Newman‘s Concept of Conscience in His Quest for Moral Truth


The question about truth is vividly present in the teachings of the Catholic Church throughout the ages. The discourse on truth — which resounds in the question posed to Christ, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38) — has been heard throughout the centuries, and continues to be heard today, by the people of the twenty-first century.

Newman himself, in one of his famous novels, Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, speaks out by one of the characters: “The truth! . . . What is truth?”1 This voice about truth reaches our times and continues to be heard. Furthermore, truth, as an objective value in itself, seems to be quite a challenge for modern man, who is lost in a multitude of options which are available to him.

Contemporary man needs clear signs to show him what is right and what is wrong. Therefore, truth is required and irreplaceable in the field of morality and faith. Moral truth appears as a condition, sine qua non, for men who would like to lead their lives in accordance with their consciences.

The personality of Cardinal John Henry Newman is an exemplar, a bright, shining sign for modern man and the present-day challenges which he faces. This eminent British theologian, through his remarkable teachings, transmits a perfect example of courage, dedication, perseverance, and intransigence. He struggled to seek and find answers to the deepest questions of the human condition. His brave attitude defending against difficulties and attacks by his many opponents regarding the integrity of Christian doctrine made him a sign of contradiction for all those who vied for an easy and effortless quest for the truth. He was a clear and unmistakable signpost, illuminating a right path for those who would like to join him on his journey in search of moral truth.

A particularly interesting question remains which concerns conscience and truth as outlined by Newman. It is a connection which makes it possible to detect his personal life of faith, as well as his theological output. Newman’s personal journey is an impressive endorsement of the fundamental conviction of “conscience as the advocate of truth in the innermost part of the human person.”2 Newman’s theology of conscience demonstrates that the “way of conscience is everything except a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth.”3 On the path of personal faith, this British thinker allowed himself to be led, above all, by his conscience and into the arms of moral truth. This journey made him a great example of true devotion and love of God. In this twenty-first century, the example of John Henry Newman as an ardent disciple of truth remains as an excellent model for all people who would like to follow this demanding path toward moral truth.

Newman’s Passion for the Truth

Newman was one of the most famous converts to the Catholic Church, and demonstrated the conviction that truth is a value. He declared it to be a fundamental value by his spiritual and moral choices. This eminent theologian loved truth above all else, and made history in the Church as a lover of truth. Furthermore, being a supporter of the holistic vision of man, he put an emphasis on the integrity of the authorities of humankind; the process of leading honest and moral lives according to the requirements of moral truth.

In his work, Newman shows that, if man accepts the Truth of Christ in his life, there will be no separation between what he believes and how he lives. Every human thought, word, and action must be directed to the Glory of God and for the extension of his Kingdom. The truth which liberates cannot be kept to oneself. The truth demands bearing witness and wants to be heard. Newman’s character reminds us that, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we are created in order to know the truth, and to find in that truth our final freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations.

Undoubtedly, in the scholarly legacy of John Henry Newman, moral truth has a special place, because it is directed to the man who has a sense of moral obligation. The desire to know the truth, and the duration of that desire, is very important in the moral field. Mankind is obliged to adhere to the truth and to live in accordance with its requirements.4 Newman was able to see that “what is low on the scale of moral truth, may be the perfection of worldly wisdom.”5

By tracking the fate of Newman’s teaching, it is evident that his whole life was devoted to the implementation of the definition of moral truth. Newman’s particular words about “coming into port after a rough sea”6 pull at the heartstrings and, at the same time, figuratively indicate Newman’s desire to seek the truth. Incorporated into his life, and fully realized in it, are the indications of the relationship between truth and morality. These can be found in the Dictionary of Moral Theology. Giuseppe Graneris wrote that “from the purely moral point of view, man has three obligations with regard to truth: acceptance, actuation, and manifestation.”7 Looking into Newman’s life, one can effortlessly find all three conditions.

The conception of moral truth in connection with faith is not only present in his life’s attitude, but also in his works. On March 13, 1829, in one of his letters addressed to his mother, he wrote the characteristic definition of moral truth. That definition is as follows: “Moral truth is gained by patient study, by calm reflection, silently as the dew falls — unless miraculously given — and when gained it is transmitted by faith and by prejudice.”8

Newman’s Theology of Conscience

Recalling the words of Joseph Ratzinger, it is worth noting that the life of Cardinal Newman could even be described as “one great commentary on the question of conscience.”9 This great English thinker contributed the proper task, role, and formation to the subject of conscience, while in search of moral truth. Newman thought that conscience played a very important role as a true guide within a person’s life, especially within its religious and moral dimension. Conscience is the most important authority within the field of faith and morality. In the language of this British thinker, it is a meeting place between the effects of cognitive activities, such as assent, apprehension, and inference.

