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John Henry Newman and the Primacy of Conscience


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With the beatification of John Henry Newman, it is timely to recall how he dealt with a Victorian version of a challenge to the primacy of conscience

An Editorial from The Tablet

Allegations that Catholics are unsuited to public office because they are "under orders" from the Pope buzz around like a fly that refuses to be swatted. In the land of the "constitutional separation of Church and State" it dogged President Kennedy in his day; it nearly derailed the presidential candidature of John Kerry in 2004; and it has now been raised as a reason why the next United Kingdom ambassador to the Holy See should not be - as the Government seems to intend, unwisely but for other reasons - a Roman Catholic political grandee. A retired diplomat said in the main feature article in last week's Church Times that Catholics were unsuitable for that or similar posts because they were under two conflicting loyalties, which he called "sovereignties" - one to their country and one to the Church.

With the beatification of John Henry Newman nearly at hand, it is timely to recall how he dealt with a Victorian version of this challenge in his famous "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", written largely in response to Gladstone's angry reaction to the definition of papal infallibility. Part of Newman's reply was to stress the role of conscience, the "universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution". He declared: "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."

Even more effectively, he insisted that the Pope's "prerogative of authority is no infallibility in laws, commands, or measures" but was restricted to what Newman called "matters speculative", that is to say, to thoughts, ideas and opinions. His exclusion of "laws, commands and measures" suggests he would not have approved of the threats in 2004 to deprive Senator Kerry of Holy Communion because of the line he took on abortion, made by, among others, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St Louis. Archbishop Burke has since been appointed by Pope Benedict as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, and will no doubt soon be a cardinal. And this raises a key question concerning the papal visit to Britain next month. Will the Pope seek to undermine the implicit tolerance of differing opinions that is such a healthy characteristic of Catholic life in Britain?

If he insists that Newman's treatment of liberty of conscience does not permit dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium, he will be widely interpreted as demanding a clampdown against, for instance, Catholic homosexuals, couples who use contraception, or Catholics not persuaded by the Church's position on female ordination. Pope Benedict said somewhat ominously in his remarks to the bishops of England and Wales in February that "it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate". It is also important to recognise that Newman would have been amazed by - and presumably delighted by - Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty. "This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom ... no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs ..."

Will the Pope, in effect, tell future Catholic ambassadors from the United Kingdom that they have no business passing on opinions of their government which are in conflict with the teaching of the Church, thus proving Gladstone and the Church Times right? Will he tell Catholic parliamentarians in Britain that their duty is to obey their bishops rather than their consciences before deciding how to vote on moral issues of the day? Pope Benedict is surely too good a scholar and too close a student of Newman's thinking to deliver such a fatal blow to the possibility of Catholic participation in the democratic process - in Newman's own country, indeed.

Reprinted from The Tablet (Aug. 29/10).

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