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The Education of Moral Conscience according to Newman
John Henry Newman Cultural Centre, 18th august 2017

The following is a translation of the text we received from Cardinal Caffarra on 18th August 2017, in preparation for his talk on 21st of October in London.


It’s not an easy task to throw light upon Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience, as well as many other themes of his philosophical and theological thought. He builds his thought inside the path of his interior life, as a demand of his existence. His theology and philosophy are the answers to the problems of his life. Like Pascal, he belongs to the Augustine family: speaking of himself, he speaks of every man. Newman is the Augustine of the modern Church. In the following presentation I’ll try to remain faithful to such theological style.


1. “Myself and My Creator”: The Beginning of the Path

In the life of the spirit there’s a moment in which the person fully becomes an “I.” One rises as a free and reasonable subject. 

Allow me to illustrate by sharing the experience of a 19-year-old Augustine whilst reading “Hortensius”, the lost work from Cicero. Augustine narrates: “[It] was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom…” (Confessions III, chapter 4.7). A new “I” was born.


Something analogous also happened to Newman. This is how he tells it: “When I was 15 (in the autumn of 1816), a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured” (Apologia pro vita sua, Chapter I). 

The text is of paramount importance to understand Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience. It’s not just the intellectual discovery of what Newman will later explain as the dogmatic principle, but the discovery of his entire personhood of the Light of Truth — light that reaches us through dogma. For Newman, we can already say it, moral conscience is the witness of Truth (about the Good). Newman doesn’t deny that there may be a moral conscience that has no interest in the Truth, but this lack of interest is moral conscience’s mortal malady. Skepticism is a mortal risk for moral conscience. 

Still in 1816, as suggested by his master, he read the book “The Force of Truth”, by Calvinist Thomas Scott, and he was left deeply astounded. This is how Newman recounts his meeting with this author: Scott was responsible for “confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator” (Apologia pro vita sua, chapter I). 

The text is famous. Newman realizes that in the depth of his moral conscience, he’s anchored to God the Creator. It’s a classic theme in Christian theology: the Creator engraved His image in the human person. Newman’s originality comes from placing this relationship between Creator and human creature within moral conscience. We can say that already in the young Newman it’s possible to find the two pillars who support the whole arch of his doctrine on moral conscience: the “dogmatic principle”, and the natural rapport of moral conscience with God. 

The dogmatic principle. This is how Newman presents it (1845):

That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; … that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it" (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter VI, section I). 

The opposite of the dogmatic principle is what Newman calls the liberal principle, as we’ll see ahead. 

Moral conscience, in the light of these two principles, isn’t the capacity to decide, even after serious discernment, what is good/evil. It’s the capacity to judge and tell the subject what is good/evil in the light of a superior Truth. Therefore the first axiom of the doctrine on conscience isn’t “always follow your conscience,” but “seek the truth regarding good/evil.” We shall later return to this point. 

The moral conscience-God rapport. Newman clearly expresses how he conceives the moral conscience-God rapport in these words: “Conscience — there are two ways of regarding conscience; one as a mere sort of sense of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, the other as the echo of God's voice. Now all depends on this distinction — the first way is not of faith, and the second is of faith” (Sermon Notes). We can also say: The first one subjects truth to opportunity; the second one submits opportunity to truth. 

Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience is born.


2. The Construction of the Doctrine

Newman sets forth from the description of moral conscience as an experience that every human person lives within, everyday. Today we would say it begins from a phenomenology of conscience. He writes: “By conscience I mean the discrimination of acts as worthy of praise or blame” (The Philosophical Notebook of John Henry Newman, Vol. II, Proof of Theism). [When not stated otherwise, quotes are always from this text]. Therefore, moral conscience is the faculty through which I distinguish, discriminate between the various acts I have accomplished or could yet accomplish, the acts of praise and the acts of contempt. Newman immediately adds: “But the accuracy or truth of praise or blame in this particular case is a not a matter faith but of judgment.” 

This is a fundamental point of Newman’s doctrine. He recognises two aspects (or two dimensions) in moral conscience, described as follows: “The feeling of conscience… is twofold:  it is a moral sense, and a sense of  duty” (An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, chapter V). I’ll give an example. I can go as far as to think that in my case, theft isn’t an unjust act; my moral sense is corrupt. However this doesn’t implicate my ignorance of the seventh commandment. In fact, thieves protect what they’ve stolen from other eventual thieves. It’s about two aspects of the same conscience. The first one is the most important, the consideration of conscience not as a norm of good behaviour, but as a sanction of the act itself.

