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That Still Small Voice

by Edwin Faust
August 20, 2010

Among the many casualties of the Second Vatican Council lay the careful words of John Cardinal Newman concerning conscience: "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." — Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

A great load of doctrinal dissent has been placed on the frail Cardinal's shoulders as a result of this entirely orthodox statement made in the context of a dispute about the fitness of Catholics to be loyal subjects of the British Crown.

In his pamphlet, The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, published in 1874, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone urged British Catholics to reject the First Vatican Council's decree on papal infallibility. He maintained that the decree created a dilemma for Roman Catholics who might be forced to choose between Pope and country.

Cardinal Newman drew the necessary distinctions that Gladstone had ignored. He pointed out the limits of papal infallibility, which is restricted to the domains of faith and morals as applied to the universal Church. Newman went on to say that outside the circumscribed areas of infallibility lay a vast territory in which individuals are free to exercise their private judgment without let or hindrance.

Newman was in no way concerned to force papal authority into a narrow cell where it would remain practically irrelevant to ordinary life. On the contrary, he believed that infallibility extended to encyclicals and publicly proclaimed his full assent to the controversial Syllabus of Errors, which had not been signed by Pope Pius IX but which Newman took to be authoritative.

Newman said, however, that in purely disciplinary matters not involving faith and morals, and in his political opinions, the Pope's positions might be disputed, with all due respect. Indeed, one can, legitimately, as a matter of conscience, oppose papal policy, as did some British Catholics when the Spanish Armada sailed against Protestant England in 1588. Many traditional Catholics have in our own day opposed the Holy See's policies on ecumenism and liturgical reform. Newman would have understood.

What Newman would not understand is his being dragooned into the ranks of those who reject immemorial Church teachings in matters of faith and morals. Newman was pressed into service in 1968 by the dissenters against Humanae Vitae, who claimed that Pope Paul VI was trespassing in the domain of conscience by his condemnation of artificial birth control. The Pope was merely restating magisterial teaching in a matter of universal morals, but it was received otherwise by many Catholics.

A gravely misunderstood Cardinal Newman became their champion and he has since then been made the patron saint of heterodox theology. "Conscience first!" has become the battle cry of those who would remain Catholic while rejecting Catholic doctrine.

Clarifying Newman's position has become important now that the Holy Father is about to beatify the Cardinal in September at Birmingham. Indeed, if the Pope is to further what he has called his hermeneutic of continuity, he must not allow himself to be perceived as beatifying one who is wrongly claimed as an apologist for the hermeneutic of discontinuity.

Newman said that there could be no conflict between conscience and papal infallibility because conscience in matters of faith and morals was based on that very infallibility.

"We have not to find the truth, it is put into our hands; we have but to commit it to our hearts, to preserve it inviolate, and to deliver it over to our posterity." — Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 11, sermon XXII.

This is hardly the pronouncement of one who reserves all assent to Church teaching until it has been examined by "conscience," used wrongly as a synonym for private judgment.

It is ironic that the popes since Vatican II have shown a marked proclivity for non-magisterial opinion, expressed in books, interviews, speeches and the variety of venues that have come with the new peripatetic papacy. And many of these opinions are given more weight by the media than are the Church's dogmatic teachings.

When John Paul II died, not a few commentators lauded him for having opposed capital punishment, a position they took to be binding on Catholics. John Paul was also praised for having rejected the Church's teaching that the New Covenant had replaced the Old Covenant and for having rejected the dogma that the Catholic Church was the sole ark of salvation. The Jews, it was claimed, were grandfathered in by the Pope and allowed to do business at the same old stand.

Pope Benedict now has a precious opportunity to set the record straight on the matter of papal infallibility, conscience and the irreformable nature of immemorial doctrine. He can also rescue Cardinal Newman from those who would drag this blessed Catholic prelate back into the Protestantism from which he emerged, at the cost of a great personal struggle, to become the Church's shining light of true conscience.


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