The aboriginal Vicar of Christ, the voice of God in the heart of Man
by Ken Myers
Our Friday Feature on October 20 presented a lecture by theologian Reinhard Hütter titled “Freedom of Conscience as Freedom in the Truth: Conscience according to Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman.” Dr. Hütter gave this lecture at the Lumen Christi Institute on January 16, 2014.
Later that year, the text of his lecture was adapted for publication in the journal Nova et Vetera (Vol. 12, No. 3). You may read that article (and print a copy for careful study) on the journal’s website here.
Much of the text was also presented in a book by Reinhard Hütter: John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits: A Guide for Our Times (The Catholic University of America Press, 2020). The paragraphs below include material common to all iterations of Hütter’s argument.
“Newman is crystal clear that any proper understanding of conscience must first and foremost articulate the theonomic nature of conscience, that is, its grounding in the divine law. Conscience is not simply a human faculty. It is constituted by the eternal law, the divine wisdom communicated to the human intellect. It is exclusively upon the intellect’s theonomic nature that the prerogatives and the supreme authority of conscience are founded. Newman states:
“The Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.
“Newman’s conception of conscience as essentially theonomic stands in stark contrast to the widespread idea that the voice of conscience is an interior voice that indulges our whims and wishes, the actual voice of sovereign self-determination. Newman impresses on his readers the rather startling fact that ‘conscience . . . is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives.’ Conscience, ‘truly so called,’ denotes the divine standard of moral truth received into the human intellect. It is theonomic all the way down.
“Newman’s stern definition might provoke objections from those who accept moral relativism and perspectivalism: ‘The Divine Law’ — which is God himself — is ‘a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.’ Is Newman here invoking some dark and by now hopefully obsolete image of a tyrannical deity produced by the medieval mind, or is he possibly indulging his own personal obsession with a dictatorial, Old Testament-style Über-father, a picture that, as the story goes, was finally abolished at the Second Vatican Council? Far from it. In fact, the magisterial reception and explication of Vatican II suggests that Newman’s understanding of conscience as essentially theonomic aligns closely with the theology affirmed by the Council. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, in explaining the teaching of Vatican II on conscience, cites Newman’s description of conscience as a messenger of God, culminating in Newman’s beautiful and memorable phrase: ‘Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.’ The Catechism suggests that Newman simply teaches the common Christian understanding of conscience.
“Newman himself, in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, points to the broad consensus between Catholics and most Protestant groups in nineteenth-century Great Britain regarding the theonomic nature of conscience:
“When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean, the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation. They speak of a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation. . . . They consider it, as Catholics consider it, to be the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.
“Newman also recognized, however, the rise of a false notion of conscience among British elites influenced by the post-Enlightenment ascendancy of the natural sciences in modern thought. Newman observes that ‘it is fashionable on all hands now to consider [conscience] in one way or another a creation of man.’ Conscience so-called, as Newman aptly put it, is regarded as at best ‘a desire to be consistent with oneself,’ a consistency constructed among the discrete dictates of the sovereign self-determination. Today this false notion of conscience has become conventional wisdom among politicians, journalists, and the so-called person on the street, and even among American mainstream Protestants. For those who have drunk from the wells of a neuroscientifically informed, neo-Darwinian sociobiology, conscience is nothing but a noble word for ‘a long-sighted selfishness’ resulting from a particular configuration of genes that has determined one particular species — homo sapiens. In short, a conscience is merely selfishness produced by forces beyond human control, forces, to use Nietzsche's famous expression, ‘beyond good and evil.’
“Newman felt the early waves of this dramatic denial of theonomic conscience implanted in the human intellect throughout most of his adult life. ‘All through my day,’ he observed:
“There has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy, against the rights of conscience. . . . We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational, for how can there possibly be freedom of will, how can there be consequent responsibility, in that infinite eternal network of cause and effect, in which we helplessly lie? And what retribution have we to fear, when we have had no real choice to do good or evil?
“Newman was also prescient in anticipating how appeals to this counterfeit of conscience would be made. It might at first seem surprising that appeals to conscience would survive the denial of theonomic conscience. If God does not exist and human beings are causally determined in their acts — whether by Darwinian genetic competition, Marxist socioeconomic forces and social systems, the Freudian ‘id’ or subconscious, or by some combination of all these factors — then why appeal to conscience at all? It being presumably pointless, one would expect that in an increasingly secular culture the appeal to conscience would be moot. But this has not been the case, as any observer of public and political life in late-modern secularist democracies is well aware. The appeal to conscience has not disappeared but has been completely transformed. As Newman observes:
“When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. . . . Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again.... It is the right of self-will.
“Unmoored from its theonomic anchorage, the word conscience has come to stand for its counterfeit, denoting not the divine law impressed upon the human intellect but the decisions of the individual’s sovereign self-determination. The realm of sovereign self-determination encompasses first and foremost one’s body, which is now regarded as one’s property. As a result, it extends to the choices that lie open to a person as the owner of his or her body — for example, choices related to gender identity or sexual activity, including the kind and number of intimate partners one elects to have. Sovereign self-determination extends as well to questions of whether to conceive children in the womb, how many children to have, and control over their genetic characteristics. Finally, it includes choices about when and how one’s life will end. Sovereign freedom’s only limitation is linked to the liberal principle of harm: all choices are permissible so long as they do not restrict the freedom of indifference of everyone else.”
— from Reinhard Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits: A Guide for Our Times (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). Dr. Hütter was a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal.