Newman on conscience

John Paul hoped that we would take a new look at conscience, to see it as the place where we encounter God in the form of a transcendent source of the good, and as a person calling to us. I cite again his remarks in new Orleans, “The more one seeks to unravel the mystery of the human person, the more open one becomes to the mystery of transcendence.The more deeply one penetrates the divine mystery, the more one discovers the true greatness and dignity of human beings.” If “man is the way of the Church,” it is because man is a window to the transcendent through conscience.

Newman came upon this approach to God a century and a half earlier than Pope John Paul II. In his compilation of texts titled “The Heart of Newman,” Erich Przywara, S.J., begins with texts on conscience. We find this passage, for example: “conscience does not repose on itself, but vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions . . .we are accustomed to speak of conscience as a voice . . .or the echo of a voice . . . like no other dictate in the whole of experience.” (Heart of Newman, p. 26; from Grammar of Assent, 107-108).

[An editorial note in the book says Newman envisioned a three-stage path for “growth to full spiritual maturity.” Stage one is “fallen man’s path to Christianity — the apprehension by his conscience of God as a giver of moral law.”] Then in Difficulties of Anglicans, vol. II, he speaks of conscience in more traditional scholastic terms as the “participation of the eternal law by rational creatures” (Aquinas). This notion he says is “founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God.” (It is in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, see Diff. 2:246-249) But this is a different view, he acknowledges, from the modern one, taken from literature or science wherein conscience is “another creation of man.” The rule or measure of the modern age is utility or expedience or greatest good. or state convenience or fitness or pulchrum. Newman argues that these standards are too abstract or impersonal to account for that “reaching forward” or that sense of apprehension or satisfaction that comes from the “voice of conscience.” Indeed, anticipating John Paul, Newman says conscience is “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

In 1990 John Paul wrote a brief letter on Newman. He remarks about the importance of conscience in Newman as a way to acquire truth and to make “contact with the reality of a personal God.” This teaching on conscience is lived out his Newman’s life: “By following the light of his conscience, Newman made a journey of faith which he has described with force and clarity in his writings.”

The experience of conscience, fully understood, should bring us to see both freedom and truth — the great themes of Veritatis splendor and Redemptor hominis. But Christian philosophers have a task before them to argue through the alternative views of conscience listed by Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk and to develop the phenomenology of conscience begun by Wojtyla.

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