A key characteristic of any nation in quest of greatness in the contemporary world is a government’s respect for freedom of conscience with respect to every citizen. No nation can lay claim to its being a civilized society unless it safeguards freedom of conscience.
The problem lies, of course, in the definition of conscience. Is it simply a manifestation of “a mere sort of sense of propriety” – as Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote in his sermon notes – “appropriate,” as contemporary observers would say? Or, on the other hand, is conscience to be equated with “the echo of God’s voice”?
Cardinal Newman’s answer to these questions continues to be most meaningful because the same errors about conscience in his day (19th century) still plague us all:
“When men advocate the rights of conscience, 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 has rights because it has duties; but with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up no religion, but in this century it has been superceded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had.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.” (Ital. added.)
Newman’s assessment was clearly prescient. Today, conscience is often reduced to “personal opinion,” or “subjective feeling,” or even “self-will.” For some, observes scholar Hermann Geissler, “it no longer implies the responsibility of the creature toward its Creator, but complete independence, total autonomy, overall subjectivity and arbitrariness.” Consequently, the sanctuary of conscience has experienced a process of desacralization. To put this bluntly, God “has been banned from conscience.” (L’Osservatore Romano, 5 Oct., 2011) Since God has been subtracted, man is viewed through a prism of individualism, a separate unit in an egocentric world.
Newman’s commitment to the Faith safeguarded his tenacity with respect to conscience’s reliance on Truth; i.e., to his belief that conscience must be formed according to an ultimate norm, God’s will. Through Revelation we know – as Newman knew – that God has entrusted the Church with the mission of safeguarding his Revelation. Consequently, conscience requires that the faithful form their consciences in accordance with divine Revelation as handed down by the Church.
Moreover, Cardinal Newman taught that it is impossible for conscience to contradict the doctrinal and moral authority of the Church. Conscience, he held, lacks authority on issues of revealed truth. Thus, whether one “accepts a revealed truth that has been defined by the Church, is not primarily a question of conscience, but of faith.” (H. Geissler, ibid.) Hence no one can justifiably reject a doctrinal truth “on grounds of conscience.”
Newman’s understanding of conscience and his depth of faith are summarized in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, when he said, rather famously, that if he were asked to decide whether to toast the Pope or conscience: “… I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” What he meant was that above all, our obedience to the Pope “is not a blind obedience but rather one founded on a conscience enlightened by faith.” So that a conscience enlightened by faith comes first, then the Pope.