Saint Ignatius High School

Why Conscience Reigns Supreme

The recently canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman inspired today's Lesson from Loyola Hall for his oft-misunderstood comments on conscience. Why is conscience more than just the honest thoughts or opinions of our own mind? The answer stems from the conscience's original Creator.

One of the most common, and saddest, aspects of the human person is the willingness to be self-deluded. It is the opposite of the virtue of prudence, and since prudence is the foundation of the cardinal virtues this self-deception blocks our ability to engage fully with the other virtues, i.e., justice courage, and moderation.

Prudence is usually seen as the ability to keep your mouth shut in order to keep your foot out of it.  Yet, that is akin to holding a grain of sand and claiming that you have the beach in your hand.  Prudence is actually “the ability to view objectively the realities surrounding our actions, and making them have bearing on our actions.”  That’s what the renowned philosopher Josef Pieper said in The Christian Idea of Man.

This definition was on my mind last week not only because my seniors had just taken a test on that book, but because of the impending canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman.  This brilliant leader of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement and eventual convert to the Catholic Faith is often personally and theologically misunderstood by those who are engaged in the self-deception that Pieper calls “ideology.”  Newman is an easy go-to for those who wish to use his life and his teachings to foster their personal self-delusion or ideology.

Ideology, according to Pieper, is self-deception on the grand scale of social theory.  An ideologue is one who lives by self-deception, by “an unobjective perception of reality dictated by the will.” For such a person, her or his ideology is the hammer and everything that comes into their path is a nail.  An ideologue is the ultimate “Johnny One-Note.”

The most commonly (and willfully?) misunderstood quote by St. John Henry Newman comes from a letter that he wrote to the Duke of Norfolk where he famously said: “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”  Ideologues of all stripes have invoked this provocative phrase whenever an inhabitant of the Chair of Peter has said something not to their liking.  It is a safe harbor for the self-deceived ideologue.

Conscience in the time of Newman was as misunderstood as it is in ours.  In the aforementioned letter to the Duke of Norfolk, our new saint noted that the common man of the day (1875) saw conscience as the right “for each to be his own master in all things.”  There is a very modern ring to this definition of conscience.  It is echoed in the famous “mystery passage” of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy from the decision to the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey where he declared: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

St. John Henry Newman might have wondered how a Catholic of such high standing could think, let alone write down for all to see, such un-Catholic thoughts about a reality so important to the heart of what it is to be human.  For Newman, as quoted in his letter to the Duke, conscience is the Law of God “apprehended in the minds of individual men.”  As such, that Law of God is “the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the Law of God.”  For a Catholic, even for a Catholic who is a Supreme Court justice, this is why conscience reigns supreme: because God and His Law reign supreme.

Our world and our age are in need of a patron saint of the personal sanctity and the intellectual acumen of a man such as St. John Henry Newman.  There may be no better saint to call upon in a world where, with each passing day, so many are drawn not to the humility of binding oneself to the voice of God within us, but, rather, to the voice of self-delusion and ideology that leads away from true liberty to the solitary confinement of pride.

In his most famous prayer St. John Henry Newman spoke words that pay tribute to the real understanding of conscience, words that seem more relevant today than when they were written.

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home-
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene-one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So Long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moon and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

St. John Henry Newman, pray for us.