Matthew McCusker: The teaching of Bl. John Henry Newman on conscience and obedience

By Matthew McCusker

Rome Life Forum, 18 May 2018

“I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”[1]

These are among the best known, and most discussed words of Blessed John Henry Newman. Some have found in them an argument for setting up individual conscience against the teaching authority of the Church, others, accepting their orthodoxy, have nonetheless felt uncomfortable with words that seem so disconsonant with much of the “tone” of nineteenth and twentieth century Catholicism. Yet they get to the heart of one of the crucial issues that Catholics have been forced to confront since the Second Vatican Council, and with new urgency during the current pontificate – the question of how a Catholic is to respond to a conflict between their conscience and the commands of a pope.

In this presentation I intend to discuss the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman on the nature of conscience, with particular reference to the relationship between conscience and obedience towards ecclesiastical authority.

But first I would like to suggest a few reasons why it is particularly valuable to explore this subject through the writings of Newman.

First, Newman was already grappling, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the dangers posed by exaggerated understandings of papal authority. For much of the nineteenth century the spiritual authority and temporal power of the papacy had been under sustained attack and orthodox churchmen, theologians and writers were understandably concerned with defending and vindicating its claims. Newman, while fully sharing this desire, was nonetheless also concerned about what the consequences might be if a false understanding of the papacy, which exaggerated its role and powers, were to take root in the Church.

Secondly, Newman had a remarkable capacity of exploring the same truth from multiple angles, considering its different dimensions and seeing aspects of a problem that others had missed. He never took a narrow or one-sided view of any question, and was not willing to abandon his own insights and convictions in order bring his positions into conformity with those of any group or faction. This means that he often has new or challenging things to say.

Thirdly, Newman’s views, both during his lifetime and ever since, have often been misrepresented and distorted in order to promote positions diametrically opposed to those which he actually held. For example, his careful analysis of the relationship between individual conscience and the obedience due to the papacy has often been presented as if it justified dissent from the authoritative teachings of the Church, just as his theory of the development of doctrine has been presented as a means of excusing radical departures from the Church’s received tradition.

For this reason, I will give as much space as possible to Newman’s own words during this presentation, so that his authentic teaching can be heard.

The role of conscience in the moral and spiritual life of man is one of the central themes of Newman’s writings and preaching, and his teaching could be explored from a variety of valuable perspectives. In this presentation I want to restrict our attention specifically to the relationship between conscience and obedience, and that means focusing largely, though not exclusively, on Newman’s 1875 work A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation. We must begin by putting this work in context.

On 18 July 1870 the First Vatican Council defined that

“when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he [the Pope] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.”[2]

The same decree also defined that the pope possessed “full”, “immediate” and “ordinary” jurisdiction over the universal Church.

These definitions were accompanied by storms of controversy. The definition of papal infallibility was opposed by a significant minority of bishops who considered it “inopportune” and it also provoked hostile responses from many quarters outside the Church, perhaps most seriously in the newly united Germany. In Britain there was also widespread hostility this found expression in a pamphlet published in 1874 by Britain’s leading Liberal statesman, William Gladstone, who had been Prime Minister from 1868 until early in 1874, and who would go on to serve another three terms. In this pamphlet, entitled Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation, Gladstone argued that the definitions of the Council cast doubt on the capacity of Catholics to demonstrate full loyalty to both Church and state and left them little, if any, room for independent thought or action. “Rome” Gladstone asserted “requires a convert who now joins her, to forfeit his moral and mental freedom, and to place his loyalty and civil duty at the mercy of another.”[3]

It fell to Newman to defend English Catholics from these charges in his Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation. The significance of the title is that the Duke of Norfolk, as hereditary Earl Marshal and head of the premier family of the peerage of England, was a living example of the capacity of English Catholics to be loyal to both Church and State. In this work Newman sought to place the definitions of 1870 in their proper context, to accurately explain their meaning, and to vindicate both the teaching of the Church and the loyalty of English Catholics.

Yet he also had another end in view. During the decade prior to the First Vatican Council, he had become increasingly concerned by the promotion of erroneous, exaggerated, views of papal infallibility. He himself had held the doctrine, as a probable theological opinion, for as long as he had been Catholic, but he rejected the views that were being aggressively promoted by such figures as, in England, William Ward, editor of the Dublin Review, and others in the circle of Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster from 1865. Ward, for example, extended the pope’s infallibility far beyond that which the Council eventually defined, to include encyclicals and other official communications of the pope, in and of themselves. He also was quick to accuse those who rejected his views of heresy and disloyalty to the papacy.

