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Archbishop Cupich and Cardinal Newman: A Debate Engaged

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago did Synod-2015 a great service on October 16, by holding a press briefing during which he said the following, responding to questions on offering of Holy Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried:

[People must] come to a decision in good conscience . . . Conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when making decisions and I’ve always done that.

The archbishop thus brought to light one of the crucial issues-beneath-the-issues at Synod-2015: the question of conscience, its nature, its relationship to truth, and its prerogatives. In order to deepen that debate, we offer here an alternative to the position taken by Archbishop Cupich, who, while not speaking for others, certainly reflected a view heard at the Synod.

The author is Blessed John Henry Newman, considered by many to be one of the intellectual fathers of the Second Vatican Council. The texts that follow are excerpted from the classic modern Catholic statement on conscience, Newman’s Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation:

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 in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. 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 world should cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and have a sway . . . 

Newman then contrasted this Catholic understanding of conscience with the secular notion prevalent in his day (and ours), which holds that conscience is, “in one way or another a creation of man.” To which Newman replied,

Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had.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. . . .the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to [one’s] judgment or [one’s] humour, without any thought of God at all . . .[such that it is the] very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.

Newman also discussed what might be called the temptations of conscience:

[Conscience is] the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous. . . .[because] the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is. . . . so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted. . . . so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course.

The question of conscience and its relationship to truth, which Archbishop Cupich usefully surfaced, is clearly one of significant import for the Church. In reminding readers of Newman’s careful exposition of conscience, our hope is that this now-open debate will generate a serious discussion of conscience in the Synod, so that the matter is clarified in Synod-2015’s final report. 


This letter is part of an ongoing series, the entirety of which can be found here.

More on: Synod2015

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