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Newman’s response to Gladstone’s slanders was not to resort to the same tactics, but rather to examine just what it was the Church taught; advice still recommended. Compared with the laws of the land, and indeed the calls upon us of conscience, that ‘the weight of his hand upon us, as private men, is absolutely unappreciable’. He outlines, very carefully, the limited sphere in which the Pope can claim to be infallible, showing how baseless Gladstone’s charges are when set against the truth. He then moves on to the crux of his own argument, and as it is one often misunderstood, it is worth setting it out fully.

The issue of individual conscience is at the heart of Newman’s discussion, and in this place, only yesterday, we have had a good example of what Newman says here:

When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. 

This is not, Newman argues, what the Church understands conscience to be. The notion that there is, within us, a native knowledge of right and wrong which is unerring, ignores the condition of Original Sin; it presumes a Rousseauean ‘noble savage’ who if he would but consult himself sincerely, will find within him what is needful; this is not the Christian view of man as a fallen being. Aquinas describes ‘natural law’ as ‘an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.’ According to Newman:

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.

It is, he writes:

not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, 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 it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

A properly-formed conscience, one shaped by the Church, which is the great moral teacher, will bring its owner where he or she ought to be – that is in line with the teaching of the Church, because it is the nature of the Church that it should teach the moral law of God. If we think we find ourselves in conflict with it, then we must think who is correct – ourselves or the Church. But what if it should be that we think a Pope in error? Here, too, Newman has an answer.

Whether this or that particular Pope in this bad world always kept this great truth [the moral law] in view in all he did, it is for history to tell. I am considering here the Papacy in its office and its duties, and in reference to those who acknowledge its claims. They are not bound by the Pope’s personal character or private acts, but by his formal teaching. Thus viewing his position, we shall find that it is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men, it is thus and only thus, that he has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success. It is his claim to come from the Divine Lawgiver, in order to elicit, protect, and enforce those truths which the Lawgiver has sown in our very nature, it is this and this only that is the explanation of his length of life more than antediluvian. The championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission.

Conscience, Newman argues, ‘cannot come into direct collision with the Church’s or the Pope’s infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.’ The Pope was not, Newman reminded Gladstone (in words as relevant to the popular misunderstanding then as now), ‘is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.’

That was not, and is not to say that there might not indeed be an occasion where a man might not, after great prayer and mental strife, find that his conscience is in revolt against the general teaching of the Pope, against his ‘supreme’ although not ‘infallible’ authority, but in such cases Newman propounds a general rule:

obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.

So, when, in the famous words which conclude his reflections on the subject, Newman writes:

 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

he is not saying that he expects this to happen with any frequency. Such cases would, he thought, be ‘rare in the extreme’. We appear to live in a time when men disagree – which raises the question of which definition of ‘conscience’ we are dealing with. Men will say it is of God; but then they would, would they not?