Why the State Must Respect Your Conscience

As the U.S. Catholic Bishops, various Catholic and Christian organizations, media pundit, and members of Congress debate the issues of religious liberty and the HHS mandates, one word is bandied about: conscience. Sometimes its use indicates that the speaker has the wrong idea about conscience. According to a National Catholic Register article, ‘We Are Crossing the Rubicon’: House Tackles HHS Mandate Threat, “one congressman noted that desegregation also violated the personal beliefs of some Americans, and he appeared to imply that the bishops’ demands reflected an equally unacceptable belief.  Bishop Lori “categorically” rejected the attempt to equate Church teaching with racism.”

Sara Perla posted on The Washington Post blog “In Defense of the Catholic Church”  responding to an article by Jon O’Brien (“Did the Bishops Forget about Women?”). She comments on his use of the word conscience: “O’Brien writes that on contraception, as on all matters of morality, “while the church may teach, the individual’s conscience must decide.”  As any student in my class could tell you, the conscience can make mistakes and must be formed correctly. When your own conscience leads you to form a belief contrary to centuries of consistent teaching, it is at least worth a moment of self-doubt, prayer and reflection to examine that clash.”

Blessed John Henry Newman would certainly support Bishop Lori and Sara Perla in their efforts to defend the right understanding of conscience. Writing in 1875 in response to William Gladstone’s reaction to the First Vatican Council’s definition of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, Newman addressed one of the leading Catholic nobles in England publicly in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. William Gladstone had warned that Catholics in England could not be trusted to be true citizens of their country because their loyalties would be split between England and Rome, between their country and their Church. In Section Five of that letter, Blessed John Henry Newman addressed the possibility of conflict between the teachings of the Church and the individual conscience.

Newman begins by defining conscience as “the voice of God”, “a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation” that is an “internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.” He goes on to proclaim conscience “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”.

Newman contrasts this view of conscience that reflects upon the objective truth of God and His laws to the modern notion of conscience as “a creation of man”. This view of conscience Newman calls “the right of self will.” It thinks of conscience as the individual’s “right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” so that everyone is “to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave”. Newman denies this view of conscience: “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.”

There are two more crucial points Blessed John Henry Newman makes about conscience: first, that we must follow our conscience but second, that we must take care to form our conscience: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”. Since conscience reflects not on individual judgment and consistency but on God’s Law, we have to work to understand God’s Law. This is where Newman again addresses the authority of the Church and Christ’s Vicar on Earth, the Pope, who are God’s representatives alluded to above.

Jesus left us the Church and He established the Papacy because “the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.”  Therefore, Newman notes that every Catholic owes the teaching authority of the Church at the very least the benefit of the doubt and further observes that the burden of proof is upon the individual, not the Church. Newman warns us that the individual “must have no willful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases”.

As Sara Perla noted in her post, it takes a moment of humility to recognize that conscience not only represents a higher authority, but that it owes that higher authority attention and obedience. Conscience does not represent us, our desires, our consistency with ourselves—as Newman taught throughout this letter (and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraphs 1776 through 1802), conscience represents God, His desires for our lives, and our consistency with His laws.

Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk addressed contemporary concerns but his discussion of conscience has been timeless: it is quoted in the Catechism in paragraph 1778 and Pope Benedict XVI has reflected upon it. Speaking in December 2010 on the beatification of Newman during his visit to Scotland and England that September, Pope Benedict highlighted it as one of Newman’s great contributions. For Newman, he said, “conscience means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681.

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