St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Newman may not on first glance seem to be a good pairing: the twice-happily married lawyer and public servant and the celibate Oxford Fellow and Oratorian priest. The sixteenth century Catholic martyr and the nineteenth century convert and confessor; the witty teller of merry tales and the seemingly sensitive controversialist.
With a second glance, the viewer sees what they share: Both of them were born in London (actually in the City of London); both attended the University of Oxford; if More was “made for friendship” in Erasmus’s famous line, Newman selected “Cor ad cor loquitor” (Heart speaks to heart) for his motto as Cardinal, emphasizing the bonds of friendship and personal influence. They shared a desire for holiness and seeking out truth; they are both Catholic (More by birth and nurture in a Catholic family; Newman by adult conversion); More and Newman defended the truth with their pens, taking on the subjects of their day (heresy’s attack on Catholic teaching in More’s era; liberalism’s attack on religious truth in Newman’s).
Most importantly, for both of them, the true Catholic understanding of conscience was crucial in their lives. For More, following his conscience led him to martyrdom; for Newman, following his conscience led him to become a Catholic. More and Newman revealed their understanding of conscience’s purpose, authority, and source in defense of the authority of the Church’s magisterium and the role of the papacy in the Catholic Church. While they are often cited as defenders of individual conscience, they also stressed the source of conscience’s authority in each individual: God’s law, natural and revealed—and the Church’s role in teaching and defending that law.
By what authority?
Rather than consulting Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Catholics would do well to read St. Thomas More’s own words about conscience and authority in his letters and other works. In For All Seasons: Selected Letters of Thomas More (Scepter Publishers), edited by Stephen Smith or The Last Letters of Thomas More, edited by Alvaro de Silva (Eerdmans), readers may grow to appreciate how convinced More was that his conscience, responding to Catholic teaching, was leading him in the right direction.
Everyone around him was telling him that he should just join them in accepting King Henry VIII’s new claim to authority over the Church in England. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England had accepted that claim, except for John Fisher, the former Bishop of Rochester (Henry VIII had taken that title away by his authority as Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England). Why couldn’t he?
Thomas More stood alone, according to some other men named Thomas: Cromwell, Cranmer, and Audley. He was stubborn and scrupulous, they told him. Even his dearest daughter Margaret—not to mention his second wife Alice—urged him to take the Oath of Succession that Henry required of all loyal subjects. Sign the document; you’ve suffered enough—we’ve suffered enough—take the Oath and come home.
When you read the letters he wrote to Margaret and to others, however, you discover that Thomas More did not think he was alone, that he was stubborn and scrupulous: he was at peace with his conscience because he was not only obeying it, but he was obeying God. He was in union with the great communion of Saints, the Catholic Church through the ages, on earth and in Heaven. As he finally stated at his trial—according to William Roper’s account—he had formed his conscience according to the General Councils of the Church, the Fathers of the Church, the whole community of Christendom and he accepted their authority and guidance. He could not accept the authority of the Parliament of England to say that a secular monarch could exercise the spiritual authority of the Pope over the Church in one country.
He had wrestled with this impact of this decision, however, and worked up the courage to accept the cost by meditating on the Agony in the Garden and the Passion and Death of Our Lord. More had to conquer the fear of death, especially the agonizing death of a traitor. He wrote his greatest dialogue, “Of Comfort Against Tribulation” to prepare himself to face death with courage and peace. So, with God’s grace, More was able to jest on the scaffold and to hope that he and judges, Margaret, his jailor, his friend who came to give him notice of his execution on July 5, 1535—even Henry VIII—would one day “meet merrily in heaven”.
Lead, Kindly Light
More than 310 years after More’s martyrdom, the Anglican priest John Henry Newman became a Catholic on a dark and stormy night in Littlemore, near Oxford, received into the “one, true fold of Christ” by an Italian Passionist priest, Dominic Barberi on October 9, 1845. He had been wrestling with his conscience for years. In 1841, he knew he was “on his deathbed as an Anglican”, but could he become a Catholic—a Papist, according to the common pejorative term?
Like Thomas More, Newman knew that his conscience was the voice of God, his guide to moral choice. In 1816 he experienced his first religious conversion, dedicating himself to a life of holiness, believing in a definite Creed and having a firm conviction that God was present in his life—more present to him than any other reality other than himself. As he wrote in his Apologia pro vita sua, explaining the development of his religious beliefs, he was always certain of “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”
Newman recognized his conscience as the voice of God speaking to him, telling him what was right and what was wrong and telling him when he had done right or wrong. He also saw that many Christians abused and ignored their consciences, forming them according to their standards, not God’s. Thus they could sin without regret, no longer feeling the pangs of conscience. In his sermons first as an Anglican and then as a Catholic, Newman often spoke to his congregations about conscience, how a Christian should form his conscience, examine her conscience, and obey her conscience.
In Chapter 10 of his Grammar of Assent, he summed up the importance of conscience in the lives of everyone, Christian or not:
Conscience is nearer to me than any other means of knowledge. And as it is given to me, so also is it given to others; and being carried about by every individual in his own breast, and requiring nothing besides itself, it is thus adapted for the communication to each separately of that knowledge which is most momentous to him individually,—adapted for the use of all classes and conditions of men, for high and low, young and old, men and women, independently of books, of educated reasoning, of physical knowledge, or of philosophy. Conscience, too, teaches us, not only that God is, but what He is; it provides for the mind a real image of Him, as a medium of worship; it gives us a rule of right and wrong, as being His rule, and a code of moral duties.
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1991, Newman’s “life and work could be designated a single great commentary on the question of conscience.”
Papal infallibility and individual conscience
Newman finished his Grammar of Assent in 1870; the First Vatican Council met the same year, issuing the definition of papal infallibility (Pastor Aeternus). William Gladstone, four-time Prime Minister and great Tory leader, warned Catholics in England that this was a dangerous doctrine and that they should reject it as they had opposed the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I. In The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance he stated that Catholics would not be able to follow their consciences freely under Papal authority. The Papacy was the enemy of freedom of conscience.
In answer, Newman published A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, arguing that Gladstone was wrong about how papal infallibility, addressing matters of faith and morals, would influence individual Catholic consciences. Newman also reminded his readers what a conscience really is, “the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ” in each person. Too many people have the wrong idea of conscience:
they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way.
Newman states that the pope cannot deny the rights of conscience properly understood as “the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God” because it would undercut the mission and authority of the papacy. The pope, and Newman for that matter, cannot acknowledge the rights of conscience when it’s merely “a long-sighted selfishness” or “a desire to be consistent with oneself”. Facing a choice between right or wrong only true conscience helps us be consistent with God’s law; counterfeit conscience indeed leads us to perdition, even if in our “own way.”
Trusting their consciences
St. Thomas More trusted his conscience, confident that he was responding to the right authority when deciding whether or not it was good for him to take the Oath of Succession and accept Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church in England. He knew what it could cost him—his life—when he decided that he couldn’t, but he was at peace, trusting in God’s merciful goodness. As he wrote his daughter Margaret from the Tower in 1534:
I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy. And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
Blessed John Henry Newman trusted his conscience, confident that he was responding to the right authority when deciding whether or not it was good for him to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic. He knew what it would cost him—family, friends, position, and influence—when he decided that he should, but he was at peace, trusting in God’s plan for him. As he wrote in 1848,
Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
When Newman is canonized, he will take his place on the calendar of saints, the confessor of conscience alongside More, the martyr of conscience. Where St. Thomas More models the rights and duties of conscience through his martyrdom, Blessed John Henry Newman defends them through his life and works.