When Lady Macbeth tries to wash the blood of regicide off her hands, she isn’t thinking about the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (sense of duty), but about the fact that she, her person is tainted with a horrendous crime (moral sense). 

Since we’ve reached this point, we can now attempt a first definition of moral conscience, according to Newman. Moral conscience is the simultaneous conjugation of the moral sense with the sense of duty. It enlightens what is good/evil, while contemporaneously guiding our daily life and our choices. Newman generally prefers to speak of the moral sense, so attentive he is to the concrete active subject. 

We now ask ourselves: how does conscience guide our choices? How does conscience reason, when it imposes its prescription in a determined situation? A very profound text from the XV Sermon of the Oxford University Sermons answers this question. In truth, the text has a general epistemological content, but it’s also truthful in regard to moral conscience.

Further, I observe, that though the Christian mind reasons out a series of dogmatic statements, one from another … not from those statements taken in themselves, as logical propositions, but as being itself [the Christian spirit] enlightened and (as if) inhabited by that sacred impression which is prior to them, which acts as a regulating principle, ever present, upon the reasoning, and without which no one has any warrant to reason at all. 

This is not an easy text. I’ll try to illustrate it with an example. When a person reaches the conclusion that chastity has its own intrinsic beauty and ethical value, the person expresses this perception in a proposition. For instance: “Chastity is a moral virtue.” Every person comprehends that this isn’t a malleable proposition, that it isn’t mutable according to the spirit of time. It’s the expression of something grand in the human spirit: it’s the light of Good. 

It could be that the prescriptive or permissive judgement of conscience come to our minds as the conclusion of an argumentation that goes from the universal to the specific. For example: stealing is dishonest, but the act itself is a theft, so you shouldn’t do it. Actually, the 17th century witnessed the development of an art that’d teach this way of reasoning, that would educate for this purpose: casuistry. But according to Newman's doctrine, the argumentation comes from what he calls "the sacred impression which is prior to it." It’s the light of Good, etched in the human spirit: Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, Domine, as the Psalm says.

At this point, we can understand the deeper nature of moral conscience according to Newman: Moral conscience is what bonds man to God. It’s the natural and original way that leads us towards an encounter with God, not apprehended simply as a notion, but as a reality (the development of this idea is clearly exposed in the fifth chapter of An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent). 

The starting point is enunciated like this: “We have by nature a conscience.” In this context, conscience has a precise meaning: it’s the mental act through which, when facing either a potential act or an already accomplished one, we experience approval or disapproval, and by consequence we judge it as right or wrong. It’s based upon this inner experience, constitutive of conscience, that we have real comprehension of a Divine Sovereign and Judge. This is how the heart of the argument is presented by Newman: 

If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear … . These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being.

We must analyze this very famous text carefully. Newman emphasizes two things: the absoluteness of the moral imperative that resonates in conscience; the personal character of the ethical imperative. 

Absoluteness, in this context, means two things. Firstly: the imperative is categorical, not hypothetical. It doesn’t go “if you want to,” but “you must!” Secondly: It’s an imperative that doesn’t admit exceptions, when in the negative. The knowledge that our freedom can infringe the command is part of our daily experience. But in this case man feels like he has betrayed himself: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth” (Proverbs 28:1). 

The personal character refers to the fact that the imperative addresses me, in my unrepeatable uniqueness. Peter cannot answer to the servant of the high priest: “Others have followed Jesus, why do you have to question me and not one of the others?” An act of fidelity is asked of Peter. The personal character results from responsibility as well: I must answer for my actions to Someone. 

Newman doesn’t simply wish to demonstrate God’s existence, but he wants to conduct us to a comprehension of His Reality, as a living presence in the conscience of every man. Conscience is the burning bush from where God speaks to man. Newman belongs in the line of thought that begins in Augustine, passes by Pascal and finally reaches K. Wojtyla-John Paul II’s adequate anthropology. 

We can now try to summarise Newman’s doctrine on moral conscience. Moral conscience is the place where the Mystery is originally present; it’s the original Revelation of God, as guide of each man.


