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One of the better known quotes from the newly canonised saint John Henry Newman is when he was once asked to toast the Pope and replied that he would prefer to toast conscience first. This quote is often used by some to drive a wedge between the moral judgments of the individual and the moral authority of the Pope and the magisterium of the Church.

Last week, we had another example. Speaking in the Dáil, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rejected Archbishop Eamon Martin’s recent comments that Catholic politicians are obliged to support laws that uphold the dignity of every person from conception to natural death. The Taoiseach said he was reminded of some words of St John Henry Newman. “When he learned about the new doctrine of papal infallibility,” Mr Varadkar said, “he said he would drink to the Pope, but would first drink to his own conscience. What St John Henry Newman was encapsulating in that was the idea in the Catholic faith that allows people to act according to their conscience, even Catholic politicians.”

It is important to note that the Taoiseach was speaking here at a time when the issue of abortion was being debated. The Taoiseach was supporting the position of Catholic politicians (including himself) who campaigned to remove the right to life of the unborn under 12 weeks but yet reconciled their position by an appeal to their conscience.

This use and context of his words would have abhorred Newman himself. For when Newman referred to conscience he was not speaking narrowly of a subjective moral compass that is infallible. For Newman, the dignity of conscience is part of an immediacy between God and the human soul that everyone possesses. He writes: ‘The Catholic Church allows no image of any sort, material or immaterial, no dogmatic symbol, no rite, no sacrament, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself to come between the soul and its Creator. It is ‘face to face…solus cum solo in all matters between man and his God. He alone creates; He alone has redeemed; before his awful eyes we go in death; in the vision of Him is our eternal beatitude’ (Apologia pro Vita Sua).

Only in the light of this intimacy with God can conscience be understood. Only by its union to God and its subjection to his moral law can conscience be upheld. For this reason, Newman writes: ‘Conscience is a messenger of Him whom both in nature and in grace speaks to us behind a veil and teaches and rules us by his representatives’. Newman then gives his less know but no less important teaching on conscience, that it is ‘the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul’ (Letter to Duke of Norfolk).

So when Newman talks about toasting conscience first and the Pope second, he certainly isn’t driving a wedge between the vicar of Christ on earth and the vicar of Christ in the soul. In fact, by using the term ‘the vicar of Christ’ to describe conscience, Newman was seeking to establish a harmony between conscience and external authority, represented by the ‘vicar of Christ’ who of course was the Pope. Newman argued for a resonance between conscience and the truth of God’s Word, upheld by the Church’s authority, that echoes as true. As St John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendour:

‘It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom "from" the truth but always and only freedom "in" the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it’ (para. 64).

Newman would have concurred wholly to this which certainly applies to the right to life of the unborn child which is one of the best examples of when an external law upholds the sacredness of human life and resonates with the internal law of the human conscience that tells us that the deliberate destruction of an unborn life cannot be justified.

In the video below, Bishop Fintan Monaghan argues the same point on which all Catholics need to be clear.


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