment that happens to be most convenient or most gratifying to our immediate desires. In fact, when our judgments are highly convenient and gratifying, this is likely a sign that they are the product not of conscience but of wishful thinking. It is unusual in our time to hear or read someone declare that conscience tells them to change their strongest beliefs and sacrifice their most pressing desires. Yet why should conscience always tell us what we want to hear? Why should it never contradict us?

“Perhaps it can,” one might respond, “but surely it can also contradict the Church.” Catholics should not be content when they find themselves at odds with the Church; we cannot simply “agree to disagree” with the Magisterium, despite the popularity in some quarters of “loyal dissent.” A troubled conscience is the beginning—the beginning of an encounter with the teaching that will require patience, humility, time, self-scrutiny, conversion.

If individual conscience has primacy—if it is the end of each story—then we are bound to have clashes that are utterly irresolvable. Take a Catholic supporter of abortion and euthanasia whose conscience tells him he has the right to receive Holy Communion. Add a priest whose conscience tells him to refuse such Communion. How shall we decide between them if conscience is merely the inner oracle that admits no contradiction?

Some will reject the need for patience and conversion in such circumstances. They will speak of the Church’s teaching as if it were something through which they could pick for acceptable items. Once again, this construes the moral life as a matter of personal taste. But no person can guide his conduct purely by taste—for the simple reason that there are no infallible tastes. Everyone is affected by sin. Even non-believers must accept the human propensity to self-deceit, selfishness, and evil. We cannot rely on our tastes in moral matters because we are all vulnerable to acquiring the taste for immorality and egoism. This means that while we should follow a well-formed conscience, a well-formed conscience is hard to achieve. And if we suspect—as surely we all sometimes must—that our conscience is under-formed or malformed in some area, then we should follow a reliable authority until such time as we can correct our consciences. And for Catholics, the most reliable authority is the Church.

I suspect that much of the contemporary debate over conscience is driven by a pseudo-Christian impulse towards individual autonomy. Where the world once valued autonomy as the recognition that we are bound by moral laws, it now understands autonomy as the existential liberty to compose our lives, and even reality, for ourselves. It is as though modern and postmodern man is staging a rerun of the primeval fault of our first parents. We stand on the brink, seeking a way forward, accepting no moral guidance in advance of the choice. Yet, as with the first parents, moral guidance is there. A law has been given, and the choice we are faced with is the ancient one: Do I freely obey, or disobey?

False views of conscience cause havoc not only in the moral life. They have also had an enormous impact on the practice of the faith. In many countries the understanding and practice of the Sacrament of Penance has sadly declined. If people believe in a conscience against Church teaching, then their consciousness of sin will almost certainly decrease. This generally happens in two stages: First, certain sins are reclassified as “not sinful for me, because they don’t offend my conscience”; second, a vagueness about the nature and limits of personal conscience lessens the overall sense of sin’s seriousness.

The result is that there is less to confess and to be contrite about. Indeed, the whole idea of confession and contrition can be rationalized as a relic of the “old days” before we discovered the primacy of conscience. And so fewer people turn to the Sacrament of Penance as a normal part of their lives. The pardon and peace offered in the encounter with Christ are felt to be unnecessary. Many have the sense that if there is still such a thing as sin, it is not too serious, and feeling sad about one’s sins, particularly during the Confiteor at Mass, is sufficient for forgiveness.

With the decline in confession we have also seen a decline in the understanding and discipline of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Some people believe that the only condition for receiving Holy Communion is that one be present at Mass. That those who go to Communion should be in full communion with the pope, reconciled with their brothers and sisters, and in a state of grace—such an idea would seem strange to many Catholics today. Many would be surprised by the suggestion, let alone the requirement, that they should be regular churchgoers before receiving Communion at, for example, Christmas or a family funeral. As the Sacrament of Penance becomes less visible, there is a danger that people will misunderstand the connection between repentance and Communion—a danger that they will assume that the unrepentant sinner is as welcome at the altar as the repentant sinner.

Of course, our Lord wants everyone to be in church, and He wants all sinners to repent and to return to Him in Holy Communion. But we must recall that in approaching the altar we receive our Lord, body and blood, soul and divinity. To receive Christ whole and entire while rejecting “in conscience” parts of his Church’s solemn teaching is to contradict the truth about one’s relationship to the Church.

As mistaken views of conscience weaken our understanding of penance and Communion, they begin to cause wider confusion about other sacraments. If morality is determined purely by conscience, then it becomes more difficult to accept baptism as the bringing about of an objective change that is necessary because of original sin. Instead, baptism will be understood as some sort of naming ceremony—or as an entry-into-the-community ceremony.

I suspect a belief in the primacy of conscience has had some even deeper effects on Catholic life and identity. Any religion develops a sense of belonging among its adherents. This is partly the consolation of believing we have seen some of the truth concerning our origins and our destinies, and partly the knowledge of belonging to an ancient tradition and a geographically extended community. Believers know where they are situated within time and space; their lives have meaning because of their beliefs about their origin and their destiny. This is particularly so for Christi ans. Christianity is historical both because of its longevity and because we believe God Himself entered into history in the Incarnation. Also, Christianity is perhaps the only truly universal religion: it embraces every part of the earth and is compatible with every true culture.

But now this sense of belonging has been diminished by the elevation of conscience to moral primacy. If we believe we should live not by the objective truths safeguarded by the Church but by our own impulses and tastes as they are disclosed to us by conscience, we reject, or at least downplay, the community and the tradition. We are left vulnerable to the temptations of egotism and self-deception. We are shut off from the sense of being part of a sacred society that is worldwide, ancient, and guaranteed by Christ to teach the truth.

Primacy of conscience has not been the sole cause of this change, but it is like a prism through which the many confused beliefs of the modern world are filtered. Suspicion of religion and distaste for moral norms, the refusal to accept any doctrine that is personally inconvenient, religious indifference and sexual indiscipline—all of these are reflected in the modern dogma of the primacy of conscience.

Is it too much to suggest that John Henry Newman would have been disappointed by the uses to which his work on Christian conscience has been put? On many occasions Newman explained that true conscience recognizes an external Being, who obliges us to perform certain actions and avoid others. 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.

Newman distinguishes this true conscience from obedience to the law of the land or to the principle of expediency. True conscience will often be felt as an inconvenience: it acts as a brake upon our vanities and disordered desires. Newman believes that conscience, understood in this way, is the foundation of religion—indeed of the fundamental doctrine of theism: “Conscience too teaches us not only that God is, but what He is.”

For some decades after the Second Vatican Council, the more popular theologians overestimated, in their enthusiasm for aggiornamento, the ability of Catholic culture to survive outside the ghettos that were rapidly being abandoned and dismantled. Those same theologians typically underestimated the malignancy of many streams of thought in the contemporary West. This naïveté, this artless simplicity, still survives among older Catholics, but it has almost vanished among younger committed Catholics.

Nonetheless, a false notion of conscience still carries many away from Catholic practice and Catholic faith. This is the obverse of 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 to see God.

George Cardinal Pell is the Archbishop of Sydney, Australia.

Image by Artgate Fondazione Cariplo licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.