In Newman’s view, the definition of the doctrine in such terms as would admit the interpretation of writers like Ward, would have catastrophic consequences for the Church’s mission and be a cause of scandal to many inside and outside the Church.

In the event he was greatly relieved by the moderation and precision of the definition adopted by the Council, which in fact excluded many such views. However, despite the clarity of the definitions such exaggerations continued to circulate and influence many Catholics, as they still do today.

In writing his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk then Newman had in his sights not only those like Gladstone who rejected the pope’s infallibility, but also those who extended it beyond it proper bounds. And it is this precise delimitation of papal powers which makes Newman’s Letter so important for us today.

At the heart of the Letter is Newman’s elucidation of the role that individual conscience must play in questions of obedience and he begins his discussion by giving a clear definition of the term.

God, Newman writes:

“implanted [the] 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.’ 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; this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience.”[4]

Conscience is “the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation”.[5] It is “a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments.”[6] It is “a dictate”, it conveys the notions of “responsibility”, of “duty”, of “threat and promise”, with a “vividness” which discriminates it “from all other constituents of our nature.”[7]

Conscience is a judgement, but “not a judgement upon speculative truth, [or] any abstract doctrine, but [it]bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done. ‘Conscience’ says St Thomas ‘is the practical judgement or dictate of reason, by which we judge what here and now is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.’”[8]

Conscience must be obeyed: “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.”[9] Yet though conscience is a “principle planted within us, before we have had any training… such training and experience is necessary for its strength, growth and due formation”.[10] Our consciences can be become darkened and fail to judge according to truth.

“The sense of right and wrong”, Newman explains, “is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.”[11]

This urgent demand the Church supplies by infallibly preserving and authoritatively proclaiming the moral law; the same moral law to which conscience itself gives witness.

“Conscience” writes Newman “is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”[12]

Far from setting up a contradiction between conscience and the Church, as many of his “misinterpreters” would have it, Newman here explains that both our conscience and the Church, which both have their origin in God, give witness to the one divine law, and consequently both have a claim on our obedience. Indeed, the very success of the Church in preaching the gospel, is dependent on God having implanted His Divine Law into the hearts of men, which are thus already ordered to receive her teaching.

Newman explains, with reference to the papacy:

“On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact…Thus viewing his position, we shall find that it is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men, it is thus and only thus, that he has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success. It is his claim to come from the Divine Lawgiver, in order to elicit, protect, and enforce those truths which the Lawgiver has sown in our very nature… The championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission.”[13]

Yet, in Newman’s day, as in our own, this authentic view of conscience, and of ecclesiastical authority, no longer found widespread acceptance.

“All through my day” Newman wrote:

“there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. Literature and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition. Public writers, day after day, have indoctrinated the minds of innumerable readers with theories subversive of its claims.”[14]

In the “popular mind”, he continues,

“no more than in the intellectual world, does ‘conscience’ retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. 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 a [man’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.

He continues:

 “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… 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.”[15]

And Newman clearly foresaw what the end results of this “counterfeit” conscience would be. He writes:

 “The present Pope in his Encyclical of 1864, Quantâ curâ, speaks against ‘liberty of conscience,’ and he refers to his predecessor, Gregory XVI., who, in his Mirari vos, calls it a ‘deliramentum.’[16]

“Liberty of conscience”, in the sense proclaimed by modern man, and condemned by Quanta Cura, is, says Newman, not true freedom of conscience at all but rather the “the liberty of self-will”, “a universal liberty to say out whatever doctrines [man] may hold by preaching, or by the press, uncurbed by church or civil power.” And what are the ultimate consequences of such a doctrine? “What if” Newman asks “a man’s conscience embraces the duty of regicide? Or infanticide? Or free love?”[17]

“It seems” he concludes “a light epithet for the Pope to use, when he calls such a doctrine of conscience deliramentum: of all conceivable absurdities it is the wildest and most stupid.”

Yet absurd, wild and stupid as it may be, this is now the dominant view of conscience in the west.

If conscience, is bound to the truth, so too is the papacy. Newman writes:

“did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that ‘Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.’[18]

But what if a pope does not proclaim the moral law or the true understanding of conscience? Are Catholics, as Gladstone would have it, “mental and moral” slaves, bound to follow the pope in all things?

In the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Newman sets out the precise limitations of papal power in detail that we cannot go into here, but I would like to draw attention to some of the most important points.