3. Conscience and the Church

In October-November 1874, William Gladstone, first a conservative and then head of the British Liberal Party makes a harsh attack to the decrees of the First Vatican Council, maintaining that those couldn’t be compatible with intellectual autonomy and loyalty to the State. In January 1875 Newman replies with “A letter addressed to His grace the Duke of Norfolk, on occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s recent Expostulation”. In the fifth chapter he takes on the theme of moral conscience, more precisely the affirmation of the dominance of conscience in relation to the magisterial and governmental authority of the Pope (munus docendi, munus regendi).

Gladstone’s thesis is: since the Pope benefits from infallibility in doctrina fidei et morum; since he has full jurisdiction over Catholic faithful; then the moral conscience of the single individual must simply follow what the Pope teaches. 

Newman’s answer is articulate and refined. He begins with the conception of moral conscience elaborated in all of his precedent work. In the letter, he writes:

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 Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

Where does this sovereign dignity of conscience from? From the fact that divine law, the supreme rule of human actions, only becomes rule through conscience. All the sovereign greatness of conscience comes from the fact that conscience is the organ of apprehension of the Divine Law. “This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called ‘conscience’”. Conscience is sovereign because it’s subject. Or, as writes Newman: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”. 

The real problem, or the root of many problems, is that this idea of conscience struggles to be  intellectually accepted, and as a matter of fact, it’s rejected by the majority of people. Newman writes in the letter: “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century, it has been superseded by a counterfeit… . It is the right of self-will.” And still: “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.” This counterfeit conscience is what renders any true rapport of conscience with the Ministry of Peter impossible. 

Whoever truly lives with Faith the relationship with the Pope, knows that — as writes Newman — “the championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d'être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission.”

The referent of conscience is Divine Law, and the Pope exists to help conscience be enlightened by the Divine Truth. Hence for both conscience and the Pope, the referent is the same: the light of Divine Truth. They both look in the same direction. 

“Should the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a true suicide. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet.” 


Newman doesn’t limit the Magisterium to a pure and simple reproduction of the natural moral law. “But”, writes Newman, “still it is true, that, though Revelation is so distinct from the teaching of nature and beyond it, yet it is not independent of it, nor without relations towards it.”

I’d like to offer a succinct explanation of Newman’s thought regarding the rapport between moral conscience and the Pope. 

Newman starts with an affirmation, explicitly pronounced many times: God the Creator has infused in us what we might define as “original memory of the good and true”. It’s a certainty of the Christian thought that God the Creator has engraved in us his image and likeness. Newman interprets this anthropological thesis affirming that every human person has a moral conscience by nature, which means the capacity, before acting or after an accomplished act, to feel either an agreement or a disagreement between person and action. 

However, the original memory needs external help in order to be put to use. The child has a natural ability to speak, but this natural ability needs outside interference from someone else in order to thrive. The mother doesn’t impose anything from the outside, but simply brings to fruition an ability already present in the child.


Analogously, this is what happens in the relationship between moral conscience and the Magisterium of the Pope. The Pope doesn’t impose anything from the outside. He prevents man from falling in the worst of amnesias, that which forgets good and evil; prevents man from weakening his natural capacity, and works towards the development of this capacity. In the light of it all, we can understand the profound truth of Newman’s toast: first to conscience, then to the Pope.

[Because] without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory upon which the faith is based and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory, which is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity. (Joseph Ratzinger in Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavours in Ecclesiology).


4. Conclusion

On the morning of May 12, 1879, Newman received the official communication that Pope Leo XIII had made him a Cardinal, accommodating the suggestion of many members of the English laity, in primis the Duke of Norfolk. Newman expresses his gratitude to the Holy Father with a brief speech, passed down in history as the "Biglietto speech." 

This is an extraordinarily important text not only for the understanding of Newman’s entire spiritual path, but also for the comprehension of his thought. I chose this admirable text to conclude my reflection. 

In an assessment of his life, he writes:

For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. … Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion … . Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither.

It’s in the liberal principle that Newman pinpoints the main factor behind the reduction of conscience to a mere personal opinion which nobody has the authority to judge.

What must we do in the face of this counterfeit conscience? This is Newman’s answer: “Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance… Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties … : Mansueti hereditabunt terram, et delectabuntur in multitudine pacis. (Psalm 37:11).



Translation by Juliana Freitag