What John Henry Newman says about conscience shocks the modern secular sensibility, which treats it (if at all) as the “socially constructed” result of any number of cultural influences. The conscience is a messenger from God: giving saints courage to resist tyranny, even unto death.

The canonization of John Henry Newman was momentous for the Catholic academic world. Certainly, Newman’s magisterial book, The Idea of a University, has guided faithful Catholic educators ever since its publication, but Newman’s courageous example is just as important. It’s impossible to imagine a college like Wyoming Catholic College, dedicated to the central theological tradition of the Church and focused on the great books of the West, without the profound intellectual and spiritual journey that Newman undertook. What started with the Oxford Movement in 1833 developed in depth and subtlety, guided by conscience, and resulted in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, which signaled the beginning of his major work.

Given the “post-truth” atmosphere of much public discourse today, it strikes me that Newman’s writing on conscience is crucially important to us. I had read some of these texts years ago in a discussion group at Assumption College, but I was reminded of them this week when my wife brought to my attention an article in the Catholic Herald about Newman and the White Rose movement in Germany.[1] For years now, we have used the moving film Sophie Scholl in our classes, but we had not recognized the inspiration she and her colleagues owed to Newman.

What Newman says about conscience—that it is “the voice of God in the nature and heart of man”—shocks the modern secular sensibility, which treats it (if at all) as the “socially constructed” result of any number of cultural influences. For Newman, it is a kind of participation in God, Who “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.” Conscience participates in this Law, because “when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. . . . 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.”

What is most bracing about Newman’s understanding is its extraordinarily clarifying focus on the presence of God within us. But it is easy to avoid, if other matters—such as big money—become God instead. I suspect that conscience was not the first point of reference for the officials of the NBA who had to scramble to devise some way to mollify the Chinese after an official for the Houston Rockets happened to tell the truth.[2] I also suspect that the politicians described in Peter Schweizer’s book Secret Empires (recently recommended by a friend of the College) successfully avoid the commands of conscience, though not without dire consequences, both inner and outer.[3]

Conscience does not calculate how much profit might be lost by doing the right thing, nor, on the other hand, does it function as an instance of what Alexis de Tocqueville calls “self-interest rightly understood.” Newman is clear on the point: “Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself.” Rather, “it 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.” The conscience of Sophie Scholl—or of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or of St. Maximilian Kolbe—is the messenger of God: it gave them the courage to resist the Nazi tyranny, even to death. “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” writes Newman, “a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas.”

I’m also reminded of Newman by what Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a lecture last week at the Constitutional Studies Program of the University of Notre Dame. He does not explicitly mention conscience, but what he says calls upon its power: “It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to consider what we’re willing to die for. To even ask that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age. And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who will survive and resist — and someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.”

Wyoming Catholic College hopes, above all, to nourish the attention to conscience that makes each of us ask what we are willing to die for. I wish that it were not so, but in “a loveless age,” as Archbishop Chaput puts it, true priorities disappear, and politicians full of false righteousness confuse the most fundamental truths. The tyrannies of our time are on the increase, in new guises, but conscience remains for those who will heed it.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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Notes:

[1] Shrimpton, Paul. “How Newman inspired the German resistance.” Catholic Herald, February 17, 2018.

[2] He, Laura. “China suspends business ties with NBA’s Houston Rockets over Hong Kong tweet.” CNN, October 7, 2019.

[3] Schweizer, Peter. Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. New York: Harper, 2019.

The featured image is a portrait of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) by Emmeline Deane (1858-1944), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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