Newman: Conscience as an Ongoing Activity

St. John Henry Newman eloquently presents his idea of conscience as something actively engaged both with the realities of lived experience and with direct apprehension of a particular situation. Logic is part of one’s assessment of the specific situation or dilemma that requires a decision, but alone, it is insufficient. For Newman, the situation is never static; nor is our engagement, insight, or understanding fixed. Rather, our engagement is an ongoing activity that applies lived experience to the specifics of the dilemma at hand, as well as to the first principles necessary for objective judgment. The research of Gerard Hughes, Ian Ker, Thomas Norris and others into Newman’s epistemology amplifies our understanding of how Newman’s application of learned, personal experience to primary principles invigorates the idea of conscience by making it a continuous process of assessment. Such a process may produce assent, and at times certainty, when one is faced with specific, consequential decisions.


“My familiar prophetic voice of the spirit in all times past has always come to me frequently, opposing me even in very small things, if I was about to do something not right,” claimed Socrates.1 2,200 years later, John Henry Newman reiterated this guiding principle in his novel, Callista: “I feel that God within my heart. He says to me, ‘Do this: don’t do that.’ You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature . . . No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me . . . It carries with it proof of its divine origin. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.”2 With his grasp of classical philosophy, expertise in the Fathers of the Church, and insightful view of history, Newman’s understanding of this inner voice offers the Church a process of engagement that develops “conscience, truly, so-called”3 that is not mere opinion nor “superseded by self-will.”4 His epistemology of assent is a major contribution to the theology of conscience, affording an individual confronting a vexing moral problem sufficient certitude that incorporates, but is not slave to, logic alone. Newman’s thought encourages contemporary Christians seeking truth to engage the demands of conscience in courageous and rigorous activity, not conflating it with, or settling for, opinion.


In 1870, the first Vatican Council defined papal infallibility as a dogma of the Catholic Church. Newman was very much opposed, not so much to the doctrine as it was finally articulated, but to defining it all. In fact, prior to the Council convening, Newman had been hopeful that infallibility would not be defined, deeming the timing inopportune and the effort itself unnecessary. He was, however, up against the rigid views of the Ultramontanists who favored strengthening the Vatican’s central control of the Church. He viewed their motives as more political than theological and believed that their historical scholarship to defend their position was far from convincing.5

Once infallibility had been defined, however, he was placed in the unenviable position to not only defend it, but to explain it to Anglicans and others of good faith who believed that the dogma circumscribed human reasoning, forbade political allegiances, and more importantly, contravened conscience. A pamphlet written by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, entitled “The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance” offered Newman an opportunity to explain. In his response addressed to the leading Catholic peer, the Duke of Norfolk, Newman defended the dogma while simultaneously eviscerating the arrogant rigidity of the Ultramontanists.6 His Letter Addressed to His Grace, the Duke of Norfolk is brilliant both in its prose and in its intellectual precision. When read in combination with A Grammar of Assent, Newman’s views on conscience prefigure Vatican Council II, what subsequently has been called “Newman’s Council.”7

Philosophical Antecedents

Newman, Aristotle, and Aquinas are very close in their understanding of conscience. Aristotle’s description of practical wisdom (phronesis; φρόνησῐς) is an activity operating within a “settled disposition of the mind (hexis; ἕξις) determining the choice of action.”8 This “considered activity” is the interplay of reason and judgement which, when combined with experience, produces for both Aristotle and Newman “conscience in the true sense” that enables reliable moral judgments.9 The grasp of universal principles needed to form judgements (synderesis), united with the virtue of prudence (prudentia; practical reason), produces conscience; but for Aquinas, both parts are necessary: “synderesis moves prudence.”10 For Newman, as for Aquinas, “conscience” is not static opinion, but something innate, achieved through rigorous activity of the mind and will. Its applicability is exercised in particular cases, in “down to earth realities,”11

Contrasting secular conscience from true conscience, Newman states the secular, indeed our contemporary view, only concerns “the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting without any thought of God at all.” True conscience, in Newman’s view, “has been superseded by a counterfeit” which he terms “the right of self-will.”12 Society believes conscience to be only a “desire to be consistent with oneself” or a simple opinion. Newman, however, calls conscience “the Voice of God”13 and more: “. . . the aboriginal vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its premptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and have a sway.”14

