In other words, the centrality of the concept of conscience in Newman is linked to the antecedent centrality of the concept of truth; only this latter concept allows us to understand what Newman means by ‘conscience.’ The dominance of the idea of conscience in Newman does not mean that this nineteenth-century theologian maintains a philosophy or theology of subjectivity in opposition to ‘objective’ neo-scholasticism… his attention [to the knowing subject] echoes that of Augustine, not that of the subjectivist philosophy of the modern period…
For Newman, conscience does not mean that it is the subject that has the final word vis-à-vis the claims made by authority in a world devoid of truth, a world that lives on the basis of a compromise between the claims made by the subject and the claims of a societal order. Rather, conscience signifies the perceptible and commanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject itself.
Conscience means the abolition of mere subjectivity when man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God… Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was not a matter of his own personal taste or of a subjective need of his soul. As late as 1844, on the threshold of his conversion, he wrote that no one could take a more unfavorable view than he himself of the contemporary state of Roman Catholicism. He was convinced that he must obey the truth that he had recognized, rather than his own taste, even at the price of his own feelings and of the ties of friendship formed with those who until then had been his companions… Newman, when listing the virtues, places truth above goodness—or, to make this point in language with which we are more familiar today, above consensus, above what is acceptable within the group.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 86-7
Reflection – OK, this is a bit heady, I grant you. I considered omitting this part of the essay, except for the small detail that this is precisely where Ratzinger develops the key point he wants to convey to us. It is this: “conscience signifies the perceptible and commanding voice of truth in the subject itself… where man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God.”
This is far from the modern notion where conscience puts me in the driver’s seat, so no one can tell me nothing about what is right and wrong, because I have a conscience and conscience is supreme, man! Conscience rules! The pope drools!
OK, most moderns might put it a leetle more respectfully than that. But nonetheless that’s the basic gist. My conscience means I decide and no one can tell me I’m wrong. Here, instead, conscience means that in the depths of my being, in the innermost chasms of my mind and heart, I have a voice that is telling me the truth—not my truth, not the truth I want to hear, not my likes and dislikes dressed up as truth, but Truth.
This places each human being under a terrific responsibility, if you think about it. Each one of us must give an account of ourselves to this Truth; each one of us is a true actor, a true agent, a protagonist in a great drama, a morality play if you will.
No one is simply to be borne along on the waves of social conformity; no one is a helpless victim of circumstance; no one can say ‘I had no choice! I had to go with what everyone else was doing!’
We always have a choice. Not an easy choice, not a choice that is free from suffering and even death (see the martyrs, indeed see Christ Himself), but a choice nonetheless. God is at work in every human heart, every human soul, through the faculty of conscience, calling us to seek what is true and good, not what is convenient and pleasing. And it is right here, right in the call to listen to the voice of conscience and pursue it, that we are in an encounter with God Himself, where “man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God.”
This is why conscience claims cannot be messed around with. For the state to put people in a position of facing jail time, heavy fines, or cataclysmic shutterings of social, charitable, educational, and health care institutions due to an insistence on a course of action that is literally (in Cardinal Dolan’s words) unconscionable, is horrifyingly wrong, really. It is striking at the very heart of the human project, the call of each human being to deep moral responsibility at the heart of their own personal subjectivity. It cannot stand.