One can only presume that the relative unpopularity of St. John Henry Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” comes from its very name. A tract called “On Papal Infallibility and the Duty of Conscience,” written as it is by one of the greatest Christian writers of the past two centuries, would certainly gain notoriety, and serve as a better reflection of the contents. Whatever the title, it is a text which should be read at this moment. A Catholic publisher could do the world a lot of good republishing it under a new title: “Newman on Conscience” or something of the sort.
Newman deals directly with two of the most important issues confronting any Catholic of goodwill at the present moment, namely the freedom of conscience, and the level of deference owed to authority, papal and otherwise. The letter was written in the wake of the First Vatican Council, where the doctrine of papal infallibility was proclaimed. Newman’s task was to explain why this newly defined dogma did not grant the pope plenary power, and why, pace the charges of William Gladstone, it did not oblige a Catholic man to commit treason at the behest of the pope.
The English saint was no great fan of the Vatican Council, and his reflections constitute a kind of antidote to those who would say that the pope’s arbitrary will is synonymous with the Catholic faith. What powers the Council does not explicitly give to the pope, Newman retains as matters that are up for debate. A Catholic is no longer free to deny the doctrine of papal infallibility or the assertions made ex cathedra by the supreme pontiff. “But,” says Newman,
The field of religious thought which the duty of faith occupies, is small indeed compared with that which is open to our free, though of course to our reverent and conscientious, speculation.
In other words, these are matters left to man’s conscience, provided we are reverent.
The Legacy of English Catholicism
We should not be surprised that so many of the greatest saints to speak about conscience were Englishmen. England, of all the nations where the Catholic Church had been fully established, was the most significant one that ultimately left the fold for a Protestant sect. Because of this, the Englishman was largely unique among Catholics in having his loyalty so regularly split between his government and his God. In principle, man owes fealty to both, and as such there could be no one set rule of conduct for how man should behave against these eternal and ever-changing demands. The situation left the Englishman and his salvation dependent on his personal judgment, his conscience, to survive.
This special place of English Catholics arose out of King Henry’s usurpation, and it is always worth going over the affair again. Henry was not seeking a divorce but an annulment of his marriage from Catherine of Aragon; she had previously been vowed to his brother, but he had died before the marriage could be consummated. Under Henry’s specious theory, his marriage to Catherine was incestuous and illegitimate; an annulment was in order. But Pope Clement could not agree. Perhaps given the English domestic turmoil and the Lutheran treason abroad, he would have liked to. But he did not and he could not, for he lacked jurisdiction to contradict the vows of two laymen made before God. Those vows trumped the will of the most powerful man on earth. “What God has joined let no man tear asunder,” made even the pope impotent to act. Henry’s usurpation, his claim of jurisdiction over vows freely made, was not of the pope’s power, but of God’s.
The Authority of Conscience
Conscience, like wedding vows, is also something above the pope. It is a direct line between man and God. “Conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator,” as Newman said in his “Grammar of Assent.” It is where our true and immutable freedom lies, for while among earthly things the moth consumes, and thieves rob and steal, there is nothing external to us which can sever the union between God and ourselves in our conscience, and there is nothing we need to fear. Our true liberty is in our conscience. Our property, our mobility, our lives can be taken from us, but our ability to think and believe what we like is beyond the tyrant’s reach. It is the height of freedom, and freedom is man’s highest attribute apart from the divine grace he is given. Man can, with his free choice, opt for the side of virtue and godliness, or he can opt for the side of ego and pride.
Conscience is the Divine Law as interpreted in the minds of men. Unlike the general precepts given by divine and natural law, conscience concerns the concrete application of principles in the here and now. Conscience is not a “fancy or an opinion, but a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us.” Conscience is not a call for moral anarchy, for man still has a moral obligation to inform himself of the moral law, and to do his best to discern the facts at hand. He cannot pretend the Ten Commandments don’t exist, for even the untutored pagan cannot plead ignorance of the natural law written in his heart. A man has the duty to form his conscience with proper morality – those abstract principles given by the Church – but must then make a concrete moral decision using his conscience at any given time.
Conscience Is More Important than Certainty
The Church could not be universal if men were not free in their consciences. The eye of a needle would be far too spacious for all the men who would be able to make it to heaven on their intellects alone. Salvation would be a matter of possessing perfect wisdom, a gift God has given very few. We need freedom of conscience because we lack indefeasible knowledge, and even our wisest, most considered decisions are often muddled in error. We are, in comparison, pathetic creatures, bound by the limits of our senses and ratiocination. This is not an admission of defeat; we are still rational, and duty-bound to learn the truth as well as we can. But we can never know the fullness of truth in this lifetime. During the Western Schism millions of Catholics, in complete good faith and dedication to Christ and His Church, fell in line behind men later declared to be antipopes, some of whom were later declared saints (notably, the great St. Vincent Ferrer).
