The teaching of Vatican II on conscience is often invoked in discussions about moral obligation. While the traditional doctrine of the freedom of conscience is stated clearly in Gaudium et Spes (and Dignitatis Humanae) it has been read by some people as a general licence simply to decide for oneself.
But this is an old problem which Cardinal Newman explored in the 19th century. Gladstone had published a short book which argued that Vatican decrees and civil allegiance were incompatible. Newman came back with his celebrated Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. It opens with the words: “The main question which Mr Gladstone has started I consider to be this: Can Catholics be trustworthy subjects of the State? has not a foreign Power a hold over their consciences such that it may at any time be used to the serious perplexity and injury of the civil government under which they live?”
In the section on conscience Newman distinguishes the Catholic concept of conscience from the fashionable version. And, in doing so, he takes the opportunity to note the limitations of infallibility. There is an interesting background article by the eminent theologian, John T Ford, for those who want a fuller picture (details below).
Here I have given myself the task of summarising Newman’s points. I do not focus on his references to Gladstone, but confine myself to his general description of conscience. The full text is available via SecondSightblog.net.
The Supreme Being has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy as eternal characteristics in his nature, the law of his being. And, as Creator, he implanted this law as the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a participation in the eternal law in the rational nature. Although we may not all understand it equally well it does not lose its character nor its prerogative to command obedience. So it is never lawful to go against our conscience.
This differs from the fashionable view that conscience is a creation of man rather than the voice of God. The latter is the view of the Catholic Church and is broadly shared by the Reformation religions. The fashionable view has no concern with the rights of the Creator, it has no relationship to any moral law. Rather, it is an exercise of self-will. This is a counterfeit version unknown to previous centuries of Christianity.
The Church has indeed described freedom of conscience as a sort of deliramentum (See Pius IX, Quanta Cura, 1864). But statements need to be interpreted in context and here it is plain that the popes are referring to the “counterfeit” modern concept of conscience. Indeed, for a pope to deny true freedom of conscience would be suicidal since his fundamental mission is to proclaim the moral law.
But objections remain. Is it possible that the popes have distorted moral law to suit their own objectives? Can our understanding of moral law ever be free when it is so closely interrelated with religious authority? Would there not ensue an unmanageable collision between Church and state? And, to take it to the logical conclusion, how can the pope’s absolute authority be compatible with the absolute authority of private conscience?
We should recall here that conscience is not concerned with speculative truth or abstract doctrine but only with conduct: it is the practical judgment on something to be done or not done. Conscience, therefore, can never be in collision with infallibility because that is concerned only with the teaching of general propositions. Collision with the Pope’s authority can only occur when the Pope legislates or gives particular orders and the like. But in all these the question of infallibility does not arise. Was Peter infallible when Paul stood up to him in the matter of gentile converts? Or Liberius when he excommunicated Athanasius? Was Urban VIII infallible when he persecuted Galileo? No Catholic makes such claims.
If a claim of conscience is made contrary to papal authority it must be the true conscience not the fashionable counterfeit. It can only follow thought, prayer and every available means of arriving at right judgment. The onus of proof lies with us. Unless we can claim in the presence of God that we must not, and dare not, act upon the papal injunction we must obey.
We must avoid that vulgar spirit which automatically bridles at the voice of authority, or that wilful determination to think or do just what we please – whether true or false. And, if we were to do that, defiance of papal injunction would be rare indeed.
It is also clear, from many authorities, that even an erroneous conscience must be obeyed. It may be our fault that we are in error (and we may have to answer for that) but we must still obey. So, for example, those who have been brought up in heresy, and are persuaded that we are idolaters, and should be shunned as pests, cannot with safe conscience hear the Church.
“Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
Link to Ford article:
Link to original text: