Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Newman and Conscience vs. the Pope?

Jonathan Aitken has an article in the September issue of The American Spectator titled "A Saintly Conscience" about Cardinal Newman's beatification and various misunderstandings and misinterpretations of his life and work. He examines the made-up controversy about Newman's sexuality and closes off the discussion by saying that there is absolutely no evidence that Newman ever deviated from his vow of celibacy, taken before he became an Anglican minister, so the point is moot.

Aitken wants to emphasize Newman as the champion of conscience and mentions Pope Benedict XVI's interest in Newman in this area--as the successor of St. Augustine. But Aitken casts Newman as a "dissident" and a "liberal"; "ambivalent about the newly formulated dogma in 1870 of papal infallibility, famously remarking, 'I shall drink--to the Pope, if you please--still to Conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.'" (This is not a "remark" of Newman's but the conclusion to the section on conscience in Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk addressing Gladstone's attack on the newly-proclaimed doctrine.) Aitken has taken the comment seriously out of context.

Aitken does not address Newman's concerns about the formation of conscience: conscience cannot be totally subjective and must be formed to the objective standard of Truth. "Conscience has rights because it has duties." When writing to the Duke of Norfolk, he contrasts the classic Catholic definition of conscience with the modern idea, noting that the latter thinks of conscience as "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, Newman says, is "the right of self-will."

Newman clarifies that in the classic Catholic definition, conscience is "a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice speaking within us." It is "not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done."

He furthers states that "conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions and in the condemnation of particular and given errors." The only time conscience and the Pope could conflict is when the latter legislates or gives practical orders--but Newman reminds the Duke of Norfolk (and Gladstone, who raised the specter of divided loyalties), the Pope "is not infallible in his laws, nor his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy."

Nevertheless, Newman even states that the burden of disobeying the Pope is serious indeed: "Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it." These are not dissident or liberal words!

Mr. Aitken concludes his appreciation of Newman with the comments that "The central message of Newman's life is that nobody should accept in docile fashion what they are taught by their parents, their school, their church, their mosque, or by any self-proclaimed source of authority. Instead they should travel on their own journey, searching for truth by the light of their conscience."

There are half-truths and completely erroneous ideas in those two sentences: the primary issue is that Newman believed and assented with obedience to the Church Jesus Christ established, the Catholic Church. He may have struggled with disappointment and frustration, but he did "accept in docile fashion" what Jesus Christ's Church told him. He clearly states that in his Apologia pro vita sua, in the chapter on the position of his mind on religious matters since 1845--as he wrote in connection with doctrine of Transubstantiation, "I had no difficulty in believing it, as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God." That seems an example of docility and obedience. He followed the light of his conscience, which he had found in the Pillar of the Cloud, not a "self-proclaimed source of authority", but the Infallibility of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

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