Is a Christian who believes that abortion is wrong in every case or that marriage can only be between a man and a woman suitable for public life today? These kinds of questions can make or break political careers, but such matters are hardly new. John Henry Newman faced them almost
150 years ago.
In November 1874 William Gladstone, having lost the election and stepped down as prime minister, had time to write a pamphlet touching on the recently held First Vatican Council. Now that the pope had declared himself to be infallible, he commented, Catholics had not only lost their intellectual freedom but had also become unsuitable for public life.
Several Catholics took fright – Catholic Emancipation had happened less than 50 years before – and asked Newman to reply to the charge. The result was his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), the last full book published by Newman.
In the very first section, Newman states the purpose of the Letter: “The main question which Mr Gladstone has started I consider to be this: can Catholics be trustworthy subjects of the state? Has not a foreign power a hold over their consciences such that it may at any time be used to the serious perplexity and injury of the civil government under which they live?”
His answer was not a simple yes or no, but a subtle study of the subject. He took pains to explain carefully what was and what was not included in the recent definition of papal infallibility. But he also sought to interpret for contemporary British readers many other documents stemming from the Holy See in the second half of the 19th century, such as the Syllabus of Errors, which appeared to condemn liberalism in no uncertain terms.
The heart of the Letter is his chapter on conscience, which has since been used as a source for the teaching on this subject in the Catholic Church, as quoted for example in the Catechism published in 1992, more than a century after Newman’s death.
Newman saw conscience as the voice of God speaking in the heart of each person, helping him or her to act rightly. “This view of conscience,” Newman says, “is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man.
“Conscience is a stern monitor,” he continues, “but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.”
A quarter of a century earlier, in one of his addresses “on the present position of Catholics in England”, Newman had already advocated an understanding of conscience that, while very personal, was not merely subjective. Catholics should follow their conscience, and not just be told what to do, but conscience also needs guidance through a proper knowledge of one’s faith.
Hence, it is not just a question of blindly obeying God simply because he is omnipotent and supreme. God is also truth and goodness itself. God wills good and truth because he is good and truth. His will is not arbitrary. With study and the use of our reason, our conscience can help us discern how to seek the good and the true in the chaos of real life and politics. Thus, in moral questions, the Church only reminds us of what a properly formed conscience should know by itself.
Newman put this in stark terms at the end of the chapter on conscience with the now famous quotation: “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.”
In his dystopian 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley described a society in which human beings were manufactured (to different standards: alpha, beta or gamma), lived permanently on drugs and were not allowed to think for themselves. Towards the end of the book, World Controller Mustapha Mond explains to the hero of the novel that he has locked away certain books as dangerous, because they make people think. He shows him spiritual and literary classics such as the Bible, Shakespeare and Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.
But among them too are some writings of Cardinal Newman. The Controller then starts quoting from Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons: “We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. We are not our own masters. We are God’s property. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness or any comfort, to consider that we are our own?” For the World Controller, such an appeal to a higher authority than his was dangerous.
Indeed, Newman’s view that a Christian should be moved by an informed conscience to act according to a higher standard than that of the established order can be seen as profoundly subversive.
Is a Christian a suitable person to hold public office? If Christians follow their well-formed and informed conscience, then they most certainly are the most suitable people to play a role in public life, and governments should snap them up for all sorts of roles. For such a Christian has a clear sense of right and wrong, of the good and the true. A man or woman concerned primarily about the judgment of conscience will be a far better public servant than one only moved by the judgment of the crowds.
Jack Valero is the press and media coordinator of the Newman Canonisation Committee