Pride is the root of all sins, not intellectual error. And when, in good faith, we come to a mistaken conclusion, we are not damned by it. We are bound to try to come to the correct conclusion – this is an act of the will which even a dullard can undertake. But except in very particular matters, such as those defined by the Church and laid out in Scripture, we have no assurance. Most critically, a man must adhere to his conscience even if his conscience is mistaken. As the Fourth Lateran Council stated, “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.”
Conscience and the Pope
How does this leave us against the pope? Newman tells us,
Conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy. Let it be observed that the Vatican Council has left him just as it found him here.
The pope does not have a right to force us to violate the divine law or the natural law, or even perhaps the civil law of a nation. He does not, for example, have an absolute right to require us to commit treason against our native lands. The pope’s declarations in these cases may be right and just; they might be invaluable in helping us rightly form our consciences, as it is our absolute duty to do. But a Christian is not bound to these declarations, the way he is bound to assent to the components of the Apostles’ Creed, or to the six precepts of the Church. As Newman averred in the “Letter’s” most famous passage,
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.
Conscience and the Vaccine
In the present day, we can imagine that the pope might command all Catholics to take the vaccine, because the pope can say and do whatever he wishes. The question is what kind of allegiance a Catholic must have to such a command. Especially for matters that are not propositions of faith and morals and regard particulars of the common good (like a vaccine), this must eventually come down to conscience. The Catholic who thinks the pope’s command is right and well-formed is bound to take the vaccine. But the Catholic whose conscience tells him the pope is wrong must reject the command. The pope speaks with authority that should always be weighed in the balance. He is a guard of certain wisdoms that warrants deference, even when the man himself is a dunce. But in the end, it is not the pope who can make the decision, it is you. It is your soul in the balance, not his.
The supremacy of conscience requires we show special charity. Every man desires the virtue of wisdom, the grace of knowing and understanding more about the world. But if we are to give conscience the reverence it deserves, we must adopt a harder virtue to acquire – humility. I personally couldn’t disagree more vehemently with those Catholics who get the vaccine, which from my view is a terrible mistake.
But while I think their decision is a bad one, I cannot say it is sinful.
Those who did their due diligence weighing the complex morality of enforced medical technology, who tried to establish the costs and benefits of the jab (or at least what the media would tell them), who relied on Catholic authorities from the Pope to the SSPX saying it could be licit: These are people who acted according to their consciences as best as they could, and have not sinned as a result of it.
As another English saint and authority on conscience wrote from the Tower of London, “Not that I condemn any other man’s consciences. Their consciences may save them; and mine must save me.” These words from St. John Fisher to the wretched Cromwell show us the humility proper to our state. For in a matter he was so sure of – so sure he would give his life to it – Fisher still knew he could not judge the souls of those who took the opposite side, and who would eventually take his head. This was not an admission that his cause was not just, or that he was not in the right; it was certainly nothing close to the modern belief that truth is subjective, or can never be grasped at all. No, it was an acknowledgement of man’s lowly place relative to the truth; an acknowledgement that “the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it.” Our intellects have been so wounded by the Fall that we can never grasp the fullness of truth in this life. But God in His mercy does not require intellectual infallibility from us, only that we act according to our consciences, errant though they may be. It is by this mercy alone that we have hope of being saved, and it is by rendering this mercy to our feeble fellow creatures that we might achieve it.
Painting: Cardinal Newman by John Everett Millais, 1881.
 Editor’s note: in this provision about “reverence” we can note Newman’s implication that a conscience be properly formed by Tradition, and not the false “conscience” of Liberal heretics who dissented from Humanae Vitae, for example. See the Catholic Teaching on Conscience.
 In this I rely on Belloc’s assertion that the other Protestant nations – the northern German states, the Dutch Provinces, Sweden – were never fully established in the Catholic faith and culture; at the very least, their role within Christendom was nowhere near that of England’s. See Belloc’s Europe and the Faith, Ch. 9.
 The subsequent papal deposing of Elizabeth I and later rapprochement (even the papal allowance of an Anglican rite of coronation!) for Catholic James II, to the Catholic emancipation in the 19th century, illustrates this English Catholic legacy of conscience.
 Newman’s, Essay on the Development of Doctrine, ch. 8.
Richard Greenhorn is a writer and attorney who lives with his wife and son in the Midwest.