In his analysis of the phenomenon of conscience, Newman characterized conscience as utilizing two functions: namely, moral sense and sense of duty. Newman understood these two functions as two individual dimensions; however, he also emphasized that they are not indistinguishable. This kind of differential and double perspective can be perceived as a kind of novelty, which significantly distinguishes the conception of this British convert from other historical and contemporary theories of conscience.10 According to Newman, conscience must fulfill two roles. The first role is theoretical, the second one is practical. Moreover, conscience should not only be the authority of knowledge, but it should also be an authority which inspires one to action.11

Newman considered this double aspect of conscience in a twofold way. On the one hand, it is the moral sensibility of the general kind by which we capture ethical values, evaluate our actions, and distinguish between good and evil; here, he points to the moral sense. On the other hand, Newman sees conscience as a responsibility of acting in a proper way, and an awareness of the ruthlessness of the ethical requirement behind individual judgments. He defines the second aspect of conscience as a sense of duty.12 In one of the most important texts of Grammar of Assent, this British scholar makes the meaning of his distinction clear:

The feeling of conscience . . . is twofold: it is a moral sense, and a sense of duty; a judgment of the reason and a magisterial dictate. Of course its act is indivisible; still it has these two aspects, distinct from each other, and admitting of a separate consideration.13

Although Newman points out the double aspect of the phenomenon of conscience, he argues that the act of conscience is, of course, indivisible, and it would be a mistake to discern here two different ontological acts. In addition, he decisively refrains from interpreting his theory as a conception of two different forms of conscience, or a separate person’s dispositions.14 Moral sense and sense of duty are in ontological unity, but can be cognitively considered from two different points of view. Newman’s moral sense and sense of duty belong to one, indivisible experience of conscience, which has two aspects, which render the possibility of considering them separately. These aspects give an insight into the act of conscience from two different perspectives.15 Newman also indicates that each of these perspectives is assigned to an appropriate rule. In the case of moral sense, it presents a judgment of reason as “a rule of right conduct.”16 As Professor Gerard Magill points out, “the moral sense represents the rationality of conscience, being its autonomous characteristic that engages both the abstract and concrete processes of reason,”17 and it can also be seen as “similar to but broader than the application of moral law.”18 In the case of moral sense, conscience appears in its critical and declaring function as an awareness of that which is right and wrong. In the case of the sense of duty, Newman indicates it is “a sanction of right conduct.”19 According to this British thinker, conscience, in reference to the sense of duty, is an absolute awareness of the order to do good and avoid evil. As a sense of duty, conscience is associated with the sanction of right conduct.

Conscience as the Echo of God’s Voice

In regards to the role of conscience in seeking moral truth, Newman described two perspectives: “one as a mere sort of sense of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, and the other as the echo of God’s Voice.”20 Newman distinguished conscience as the echo of God’s voice, not the voice of God. His clarification is an improvement of the concept of the vox Dei presented by St. Augustine. Professor Eberhard Schockenhoff indicates that in St. Augustine’s conception of conscience there is a place where man receives the commitment and ethical character of the natural law. However, God’s voice of truth, which man hears through his conscience, allows him to capture not only the general content of the moral law or its formal principles, but also as reflected in specific situations of decision-making.21 In this way, Newman introduced the element of the echo of God’s voice to the bishop of Hippo’s view, which depicts conscience as a vox Dei.

