Newman’s famous comment in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk that he would drink first to conscience and next to the Pope has been the subject of much polemic. The Pope Emeritus, who was greatly influenced by Newman, argued that a properly formed conscience would not disagree with the Magisterium. Those more attached to a liberal reading of the Second Vatican Council, argued it meant that Catholics should prefer their conscience to the teaching of the Church. Neither verdict quite does justice to the subtlety of Newman’s thought.
Newman was certainly a passionate opponent of religious liberalism, which he called the ‘doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion’, and that one creed was as good as another. He wrote that:
Conscience is 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 grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
Conscience is a hard, objective thing, a challenge to self, a call to conversion, and a sign of humility. This sits uncomfortably with the modern idea that conscience gives us the freedom to reject what we find unpalatable. Newman saw conscience as the free acceptance of the objective moral law of God as the basis of all our choices. But it would be a mistake to see this as entailing a blind obedience to the Church.
Newman was an historian, and he knew that Catholic history was marked by the constant and shifting tension between authority, exploration and the sacramental life of the Church; heart, head and Institution were all vital for a vigorous Church. The messiness of our fallen nature meant that the three would always get out of balance: too much heart, and one ended up with the hundreds of schismatic sects which constituted Protestantism; too much intellect and one could end up with a heresy like Arianism which sought to make rational what was actually mystical; and too much authority and one ended up with repression which destroyed the intellectual energy necessary for good theology.
Newman thought that debate and disagreement were essential to the Church’s apprehension of the truths she preached, and deplored the fashion of treating them as signs of apostasy. The Catholic Church’s mission to modern society was, he thought, being hamstrung by a morbid fear of theological exploration. However much some wanted the life of the Church to be one of a sealed and self-sufficient balance, raising it above confusion and argument, it was, in reality, a dialectical process, rich and life-giving, but consequently messy, in which the tensions between the conflicting claims of truth, expediency and ardour would not be resolved this side of the Second Coming.
That did not mean that freedom of conscience was synonymous with the right to ignore Papal teaching; that was the bedrock of authority. But theologians had to be free to explore the infinite mysteries of the faith. If theologians were to be forbidden from thinking for fear of being accused of apostasy or heresy, then the life of the Church would be impoverished, and its alienation from the intellectual currents of the day complete. This was his fear about the Church of Pio Nono, and he disliked the way men like Manning were pressing for a definition of Papal infallibility which would be so wide that it would close down debate and discussion. Theology should not be the handcuffed servant of the Curia. Theological enquiry was not a search for immediate consensus – it had to be an open ended and conflictual process as it had been in the ancient church. The job of the theologian was to help to keep dogmatic utterances in perspective by examining their meaning.
Newman was neither defending disobedience nor advocating heresy hunting, but he was arguing that properly formed Christian consciences would observe the generous limits between the two allowed by the Church. It was out of such debates that the Creeds had emerged, it would be out of them they would be defended.
If we are to understand what Newman meant by drinking to ‘conscience first’, we need to see him as a theologian whose own life expressed the painful, uneasy balance between heart, head and institution which his own thought advocated as being central to the life of the Christian. In his own time, the balance had been tipped too far in the direction of authority, which meant a time would come when it would tip too far in the direction of the heart. Dissent should not be mistaken for a mature contribution to debate, but for the latter to exist, authority needed to be less repressive, just as theologians needed to remember their responsibilities.