Aleteia

When John Henry Newman Taught the Prime Minister a Lesson on Conscience

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His response to Gladstone’s attack on Catholics was a brilliant treatise on the Catholic Conscience.

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable Canon of essays, speeches & books which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a Canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.—Tod Worner

The attack was swift and fierce. The leading light and liberal lion in British politics, Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone, launched a scathing broadside against Catholics in the British Empire. Fearful that a Catholic’s allegiance to the Church in Rome threatened a vile treachery, Gladstone fulminated that “no one can become [the Catholic Church’s] convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.”

It wasn’t the first time it had happened, English Catholic priest (and convert from Anglicanism) John Henry Newman surely lamented. Nor would it be the last. And so he was compelled to respond. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk written in 1875, Newman schooled the prime minister on the true “moral and mental freedom” of the Catholic faithful. The letter, in fact, turned into a brilliant treatise on the Catholic Conscience. And it is doubtful Gladstone even knew what hit him.

When [God] became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels …

The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from [God], who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in [Conscience] the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway …

Words such as these are idle empty verbiage to the great world of philosophy now. All through my day there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. Literature and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in Universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition. Public writers, day after day, have indoctrinated the minds of innumerable readers with theories subversive of its claims. As in Roman times, and in the middle age, [Conscience’s] supremacy was assailed by the arm of physical force, so now the intellect is put in operation to sap the foundations of a power which the sword could not destroy. We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational …

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it …