In Newman’s novel Callista there is a beautiful dialogue between the characters of the book which proves this concept. Professor Michael Paul Gallagher explains that Callista tells the story of a young sophisticated Greek woman philosopher. She’s from the third century, and she gradually discovers the revelation of her conscience. In the period when Callista becomes attentive to her “inner guidance,” she expresses her experience in an interview with a pagan professor, named Polemo, who believes only “in one eternal, self-existing something.”22 For Newman, Polemo symbolizes spiritual laziness, one who stays at home without being truly “on the look out”; instead, Callista describes for him an experience marked by a different hope.23 She confesses:

I feel that God is within my heart. I feel myself in His presence. He says to me: “Do this: don’t do that!” You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature, as is to joy or to grieve. I cannot understand this. No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me. Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a person external to me. It carries with it its proof of its divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness — just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend. So you see, Polemo, I believe in what is more than a mere “something.” I believe in what is more real to me than sun, moon, stars, and the fair earth, and the voice of friends. You will say: Who is He? Has He ever told you anything about Himself? Alas! No! The more’s the pity! But I will not give up what I have because I have not more. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.24

The passage quoted above indicates that Newman identifies conscience as the echo of God’s voice, rather than God’s voice itself. Moreover, it is “the echo of a voice, imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience.”25 Arnella Francis Clamor stated that “for Newman this intimate image of God in conscience is a global and synthetic image bearing within itself the divine attributes in an implicit manner.”26

Conscience as a Theonomous Reality

Newman’s conception of the echo of God’s voice emphasizes the personal character of conscience as a meeting with the living God and his law. This British thinker is of the opinion that the echo of the voice, which man can hear within himself, indicates that there is Someone over man, and Who He Is.27 Newman describes this as “the clear vision we have, first, of our own existence, next to the presence of the great God within us, and over us, as our governor and judge, who dwells in us by way of our conscience, which is his representative.”28 Moreover, in his Grammar of Assent, Newman emphasizes that “conscience, too, teaches us, not only that God is, but what he is; it provides for the mind a real image of him, . . . it gives us a rule of right and wrong, as being his rule, and a code of moral duties.”29

From the viewpoint of conscience, it is interesting that Newman spoke of God in legal terms. He regarded Him by using terms such as “governor” and “judge.” Because of this, we can assume that conscience is a witness for the existence of right and wrong. The duty and dictate of man is to follow the right laws which exist, and are upon man by the One who gave these laws to mankind — the Moral Governor and Judge.

Thus conscience, the existence of which we cannot deny, is a proof of the doctrine of a Moral Governor, which alone gives it a meaning and a scope; that is, the doctrine of a Judge and judgment to come is a development of the phenomenon of conscience.30

Thus, in speaking about a moral governor, Cardinal Newman indicates that God is the source of the moral order in the world; the order to which man is called to discover, adhere to, live, and be in accord with.

All this gives man reason to place conscience on par with witnessing transcendence. In his personal confession, Newman points out:

Were it not for this Voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me.31

According to Newman, conscience is a dictate coming from within man; but its source is beyond him. The transcendent character of conscience is visible by the unaided eye in Newman’s works. “For him, conscience is not an autonomous but a fundamentally theonomous reality — a sanctuary by which God turns intimately and personally to every soul.”32 Furthermore, Newman is of the opinion “that the Creator has implanted his own law into his rational creatures.”33 This opinion is exemplified in the following statement:

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.34

Therefore, the responsible attitude of man consists in listening to the voice of conscience in order to discover and realize objective moral truths. “We have to obey our conscience because it claims to be the echo of the voice of God, but we also have the duty to form it so that it allows God’s law to shine through as purely as possible and without refraction.”35

Conscience becomes a kind of instrument for discovering God’s truths. With its help, man can find out what his Creator wants from him. According to Newman, conscience enables man to discover the objective truth and permanent moral truths. Nonetheless, this British thinker was aware of the fact that conscience can only refer to God, but does not automatically lead people to God.36 Furthermore, the voice of conscience is not defined as something solely immanent, but rather is seen in its transcendental character. If so perceived, it can imprint the image of a personal God, of a Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, on mankind. In this sense, conscience is not only the first principle of ethics, but also of religion.37

The role of conscience follows and explores moral truth as it pertains to the field of faith and morality. It does not consist in the creation of truth, but above all relies on searching for it. Moreover, “in his conscience, man does not only hear the voice of his own self. Newman compares conscience with an angel — a messenger of God who talks to us behind a veil. Indeed, he even dares to call conscience the original Vicar of Christ and to attribute to it the offices of prophet, king, and priest.”38

The Human’s Response

According to Newman’s words, the experience of God in conscience requires a response. The answer to this voice is a necessary consequence of the sanction of good conduct. In its deepest essence, the voice of conscience manifests itself as an answer. From within man, God opens him up to the truth and, simultaneously, man allows God to open him up to that truth.39 The answer to God’s call, heard within man’s interior, should be obvious and natural. The growth of a person depends on his openness to the truth, which God communicates to him in his interiority.