First, we must acknowledge that despite the precision of the definition of the First Vatican Council there is now, as in the later nineteenth century, a surprising amount of confusion as to how far the infallibility of the pope extends. We will all have come across Catholics who strongly resist in practice any suggestion that the teaching of a particular pope may contain error, even when there is a theoretical acceptance that infallibility has limits. So it is important to be clear on this question. Newman explains:

“[The Pope] speaks… infallibly, when he speaks, first, as the Universal Teacher; secondly, in the name and with the authority of the Apostles; thirdly, on a point of faith or morals; fourthly, with the purpose of binding every member of the Church to accept and believe his decision.”[19]

The pope is “not infallible” says Newman, quoting the Secretary General of the Council, Bishop Fessler, “’as a man, or a theologian, or a priest, or a bishop, or a temporal prince, or a judge, or a legislator, or in his political views, or even in his government of the Church’… because on these various occasions of speaking his mind, he is not in the chair of the universal doctor.”[20]

The infallibility of the pope is restricted to matters of faith and morals. Newman writes:

“Infallibility cannot act outside of a definite circle of thought, and it must in all its [definitions]… profess to be keeping within it. The great truths of the moral law, of natural religion, and of Apostolical faith, are both its boundary and its foundation. It must not go beyond them, and it must ever appeal to them. Both its subject-matter, and its articles in that subject-matter, are fixed. And it must ever profess to be guided by Scripture and by tradition… Nothing, then, can be presented to me, in time to come, as part of the faith, but what I ought already to have received, and hitherto have been kept from receiving, (if so,) merely because it has not been brought home to me. Nothing can be imposed upon me different in kind from what I hold already —much less contrary to it.”[21]

And of definitions in the area of morals Newman makes clear:

“a precept of morals, if it is to be accepted as from an infallible voice, must be drawn from the Moral law, that primary revelation to us from God. That is, in the first place, it must relate to things themselves good or evil”

He continues:

“If the pope prescribes lying or revenge,” or, we may add here, any immoral act, “his command would simply go for nothing, as if he had not issued it, because he has no power over the moral law.”[22]

As the pope has no authority over the moral law, so he has no authority over the deposit of faith; he may only pass on what he has received from the Apostles. Vatican I defined that:

“the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”[23]

Six years earlier, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman had enunciated the same truth:

“It is one of the reproaches urged against the Church of Rome, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.”[24]

The “extraordinary gift” of papal infallibility is a safeguard which enables the papacy to faithfully transmit, whole and entire, the one unchanging deposit of faith. It is not a promise that the pope will be given infallible inspirations in his guidance of the Church, much less the revelation of new truths or changes in the doctrine of the faith.

Newman writes:

“In order to secure this fidelity [to the deposit of faith], no inward gift of infallibility is needed…. no direct suggestion of divine truth, but simply an external guardianship, keeping them off from error… a guardianship, saving them, as far as their ultimate decisions are concerned, from the effects of their inherent infirmities, from any chance of extravagance, of confusion of thought, of collision with former decisions or with Scripture, which in seasons of excitement might reasonably be feared.”[25]

“Never, have Catholics taught that the gift of infallibility is given by God to the Church after the manner of inspiration.”[26]

At certain times and moments in history the papacy may well have the central role to play in elucidating and expounding the faith, or in providing intellectual leadership, in other times, perhaps most other times, it will not. Newman notes:

“It is said, and truly, that the Church of Rome possessed no great mind in the whole period of persecution. Afterwards for a long while, it has not a single doctor to show; St. Leo, its first, is the teacher of one point of doctrine; St. Gregory, who stands at the very extremity of the first age of the Church, has no place in dogma or philosophy. The great luminary of the western world is, as we know, St. Augustine; he, no infallible teacher, has formed the intellect of Christian Europe; indeed to the African Church generally we must look for the best early exposition of Latin ideas.”[27]

This is, of course, not to downplay the central role that the papacy plays in Church, but to place it in its proper context. Newman defended as forcefully as anybody the fullness of papal authority over the Church, the special safeguards offered to its teaching, the privileges it enjoyed, but, he understood that this could not be at the expense of other elements of the Church carrying out their own proper functions – the bishop in his diocese, the priest in his parish, the father in his family – all have their own legitimate roles to play. The principle of subsidiarity applies also to the Church, not just the state.

