Sunday, February 19, 2012

Talking About Conscience X

Let us pause for a moment here, before we attempt to formulate comprehensive answers to the question about what conscience truly is. We must first extend somewhat the basis of our considerations, going beyond the personal sphere that was our starting point…

[I want to] begin with the figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose entire life and word could be called one great commentary on the question of conscience… To speak of Newman and conscience is to evoke the famous words in his letter to the duke of Norfolk (1874): “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.”

Newman intended this to be a clear confession of his faith in the papacy, in response to the objections raised by Gladstone to the dogma of infallibility. At the same time, against erroneous forms of ultra-montanism, he meant it to be an interpretation of the papacy, which can be understood correctly only when it is seen in connection with the primacy of conscience—not in opposition to the papacy, but based on it and guaranteeing it.

It is difficult for people today to grasp this point, since they think on the basis of an antithesis between authority and subjectivity. Conscience is seen as standing on the side of subjectivity and as an expression of the freedom of the subject, while authority is regarded as the limitation of this freedom, or indeed a threat to it, if not its actual negation. We must look somewhat more deeply here if we are to learn once again how to understand a vision in which this kind of antithesis has no validity.

The intermediate concept that holds these two together for Newman is truth. I would not hesitate to say that truth is the central idea in Newman’s intellectual striving. Conscience is central to his thinking because truth is the heart of everything.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 86-7

Reflection – Ratzinger now launches into his positive presentation of conscience in earnest, and takes Newman’s famous after-dinner toast as his starting point. Now, I am no expert of any kind on Newman, so I can’t provide any bigger commentary on his words here and how they fit into his whole thought.

But these words often get quoted badly out of context, as if Newman is somehow ‘dissing’ the papacy. Since offering an after-dinner toast to somehow is not normally seen as an act of disrespect, I am not sure how this interpretation can be credibly offered. Wishful thinking on the part of those who offer it, I suspect.

Newman is praising the papacy precisely as an instrument at the service of conscience. And this is the whole key to the matter. We exercise our conscience, but our conscience must be formed. We have to make up our minds about good and evil, but good and evil are objective realities ‘out there’, not constructs of our mind. We are obliged to our conscience… but our conscience is obliged to the truth, and that’s the key to the whole matter.

This is why freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are so intertwined. Both are concerned with the capacity of human beings to seek the truth and live it out. And this capacity to seek and live the truth in freedom is central to the entire human project.

This is why, and I will keep repeating this, what President Obama is doing is not so much an attack on the Catholic Church (although it certainly is that) or even on religion. He is attacking humanity, and every human being of good will should be ready and determined to resist this attack in peaceful ways: the political and legal process, and civil disobedience if necessary.