Conscience requests an acceptance of attitude to its duties and dictates; and it is practically impossible to avoid a moment of confrontation with that voice, the echo of the voice of God. Because the answer of man could be positive as well as negative, man has the duty of forming his conscience in accordance with the law of love and to the echo of the voice of God. “The human response to the choices we have to make in our daily lives can sometimes be altruistic, but they can also be individual and personal.”40 The reality is, conscience is alive and capable of development, but also of degeneration. Thus, one of the most important tasks for a person is to work on forming his conscience. When a man has a right, true, and correct conscience, he can then act in accordance with objective, moral reality. Conscience itself can be qualified as a lector of moral truth and law, to which one acts in a responsible manner. A man, developing himself correctly, has a conscience that is morally sensitive. Thus the attitude of a responsible man should consist in listening to the voice of conscience in order to discover and realize objective moral truths.

Unfortunately, man can manipulate his own conscience. In addition, the temptation to manipulate one’s own conscience becomes greater when man’s conduct is distorted and immoral. It is then that he tries to drown out his own conscience, or uses it in the wrong way by defending himself against the truth, in defense of his own conduct. Newman noticed this situation during his time:

I observe that a civilized age is more exposed to subtle sins than a rude age. Why? For this simple reason, because it is more fertile in excuses and evasions. It can defend error, and hence can blind the eyes of those who have not very careful consciences. It can make error plausible, it can make vice look like virtue. It dignifies sin by fine names; it calls avarice proper care of one’s family, or industry, it calls pride independence, it calls ambition greatness of mind; resentment it calls proper spirit and sense of honor, etc.41

In this situation, conscience seems to have the power to decide what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This is because man usurps the authority to establish truths and moral principles according to his own subjective needs and feelings instead of using these principles to discover, recognize, and respect them. Conscience should therefore be only a lector of moral truths, and never the creator of truths, within the fields of faith and morality. This can be confirmed and found in the contemporary and moral debate that:

Conscience does not have the power to make its own moral laws, for conscience is no lawmaker. Conscience itself does not create norms but discovers them in the objective order of morality. The function of conscience is not to shape moral norms but to recognize the normative power of moral truth and to submit the will to that truth.42

Here, Newman also writes about the specific character of conscience as a personal guide:

Conscience is a personal guide, and I use it because I must use myself; I am as little able to think by any mind but my own as to breathe with another’s lungs. . . . Moreover, it is so constituted that, if obeyed, it becomes clearer in its injunctions, and wider in their range, and corrects and completes the accidental feebleness of its initial teachings. Conscience, then, considered as our guide, is fully furnished for its office.43

In every situation that requires a moral decision, the role of conscience boils down to referring the person to the truth. Conscience plays the role of a primordial, cognitive source, in the field of moral truth.44 Faith and moral conscience do not belong entirely to the area of reality. They don’t provide logical arguments or convince with eloquent reasoning. They lead people to know the truth of God by providing for a personal relationship with him.45 Newman himself gives us this indication:

Only follow your own sense of right, and you will gain from that very obedience to your Maker, which natural conscience enjoins, a conviction of the truth . . . and you will most assuredly be led on into all the truth . . . you will bear witness to the truth.46

Conclusion

Conscience, as presented by John Henry Newman, is “not a path of self-asserting subjectivity, but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opened up to him.”47 Newman’s conduct clearly indicates the compatibility of his thinking with his proceedings. The moment he discovers that the truth can be found in the Catholic Church, he decides to leave the church in which he grew and matured.

Newman’s “conversion to Catholicism required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties, and many friends. This sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, and by his conscience, went further still.”48

This decision is the greatest proof that he not only spoke and wrote about moral truth, but, most of all, he sought to follow the truth through his own actions. Indisputably, the experience of seeking the truth was not foreign to this cardinal.

His life remains a great illustration of sincere humility for all scholars and those who would like to be titled disciples of truth. This British thinker was a man who, both through his life and teachings, now reaches across generations to modern-day society. This Victorian churchman proposes that modern man take a unique approach to moral truth which can be closely related to the reality of conscience. Furthermore, his rich and abundant scholarly output sheds light on the undiscovered and innermost dimensions of the human condition, and enriches the individual moral lives of all who are called to undertake the new tasks which face them.

