Last week, Pope Benedict addressed the Roman Curia in anticipation of Christmas (the entire speech is here.) The speech covered many topics – the Year of the Priest, his trip to England, the sex abuse crisis, the Middle East Synod – but I wish to focus on one aspect of his address, that of conscience, on the occasion of the beatification of John Cardinal Henry Newman.
The driving force that impelled Newman along the path of conversion was conscience. But what does this mean? In modern thinking, the word “conscience” signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment. Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria.
The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word “conscience” expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide. Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, “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.
The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him. His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. Newman had always been aware of having a mission for England. But in the Catholic theology of his time, his voice could hardly make itself heard. It was too foreign in the context of the prevailing form of theological thought and devotion. In January 1863 he wrote in his diary these distressing words:
“As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life – but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion”.
He had not yet arrived at the hour when he would be an influential figure. In the humility and darkness of obedience, he had to wait until his message was taken up and understood. In support of the claim that Newman’s concept of conscience matched the modern subjective understanding, people often quote a letter in which he said – should he have to propose a toast – that he would drink first to conscience and then to the Pope. But in this statement, “conscience” does not signify the ultimately binding quality of subjective intuition. It is an expression of the accessibility and the binding force of truth: on this its primacy is based. The second toast can be dedicated to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth.
I excerpted this portion as an example of how succinctly the Holy Father explains the difference between how the Church defines conscience, and how the World views it. Sadly, Catholycs here and abroad latch onto the erroneous, worldly view while attempting to co-opt Blessed Cardinal Newman’s words (which Pope Benedict mentions, for obvious reasons) in order to support their claims. In the space of several paragraphs, Pope Benedict undermines their arguments.
In the coming weeks, I will be taking an in depth look at the recently released updated and revised American Catholic Council’s “Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” – 10 statements on which they hang their theological hats and build their case for their upcoming Council in Detroit, in June of 2011. The Holy Father’s words will help form the foundation of my analysis – which is why I posted them.
Here are the ACC’s Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities:
Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (rev. December 15, 2010)
This is a foundational document of the American Catholic Council and will be a central element of the agenda at the national gathering of the ACC in June of 2011. The Planning Committee has been developing this document over the last two years and is pleased to share this latest revision, reflecting much input from the grassroots during some 50 local/regional listening sessions to date.
1. Primacy of Conscience. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to develop an informed conscience and to act in accord with it.
2. Community. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in a faith community and the right to responsible pastoral care.
3. Universal Ministry. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to the community’s call to ministerial leadership.
4. Freedom of Expression. Every Catholic has the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to dissent.
5. Sacraments. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in the fullness of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.
6. Reputation. Every Catholic has the right to a good name and to due process.
7. Governance. Every Catholic and every Catholic community have the right to a voice in the selection of leaders and in the manner in which governance and decision making are exercised.
8. Participation. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to share in the interpretation of the Gospel and Church tradition.
9. Councils. Every Catholic has the right to summon and speak in assemblies where diverse voices can be heard.
10. Guarantee of rights. Church leaders shall respect the rights and responsibilities of the baptized and their faith communities.
“Primacy of Conscience” will be analyzed first – I’m not sure when I’ll have it published, so please be patient with me.