Newman’s Sense of Experience

Newman stresses conscience is not merely the capture in the mind of “universal principles” but also how these principles are unified to make particular decisions. Newman accepts Aristotle and Aquinas — but with an emphasis: while we must never make a decision in conflict with universal principles, we are nonetheless obliged to interpret these principles in light of a particular decision and of our previous ones. Newman does not diminish experience or make it subservient to moral first principles. Rather, he emphasizes that it shares the same level as principle when one makes a moral decision. Our conscience, for him, is so much more than following a rule. As our definitions of these principles may have different applications than those we previously considered, so too the moral principles may be understood differently based upon our experience of individual cases.

For example, Newman describes conscience as “the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.”15 Within the space of this “connecting principle” is the nexus of universals (e.g. killing is wrong) and the particulars of a situation (e.g. murder; military conflict; disconnecting a ventilator) that require our intellects, experience, and wise counsel in order to, in Newman’s words, “assent” to a judgement or belief. Newman amplifies in his work, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teachings: “I should decide according to the particular case, which is beyond all rule, and must be decided on its own merits.” He adds that he should “look to see” what “theologians, the Bishops, clergy . . . confessors and friends whom I revere” say. But if unable to agree with them, “then I must rule myself by . . . my own conscience.”16 Newman stresses that conscience engages particular cases; first principles and research certainly assist us but, ultimately, we must make the decision in light of our experiences by directly confronting the complexities of the dilemma before us.

Conscience and Certainty

Recognizing the relationship of knowledge to the centrality of conscience, Newman develops an epistemology of the “Illative Sense” (Illatus; “brought in”) wherein “rational assessment” rather than “logical proof” supports our conclusions.17 Logic and its attendant propositions are not discarded but are enhanced by other means of knowing. Newman writes, for example, that the propositions of formal logic alone cannot fully reveal a correct reading of a Shakespearean text; different extant drafts offer different interpretations. “It is by the strength, variety, or multiplicity of premises . . . by objections overcome . . . by exceptions proving the rule . . .” that one is able to make “a conclusion that is inevitable, of which his lines of reasoning do not put him in possession.”18

Logic alone is dependent on conditional premises; Newman is in search of truth, not proofs. He believes that when we assent, we must apprehend as much as possible if the premises for the decision before us are true — which they may not be.19 For Newman, “assent is the acceptance of truth, and truth is the proper object of the intellect.”20 The bridge from deductive logic based on conditional premises to unconditional assent is, for Newman, Aristotle’s phronesis adapted as the Illative sense to questions of truth. This activity “decides for us, beyond any technical rules” in the grit of the situation; the “power of judging about truth and error in concrete matters.”21 Our decisions are largely the “result of an assemblage of converging and concurring possibilities,” allowing us to reasonably assent, and to obtain some level of certitude beyond inference or syllogistic proof alone.22


In his Letter to Norfolk, Newman presents conscience in its direct relation to legitimate religious authority — a dilemma experienced by many contemporary Christians. Explaining that conscience is the law of God “as apprehended in the minds of individual men” having “the prerogative of commanding obedience,” Newman also recognizes that it can be tentative and precarious, indeed, it can be wrong. It is the loftiest of teachers “yet the least luminous; and that the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are . . . the supply of an urgent demand.” For Newman, “conscience has rights because it has duties.”23 It has a duty to study, to seek counsel, and to listen to the teachings of the Church. Indeed, the burden of proof for any dissent from such teachings is, for Newman, on the individual conscience. He understands that we need guidance from legitimate authority to keep our conscience informed and flexible. The Church offers such guidance not to sway opinion, but to inform our conscience, to better hear the voice of God.24 This puts the lie to those who think Newman’s view raises simple personal opinion to primacy. He does not let us off easily.

