Fall 2010

Conscience and Truth

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

“In this sense, Paul can say: the Gentiles are a law to themselves—not in the sense of modern liberal notions of autonomy which preclude transcendence of the subject, but in the much deeper sense that nothing belongs less to me than I myself.”

Newman and Socrates: Guides to conscience1


. . . At this juncture, I would like to make a temporary digression. Before we attempt to formulate reasonable answers to the questions regarding the essence of conscience, we must first widen the basis of our considerations somewhat, going beyond the personal which has thus far constituted our point of departure. To be sure, my purpose is not to try to develop a scholarly study on the history of theories of conscience, a subject on which different contributions have appeared just recently. I would prefer rather to stay with our approach thus far of example and narrative. A first glance should be directed to Cardinal Newman, whose life and work could be designated a single great commentary on the question of conscience. Nor should Newman be treated in a technical way. The given framework does not permit us to weigh the particulars of Newman’s concept of conscience. I would simply like to try to indicate the place of conscience in the whole of Newman’s life and thought. The insights gained from this will hopefully sharpen our view of present problems and establish the link to history, that is, both to the great witnesses of conscience and to the origin of the Christian doctrine of living according to conscience. When the subject of Newman and conscience is raised, the famous sentence from his letter to the Duke of Norfolk immediately comes to mind: “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.” In contrast to the statements of Gladstone, Newman sought to make a clear avowal of the papacy. And in contrast to mistaken forms of ultra-Montan- ism, Newman embraced an interpretation of the papacy which is only then correctly conceived when it is viewed together with the primacy of conscience, a papacy not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience but based on it and guaranteeing it. Modern man, who presupposes the opposition of authority to subjectivity, has difficulty understanding this. For him, conscience stands on the side of subjectivity and is the expression of the freedom of the subject. Authority, on the other hand, appears to him as the constraint on, threat to, and even the negation of, freedom. So then we must go deeper to recover a vision in which this kind of opposition does not obtain.


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1. This text is a selection from “Conscience and Truth,” presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops, February 1991, in Dallas, Texas. Published in On Conscience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007). Reprinted by permission.