There is an urgent need to rediscover Newman’s spirit within contemporary, theological debate, especially those debates regarding modern, moral issues. He urges mankind of this present day to go deeper into themselves and pose more basic questions about the significance of life. An ardent disciple of truth, Newman can be our guide during these perplexing times. He can show us, by his own example, how to cherish a passion for the truth. He can instruct us on how to become a bright light, in order to shine on our present-day, contemporary world.

  1. John Henry Newman, Callista: A Tale of the Third Century (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1901), 249.
  2. Hermann Geissler, Conscience and Truth in the Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman (Rome: The International Centre of Newman Friends, 2012), 1.
  3. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of Cardinal Newman,” L’Osservatore Romano, weekly English edition 22 (2005): 9.
  4. Cf. Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1909), 7.
  5. John Henry Newman, The Via Media of the Anglican Church Illustrated in Lectures, Letters and Tracts Written between 1830 and 1841 (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1909), I, 106.
  6. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua: Being a History of His Religious Opinions (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1909), 238.
  7. Giuseppe Graneris, “Truth,” in Dizionario di Teologia Morale, trans. Henry J. Yannone, ed. Pietro Palazzini (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1962), 1247.
  8. John Henry Newman to Jemima Newman, 13 March 1829, in The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Ian Ker and Thomas Gornall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), II, 131.
  9. Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience: Two Essays (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 23.
  10. Cf. Sebastian Gałecki, Spór o sumienie (Cracow: Universitas, 2012), 216.
  11. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 216.
  12. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 216.
  13. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1903), 105–06.
  14. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 217.
  15. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 217.
  16. Newman, Grammar of Assent, 106.
  17. Gerard Magill, Religious Morality in John Henry Newman: Hermeneutics of the Imagination (New York: Springer, 2015), 147.
  18. Magill, Religious Morality, 147.
  19. Newman, Grammar of Assent, 106.
  20. Newman, Sermon Notes (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1913), 327.
  21. Cf. Eberhard Schockenhoff, Wie gewiss ist das Gewissen? Eine ethische Orientierung (Freiburg: Herder, 2003), 101.
  22. Newman, Callista, 314.
  23. Cf. Michael P. Gallagher, “La coscienza morale come conoscenza di Dio in J.H. Newman,” in Inaugurazione anno accademico 2010-2011. Accademia Afonsiana, Istituto Superiore di Teologia Morale (Tivoli: Mancini, 2010), 26-27.
  24. Newman, Callista, 314–15.
  25. Newman, Grammar of Assent, 107.
  26. Arnella F. Clamor, “Newman and the Search for a ‘Via-Media’ between Atheism and Catholicity,” in John Henry Newman: Doctor of the Church, ed. Philippe Lefebvre and Colin Mason (Oxford: Family Publications, 2007), 63.
  27. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 289.
  28. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1907), I, 21.
  29. Newman, Grammar of Assent, 390.
  30. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1909), 48.
  31. Newman, Apologia, 334.
  32. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 8.
  33. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 8.
  34. John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1900), II, 247.
  35. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 8.
  36. Cf. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 10.
  37. Cf. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 10.
  38. Geissler, Conscience and Truth, 8.
  39. Cf. Jan Kłos, Pewność wobec niepewności (Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL, 2003), 125.
  40. Bernard Mahoney, “Newman and Moral Liberalism,” in Newman: Doctor of the Church, 228.
  41. John H. Newman, Faith and Prejudice and Other Unpublished Sermons (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 68.
  42. Richard A. Spinello, The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012), 33.
  43. Newman, Grammar of Assent, 390.
  44. Cf. Marek Fota, ”Epistemologiczne aspekty aktów religijnych w koncepcji Johna Henry’ego Newmana,” in Przegląd Religioznawczy 2 (2004): 84.
  45. Cf. Gałecki, Spór o sumienie, 295.
  46. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, VIII, 120.
  47. Pope Benedict XVI, “On the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia,” in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 103 (2011): 40.
  48. Benedict XVI, “Christmas Greetings.”
Fr. Piotr Olszanowski About Fr. Piotr Olszanowski

Fr. Piotr Olszanowski is a priest of the Diocese of Bydgoszcz, Poland, and a graduate (STD) of the Department of Moral Theology of the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome, with a dissertation about John Henry Newman. In 2016–18, he joined a group of professors at the local seminary, where he taught a course in moral theology. His scholarly interests include contemporary issues regarding fundamental moral theology, philosophy, morality, and ethics.

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