Nonetheless, he does not hold with rigidity. Newman believes that while the Church offers guidance, it is one’s individual conscience, well developed and attentive to both Church teachings and experience, that is paramount. “Conscience is not a judgment . . . upon any abstract doctrine but bears immediately on something to be done or not done.” For Newman, for example, conscience cannot come into conflict with papal infallibility because infallibility is concerned with “general propositions” whereas conscience, quoting Aquinas, is concerned with conduct in the individual and particular “hic et nunc” situation.25 Only if the Pope were to condemn a specific decision in particular circumstances would infallibility apply; and even then, the Pope’s infallible statements cannot of themselves contradict an individual conscience.26 However rare a collision between a truly formed conscience and papal teaching, Newman underscores that there is no question but to follow one’s conscience.27

Newman underscores for the contemporary Church that conscience is the basis of belief and the legitimacy of morality: there can be no appeal against it. A Pope could not counter individual conscience because conscience itself is the basis for belief in his office and the moral teaching of the Church.28 If the Pope were to “speak against conscience, he would commit a suicidal act.” Moral theology — even infallible statements — whose guidance is drafted by “theologians of authority and experience” are “little more than reflexions and memoranda of our moral sense.”29 Conscience as “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” is so paramount for Newman that for one to not follow it, but rather follow a papal teaching he or she thinks is wrong, is to commit a sin. As Ker points out, in such situations one indeed may be culpable for having a poorly formed conscience, but not for following it.30 Newman does not equate unreflective musings or lazy opinion with a formed conscience. Nor does he see conscience as simple submission to a law. Rather, he lives in diligent engagement of the mind and encourages us to do the same — even if we never obtain absolute certainty. In his Oxford Sermon Number 11, Newman guides us to press ahead in our doubt, yet secure in our conscience: “We are so constituted, that if we insist upon being as sure as is conceivable, in every step of our course, we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar. If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards; and, whereas we are given absolute certainty in nothing, we must in all things choose between doubt and inactivity.”31

  1. Plato, Apology 40b-c, trans. W.H.D. Rouse (New York: New American Library, 1956), 445.
  2. (Newman, n.d.), Callista, 314-315.
  3. Gerard J. Hughes, S.J., “Conscience,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman, ed. Ian Ker and Terrence Madigan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 189-191.
  4. James Gaffney, Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine (New York: Doubleday Books, 1992), 450.
  5. Gaffney, Conscience, 431.
  6. Gaffney, Conscience, 432.
  7. Eamon Duffy, John Henry Newman (London: SPCK Publishing, 2019), 3.
  8. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics II, vi.15 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Loeb Classical Library, 2003), 94-95.
  9. Hughes, “Conscience,” 193-194.
  10. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Summa II, II Q47, vi.
  11. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1966), 10–11. and only after “serious thought and prayer and all available means at arriving at a right judgement on the matter in question.”[12. John Henry Newman, A Letter Addressed to His Grace, The Duke of Norfolk (London, UK: Pickering, 1875), 63–64.
  12. Ian Ker, Newman: On Being a Christian (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 101.
  13. Ian Ker, Newman the Theologian (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 232.
  14. Newman, Norfolk, 57.
  15. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent (Greenville, SC: Assumption Press, 2013), 79.
  16. Hughes, “Conscience,” 200-201.
  17. Hughes, “Conscience,” 196.
  18. Newman, Grammar, 180; 211.
  19. Thomas Norris, “Faith,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman, 88.
  20. Newman, Grammar, 114.
  21. Norris, “Faith,” 88-90.
  22. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (London, UK: Longman and Green, 1864), 80.
  23. Newman, Norfolk, 58; 61.
  24. Ker, Christian, 100.
  25. Newman, Norfolk, 62.
  26. Hughes, “Conscience,” 201.
  27. Gaffney, Conscience, 433.
  28. Gaffney, Conscience, 433.
  29. Newman, Norfolk, 64-65.
  30. Ker, Christian, 103.
  31. Newman, J.H. Sermons.
Joseph P. Mullin Jr. About Joseph P. Mullin Jr.

Mr. Mullin earned a BA in Philosophy and Classics at Saint Louis University and later studied Organizational Theory at Templeton College, Oxford. He served 27 years with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), became a member of the Senior Intelligence Service (General Rank Officers), and was awarded the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He currently resides in Savannah, GA and is completing his MA in Theology at Saint Leo University in preparation for ordination as a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Savannah.