Newman on conscience


Sir, – In the Dáil last Monday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar invoked the newly canonised Saint John Henry Newman in order to reassure Brendan Howlin that there is no danger of Irish politicians returning to the era when “clerics instructed politicians” (News, October 15th). Mr Howlin had protested at the outrageous claim by Archbishop Eamon Martin at the Kilkenny Summer School that Catholic politicians should act as Catholics. The archbishop had dared to say that Catholic politicians are obliged to support laws that uphold the dignity of every person from conception to death, even though this moral principle is not based on faith but on reason open to all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Asked if he planned to discuss the matter with church leaders, Mr Varadkar replied “that he was reminded of St John Henry Newman’s remarks when he learned of the new doctrine of papal infallibility. Mr Varadkar paraphrased his quote that ‘I drink to the Pope but first to my own conscience’.”

How could anyone get it so wrong?

The doctrine of papal infallibility was not new; what was new was its new status as defined dogma. Like Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, who also thought it wasn’t needed, since Catholics took it in with their mother’s milk, Newman too had his reservations about the need to define it. But once defined, he defended it in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk against British prime minister Gladstone’s misunderstanding of it.

For Newman, conscience is the human capacity to recognise the objective truth about good and evil.

What Newman actually wrote at the end of his exposé on conscience should be noted: “Certainly, 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.”

Newman was not taking about “my own conscience”, in other words about a purely subjective judgment or opinion, as it is understood today, even among some Irish moral theologians. He developed an understanding of conscience as our antenna for objective truth, as the voice of God echoing in the heart of every human being. This human capacity, Newman stressed, is fragile and open to distortion by personal and cultural forces. The church’s God-given authority to speak the truth in season and out of season is thus needed to awaken conscience as much as God’s grace is needed to follow it.

Those who act on their conscience don’t simply follow the majority opinion – they suffer for it. As did Sophie and Hans Scholl (of the While Rose resistance movement opposed to Nazism) under the influence of Newman, and they paid for it with their lives. Lucinda Creighton paid for it with her expulsion from Mr Varadkar’s own Fine Gael party.

Conscience calls for courage – and faith.

Because of the experience of Nazi Germany, when conscience was crushed by the Nazi Party, the German constitution drawn up after the second World War stipulates that the conscience of its parliamentarians overrules party allegiance. Would that that stipulation would apply in Ireland! – Yours, etc,



Professor Emeritus

of Moral Theology,


Co Kildare.