Conscience, Newman, and Vatican II

In his February 9thaddress at the Von Hügel Institute, St. Edmund Campion College, Cambridge University, Cardinal Blase Cupich claimed that at the heart of the so-called “new hermeneutic” of chapter 8 of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia is the role of conscience for discerning what God is asking of me here and now.

In one sense, of course, there is nothing disturbing about focusing on the situation of the person-specific role of conscience. John Henry Newman also observed that “conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done.” Newman adds, citing Thomas Aquinas, “‘Conscience’, says St. Thomas, ‘is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil’.”

For Thomas and Newman, then, the particular judgment of conscience about the morality of given acts is about doing good and avoiding evil.

Unlike Thomas and Newman, however, Cardinal Cupich distinguishes conscience’s role in this sense from conscience’s ability to grasp objective moral truths. He interprets conscience as an oracle in which the situation and person-specific judgments of conscience are equated with the voice of God: “Their decisions of conscience represent God’s personal guidance for the particularities of their lives. In other words, the voice of conscience – the voice of God – or . . . what Newman called ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’, could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance[here and now] from the Church’s understanding of the [moral] ideal.” (emphasis added)

So, the individual’s subjective conscience hears God telling him that he is justified in doing that which is inconsistent with what is objectively right and avoiding what is objectively wrong. According to Cupich, then, conscience justifiably retains the final word in opposition to the objective truth. Despite his protest, Cupich’s “new hermeneutic” regarding pastoral reasoning is a version of situation ethics.

The Cardinal is, furthermore, wrong about Newman’s account of conscience. For Newman, although he refers to conscience as the voice of God, conscience is an organ, not an oracle. Like perception, memory, reasoning, and human testimony, conscience involves a way of forming beliefs and evaluating them.


Conscience, explains Newman, is “a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, though such training and experience is necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation.”

Newman adds, likening conscience to other ways of forming beliefs and evaluating them, conscience is “a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments.” Significantly, he concludes, “as Catholics consider it,” conscience is “the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.”

In this light, we can see why Newman rejects conscience as “the right of self-will.” “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” In other words, conscience cannot “ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, [as if it were] independent of . . . obligations.”

This conclusion brings us to Cardinal Cupich’s claim that this “new hermeneutic” has fully embraced the “understanding of conscience found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes §16.” “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” Here, too, Cupich wrongly interprets conscience not only as an oracle rather than an organ, but he also wrongly asserts that an individual is justified in doing that which is inconsistent with what is objectively right and avoiding what is objectively wrong.

But Cupich couldn’t be more wrong not only about Gaudium et spes §16, in particular, but also the role of universally binding moral norms – the natural law – in Vatican Council II.

Like Newman, Gaudium et spes§16 understands conscience to be “the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.” It states: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.”

Similarly, we read in Dignitatis Humanae §3 that the highest norm of human life is God’s divine law – eternal, objective, and universal.” In addition, “Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth. . .in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience.”

Gaudium et spes §79 focuses on “the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles [see Gaudium et spes §27]. Man’s conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles. Therefore, actions which deliberately conflict with these same principles . . . cannot excuse those who yield to them.” (emphasis added).

Vatican II is emphatically contrary to Cardinal Cupich’s account of conscience.

Moreover, subordinate to God’s divine, eternal, objective, and universal law that summons man to “love and to do what is good and avoid evil,” is Vatican II’s true norm for guiding human choices and actions.” In Gaudium et spes§35 we read that this norm “is that in accord with the divine plan and will, human activity should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it.” (emphasis added)

I have written elsewhere about Cupich’s lopsided anthropology, moral culpability and justifying particular judgments of conscience – crucial for the moral logic of pastoral reasoning in Amoris Laetitia.

Pace Cardinal Cupich, by any fair reading, there is no justification in Newman or in Vatican II for removing the universally binding validity of particular norms in specific judgments of conscience.


*Image: The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) by Vincent van Gogh, 1890 [Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Nehterlands]

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.