A new proposal on conscience is a frontal assault on the teachings of Veritatis Splendor, Gaudium et Spes and Cardinal Newman

At the end of the synod’s first week, I made a local pilgrimage to the titular church of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Rome, San Giorgio in Velabro, for his October 9 feast day.

In the synod’s third week, a project unrelated to the synod required a short trip to Dublin where I was able to visit the original buildings of the Catholic University of Ireland, Newman’s 1850s project in Dublin, now called Newman House. The stately buildings on St Stephen’s Green now belong to University College Dublin, but the church Newman built for his Catholic university is still an active parish, and the parish priest was kind enough to let this Newman House chaplain from Canada offer the daily Mass.

Visiting Newman sites was not a distraction from the synod, but a correction to some of the dangers in it. As the synod draws to a close four things are becoming clear.

The “13 cardinals” letter, together with Pope Francis’s favourable response, achieved real results. Far from undermining the synod’s work, it gave it the synod fathers the space and structure they needed. The synod proceeded with open discussion without the fear of manipulation, as votes on the final document were assured, and the small group reports were published. Without those two guarantees, uncertain before the cardinals’ letter, the atmosphere or suspicion and rancour that marked the second week of the 2014 synod would have returned.

The assurance by Pope Francis – not for the first time, it should be noted – that doctrine would not be touched gave a significant majority of the synod’s fathers the confidence to reject the Kasper proposal for admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion, as it clearly touches on several fundamental sacramental doctrines. By the end of the final week, the Kasper proposal was clearly not going to be endorsed in the final document.

The secondary Kasper proposal of a “local option” in which different countries or regions would take different approaches also was headed for sound rejection.

The tertiary Kasper proposal, introduced by Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago informally at a casual encounter with journalists, took everyone back to immediate aftermath of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Then, as now, the view was that the Magisterium could formulate a universal moral norm, but in conscience a particular person could decide – presumably in conversation with his or her confessor – that the universal moral norm did not apply to the particular person or case in question.

What Archbishop Cupich introduced the German-speaking bishops formalised into what they called the “internal forum” proposal – the same idea by a different name. How the question of conscience will be treated in the final document was a remaining question for Saturday, the final working day of the synod.

Archbishop Cupich said that “conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that.”

He was speaking the truth, but not the whole of it.

Conscience is treated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in an article that contains more than 20 paragraphs. Pertinent to the Cupich-German formulation we read the following in #1790:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. (1790)

The Catechism goes on to say that this ignorance “can often be imputed to personal responsibility” and “in such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (1791). It then specifies that errors in conscience can result from an “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” as well as “a rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching”, among other factors (1792).

The teaching on conscience thus explicitly excludes the possibility that as one comes to know better the Church’s teaching, one may be free in good conscience to reject it.

Which brings us to Newman. The Catechism section on conscience has 15 footnotes: eight are scriptural, referring to 14 different verses; three are to Gaudium et Spes #16, Vatican II’s lyrical treatment of conscience; two are to Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty; and one each to St. Augustine and to John Henry Newman.

That’s quite remarkable company for Blessed John Henry Newman to keep, and the reference is to his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in which he provided a most complete treatment of conscience, which provided the framework for Gaudium et Spes #16:

Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it 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 is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and even though the eternal priesthood throughout the world should cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and have a sway …

Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self will … the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to [one’s] judgment or [one’s] humour, without any thought of God at all… [such that it is the] very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.

If Blessed John Henry were to have appeared ghostlike in the synod hall and said just that, he would hardly be a 19th-century relic. He would be at the cutting edge of the synod’s final days. And he might have earned a stern rebuke from Archbishop Cupich and the German-speaking bishops, who were not subtle in suggesting that bishops who speak like Newman – in substance of course, for no one today can match his style – were lacking in pastoral charity.

In the aftermath of Humanae Vitae in 1968, the “internal forum” manoeuvre was widespread, endorsed by entire episcopal conferences and regnant in Catholic faculties of theology. Twenty of years of consequent confusion led to the most ambitious project, save for the Catechism itself, of the John Paul-Joseph Ratzinger theological collaboration, Veritatis Splendor, the encyclical on the foundations of the moral life. It was six years in the making and involved a global consultation contemporaneous with the work of the Catechism. John Paul treated there the question of conscience in exhaustive detail.

The Cupich-German proposal at the synod is, despite its presentation as a discreet way to dispose of difficult cases, a frontal assault on Veritatis Splendor, and by extension Gaudium et Spes #16, and its spiritual father, Cardinal Newman. If Newman was the “absent father” of Vatican II, his presence was certainly needed at Synod 2015.

John Paul – in collaboration with Ratzinger, whose debt to Newman was publicly acknowledged when he travelled to Birmingham in 2010 to beatify him personally – takes up Newman’s vision of the moral life as a grand adventure, in which man’s conscience permits him to touch in ordinary life the divine order of the cosmos. It is that vision, and the rejection of its negation, that animates the end of Veritatis Splendor, where John Paul addresses the clashing visions apparent at Synod 2015:

At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practise. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church (#119).

Blessed John Henry Newman would agree.