At Gloria.tv, there is a translation of a conference that the late Carlo Cardinal Caffarra would have given on October 21 in London. Cardinal Caffarra’s address would have touched at length on Bl. John Henry Newman’s doctrine of conscience, especially as conscience relates to the papacy. Rather than quote from Cardinal Caffarra’s lecture, which you ought to read, we shall quote from the fifth chapter of Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.'”
(Emphasis supplied.) Cardinal Caffarra quotes from this section, but turns also to chapter five of the Grammar of Assent. (We have no wish to upstage Cardinal Caffarra, especially now, so we will not parallel his argument, and instead again encourage you to read both his address and the relevant passages of Newman.) Turning back to the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, we see also that Newman recognized that almost no one spoke in these terms when referring to conscience in his day:
When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.
(Emphasis supplied.) It is no less true today than in 1874 that conscience is man’s apprehension of the divine and natural law laid down by God, which must be obeyed at all costs. And it is no less true today than in 1874 that few understand by “conscience” what Newman, relying on authorities no less weighty than Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, meant. Indeed, it seems more true in 2017 than in 1874 that people view conscience as “the right of self-will.”
Indeed, in so much recent discourse in the Church, it seems that the world’s definition of conscience has been taken instead of Newman’s. Not so long ago, an American bishop, now raised to the purple by the Holy Father, spoke of conscience not as God’s law apprehended by a rational creature, but as a decision, made at the end of a process. Now, it is true that this bishop did not go so far as the liberals of Newman’s day, but once one accepts conscience as a sort of judgment, rather than an individual’s implementation of God’s “sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority,” one is already skipping down the primrose path of liberalism. And no one was a stauncher opponent of liberalism than Cardinal Newman. Difficult questions of moral theology—questions of adultery, homosexual behavior, and access to the sacraments, to name but three—are once again being debated, with liberals invoking conscience in support of their positions. Liberalism is on the march again in the Roman Church. And, as an opponent of liberalism, Newman stands squarely against any attempt to turn conscience into nothing more than private judgment, into the more or less educated decision of a person to comply or not with God’s law. It is no wonder then that Newman was on Cardinal Caffarra’s mind.
As it becomes clear that progressives in the Church insist on relitigating every battle since 1965—as they obviously think that the Holy Father will give them their every wish, whether he will or not—it becomes equally clear that a return to theologians like Newman is necessary. You have no doubt heard the disquieting rumors that even Humanae vitae is in the sights of the modernists and progressives, to say nothing of the recent fights in Catholic social media over homosexuality. We do not think the Holy Father is prepared to go as far as the modernists and progressives demanding this or that accommodation, but it is in the nature of modernism for its adherents to go beyond legitimate authority. At this moment, it is necessary to recover the entire anti-liberal teaching of the Church, including the great papal teachings from Gregory XVI to Pius XI, in addition to Newman’s thought. Liberalism is nothing new, however new and upsetting the assault of the progressives may be. And the great anti-liberal popes and thinkers like Newman fought liberalism to a standstill.