In Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Blessed John Henry Newman suggests gamely that religion should never be the subject matter for after-dinner social toasts. But, he says “if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
Newman promised to drink to conscience before the pope because he believed resolutely in the primacy of conscience. Newman understood that the conscience imposes an obligation—that personal integrity dictates a fundamental human duty to hear the interior voice of our conscience, and to follow its demands.
The primacy of conscience has become a matter of discussion at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, now taking place in Rome. At issue is what believers should do when the conscience seems to suggest a deviance from Catholic doctrine, and how pastors, and bishops, should respond. This question is especially relevant to the debates regarding the reception of the Eucharist by Catholics divorced and remarried, and regarding the proper pastoral care of Catholics in same-sex relationships.
Newman believed that modernity had stopped listening to the real voice of conscience; instead citing the conscience to validate libertine choices. He said that a true sense of conscience had been “superseded by a counterfeit,” in order to assert the “right of self-will.”
When his contemporaries spoke of the conscience, Newman said that “they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all . . . [Conscience] becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again.”
Newman’s time is not much different from our own. And the “counterfeit” conscience seems today to have taken lodging among faithful believers, who are comfortable explaining that their integrity demands they reject the teachings of the Church. Today, in the life of the Church, many believers claim that their conscience contravenes the Gospel. That the conscience demands they use or prescribe contraceptives. Or ignore the obligations of matrimonial indissolubility. Or indulge disordered sexual inclinations.
But the conscience can never enjoin a person to act contrary to divine precept. In fact, the conscience is, as Newman wrote, “the voice of God,” a channel of divine communication, “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” Newman understood that the conscience reveals the law of God—that it is a “prophet,” preparing the soul in the way of the Lord.
Newman also understood that pastors have an obligation to help the faithful hear the conscience, understand its voice, and respond to it. The conscience, Newman understood, is not easy to hear. Its voice, he wrote “may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each.” And he knew that hearing the conscience requires holiness, and serious guidance.
Newman counseled that the man earnestly seeking to hear the conscience “must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with skepticism. He must have no willful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood . . . being simply discarded.” The task of pastors, as he understood, was to help their flocks in the task of self-examination, and true discernment. The task of pastors is to help the faithful understand that conscience can never contradict truth.
Pastoral guidance of that sort might seem severe, but, for Newman, it was wholly necessary. In Newman’s view, validating a false sense of the conscience would be a kind of pastoral negligence; it would rob the believer an opportunity to hear the voice of God.
Unfortunately, the synod’s discussions reveal that a counterfeit sense of the conscience seems to inform the view of some ecclesial leaders, who feel they must support decisions made “in conscience,” even when those decisions contravene revealed truth. This is nothing new. In the aftermath of Humana Vitae, pastoral support for the “counterfeit conscience” ran rampant. But the consequence of suppressing and ignoring the voice of God—the authentic conscience—is borne out in the empty pews and dwindling seminaries in the places where “conscientious dissent” was most rampant.
Today, at the synod, the Church discusses wholesale endorsement of the counterfeit conscience. Such endorsement would be disastrous—most especially for those who would be taught by their pastors to ignore the saving power of divine precept.
A Catholic who believes that conscience might really abrogate the Gospel has abandoned belief in the normativity of divine law, and its contribution to human flourishing. And a pastor who fails to instruct a misguided conscience seems to have forgotten that appeals to false conscience will offer no protection in the final judgment.
Of course, the process of forming the conscience takes time. A person who begins in opposition to the Gospel may well find himself becoming gratefully obedient. And pastors should assist with the process of discernment, however long it takes. But pastors should also be clear—certain decisions really can render a Catholic outside the bounds of ecclesial communion, with the implications that entails. Our decisions—even made with appeals to an unformed conscience— always have consequences in this life, and consequences in the next.
“Obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the Gospel,” Newman wrote, “which, instead of being something different altogether, is but the completion and perfection of that religion which natural conscience teaches.” The conscience is a gift, and a grace. Like Newman, before toasting anyone else, we should drink to that gift—and then we should help believers to hear the “still, small, voice,” of the Lord in our hearts.
James Conley is the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.