An excessive focus on the thoughts and actions of the current pope has, as a particularly dangerous consequence, the neglect of tradition – a neglect of the teaching of sacred scripture, of the fathers and doctors of the church, of previous popes and councils, of the witness of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental rites.

It is interesting to note that William Gladstone was aware of this danger and reproached the Church for it in his pamphlet:

“in days within my memory the constant, favourite, and imposing argument of Roman controversialists was the unbroken and absolute identity in belief of the Roman Church from the days of our Saviour until now. No one, who has at all followed the course of this literature during the last forty years, can fail to be sensible of the change in its present tenour. More and more have the assertions of continuous uniformity of doctrine receded into scarcely penetrable shadow. More and more have another series of assertions, of a living authority, ever ready to open, adopt, and shape Christian doctrine according to the times, taken their place.”[28]

Here at least Gladstone recognised, and more than a century ago, a real threat to the integrity of Christian doctrine – the elevation of the “living authority” of the present pope above the Tradition which it is his duty to transmit.

Newman however forcefully asserted the very real limitations placed on the pope’s teaching authority:

“It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church.”[29]

If a pope steps beyond these limitations, and teaches error, he will come into conflict with those who remain true to the “faith once delivered to the saints.” Lacking infallibility outside of certain narrowly defined conditions, he can fall into error in his doctrine and in his judgements. And, never possessing impeccability, he can both commit and command sin.

Conscience, as we observed earlier, is a judgement not “on abstract doctrine”, but rather “bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done.” “Hence”, Newman explains,

“conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But “ he continues “a pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy”.[30]

It is therefore possible for individual conscience to find itself in conflict with the pope.

“But, of course”, writes Newman:

“when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called ‘in possession;’ that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience.[31]

Newman gives a number of examples where resistance to papal commands might prove permissible but the most important question raised is the duty of conscience when faced with a pope whose commands are directly opposed to the doctrine of the faith? In answer to this question Newman cites a number of authorities, from which I will quote the following:

“Cardinal Turrecremata says… ‘it clearly follows from the circumstance that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done… To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not … it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘One ought to obey God rather than man:’ therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over.’

“[St Robert] Bellarmine, speaking of resisting the Pope, says, ‘In order to resist and defend oneself no authority is required … Therefore, as it is lawful to resist the Pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will.’

“Archbishop Kenrick says: ‘His power was given for edification, not for destruction. If he uses it from the love of domination scarcely will he meet with obedient populations.”[32]

We may summarise the above with Newman’s words:

“there are extreme cases in which conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.”[33]

To summarise: we could say that in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Newman is warning us against two forms of idolatry. First that, raises which man’s self-will, masquerading as conscience, above that divine law to which all judgements of conscience must conform. And secondly an idolatry of the papacy, which treats the pope as the master, not the servant of divine truth. The First Vatican Council reminds us that the pope is the visible head of the Church militant. The Head of the Church is Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whose divine law and revelation both the teaching and acts of the pope must conform.

“I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”


[1] John Henry Newman, “A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation”, published in Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees, (Notre Dame, 1962), p138.

[2] First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus.

[3] William Gladstone, “The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation”, published in Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees, (Notre Dame, 1962), p6.

[4] Newman, “Letter”, p127.

[5] Newman, “Letter”, p128.

[6] Newman, “Letter”, p128.

[7] Newman, “Letter”, p128.

[8] Newman, “Letter”, p134.

[9] Newman, “Letter”, p136-38.

[10] Newman, “Letter”, p128.

[11] Newman, “Letter”, p132.

[12] Newman, “Letter”, p129.

[13] Newman, “Letter”, p132.

[14] Newman, “Letter”, p129.

[15] Newman, “Letter”, p130.

[16] Newman, “Letter”, p130.

[17] Newman, “Letter”, p130.

[18] Newman, “Letter”, p132.

[19] Newman, “Letter”, p137.

[20] Quoting a pastoral letter of the Swiss bishops, “Letter”, p187.

[21] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1845), (ed. I Ker, 1994), p226.

[22] Newman, “Letter”, p191.

[23] Pastor Aeternus.

[24] Newman, Apologia, p235.

[25] Newman, “Letter”, p189.

[26] Quote from Perrone, “Letter”, p189.

[27] Newman, Apologia, p236.

[28] Gladstone, Expostulation, p13.

[29] Newman, “Letter”, p197.

[30] Newman, “Letter”, p134.

[31] Newman, “Letter”, p135-136.

[32] Newman, “Letter”, p138.

[33] Newman, “Letter”, p127.