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Postscript: Suicide Watch

No one could read Newman and imagine he is suggesting that it would be warrantable for any pope to recommend that bishops and priests consult their private judgment whether the Church is sworn to uphold the Moral Law.

Saint Peter statue outside the Basilica, Vatican, Rome. (Image: Fr. Barry Braum/

In response to my recent article “Pastoral’ Discernment and Cutting the Ground Under the Papal Feet”, in which I quoted St John Henry Newman to argue that the pope is obliged to uphold the Moral Law as a part of his papal charge, a few learned friends wrote suggesting that I consider adding a few things to clarify the rather simple point of the piece.

Here is the central quote from Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk which I quoted in the piece:

Did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act; he would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that “Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.”

In retrospect, I see that I should have added the definition that Newman gives his readers of what he regards as the “true sense” of conscience in the Letter.

“Conscience,” Newman says, “is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself, but… 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…”

Of course, the “true sense” of conscience for Newman could never be a merely subjectivist or secular understanding of conscience. No one could read this and imagine that Newman is suggesting that it would be warrantable for any pope to recommend that bishops and priests consult their private judgment whether the Church is sworn to uphold the Moral Law.

Faithful popes uphold the Moral Law not as a subjective exercise in private judgment but as a ‘messenger’ from God. If any pope were to refuse to heed or flout that messenger, Newman is clear, he would perforce be committing a “suicidal act.”  This is not a rhetorical flourish on the part of the English saint: it is the God’s honest truth.

Speaking of truth, I should make one final point. In Veritatis Splendor (1993), Pope John Paul II echoes Newman as to whether the pope has the authority to recommend that his bishops and priests consider flouting the moral law. There, St John Paul the Great says categorically:

Today… it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values”, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.

For John Paul II, as for Newman, the Magisterium is not “capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’ counter to those of the Divine Lawgiver’s Moral Law.

If any pope were somehow to deem himself capable of such intervention and “speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word,” we should be witnessing, in fact, a most extraordinary suicide watch.

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About Edward Short 36 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. About morality, the pope, and synodality:

    Two years ago, yours truly began a Dispatch opinion piece on Synodality with these words: “In this month of October, as we begin to ‘walk together’ in synodality, I recall a very favorable experience as a member of an archdiocesan pastoral council during 2001-2004.”

    The 21-member archdiocesan pastoral council was a model of diversity, and conducted twelve listening sessions across western Washington State. After three years, its 108 recommendations (“A Future Full of Hope”) were grouped into five sections: Communion with God made visible; Encuentro: encountering Jesus Christ; Evangelization as Ministry of the Baptized; Catholic Family Life: Seedbed of Discipleship and Vocations; and Mission, Stewardship: Faith in Action.

    Our experience with this archdiocesan pastoral council showed BOTH similarities AND differences with the layered bundling of the recent diocesan synodal gatherings into a globally “aggregated, compiled, and synthesized” kitchen-blender omelet—the tautological Synod on Synodality.

    Some key points and differences worthy of pause:

    FIRST, as with the larger CELAM model (Latin American Episcopal Conference), the template now applied to synodality, the diocesan experience also included a broad element on Encuentro, but this “encounter” was to be grounded first in Jesus Christ, rather than in our synodal and ungrounded “walking together.”

    SECOND, like CELAM and Synodality, the council explored “situated collegiality,” but did not conflate a council or focus group with the “hierarchical communion” of the Church (Lumen Gentium, and the “difference in kind and not only degree” between the ordained and personally accountable successors of the apostles and the baptized laity, n. 10). The participating archbishop and auxiliary bishop (and a future bishop) convened, but were not confined “primarily as facilitators” only to be further displaced by “experts” at a later stage.

    THIRD, the focus of the archdiocesan council was on “conversion, communion and solidarity,” rather than synodality’s truncated/recentered “communion, participation, and mission,” with an implied ambulatory Holy Spirit and with minimal, if any, mention of conversion.

    Wondering, here, how the Synod’s recommendations will reconnect, forthrightly, with (a) Natural Law and moral absolutes (viz the magisterium and the dubia’s Catechism and Veritatis Splendor) and with (b) the Second Vatican Council’s “hierarchical communion”? The irreducible DIFFERENCE between “situated collegiality” and the 1960ish “situation ethics,” and between broad Encuentro and the distinct “hierarchical communion” of the Apostolic Church…

    “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

  2. This is in the long line of the prophets of doom suggesting the false alarm that Pope Francis is going to change doctrine especially in morality in the upcoming Synod on Synodality. It simply betrays an utter ignorance about the nature of synods or of synodality. Likewise it is also just in the line of anti-Francis ideology out to sabotage any initiative of the reigning Pope and who do not see anything positive in his papacy.

    • “… suggesting the false alarm that Pope Francis is going to change doctrine especially in morality …”

      The bishops of Argentina seem to think it already happened with AL. I’m inclined to agree. At the very least, it has to be acknowledged that AL leaves the door wide open for beliefs and practices openly contrary to what John Paul II clearly articulated in VS.

      “It simply betrays an utter ignorance about the nature of synods or of synodality.”

      Considering that Pope Francis and the various folks in charge of the Synod have offered all sorts of competing and even conflicting utterances about “synodality,” and that some Eastern Catholics have pointed how contrary to traditional understandings of synodality they are, well, not so fast.

  3. That which makes for soundness of moral judgment and a happy future is to avoid evil and do good. We possess that innate faculty given by us by the creator Word. Otherwise truth would be subject to endless rational speculation – if it were not for that apprehension of the intellect. How then? By the natural law within, common to all men, given in the knowledge conscience reveals, that we should treat others as we would have them treat us.
    Beyond natural law is the revelation of God in Christ, who teaches us truths beyond our human nature, such as to lay down our lives for our brothers. There is no greater love than this, and no greater moral truth. Greatest of all truth is the existence of God, to which all truth must correspond. The revelation of God in Christ, whose very essence is love, and whose existence is identical, is the most evident of all truths requiring no speculative support or proof.
    Our Roman pontiff, in the long line of pontiffs is commissioned as was Peter to witness to what Christ revealed. Peter’s, as well as our conscience is formed by faith in that revelation. Faith, the evidence of what we hope for.
    Insofar as prophets of doom, there is reason for questioning a Church effort, as does author Edward Short, through a hand picked focus group to implore the heavens to send us some new revelation. The revealed Word of almighty God in the person of Christ cannot be surpassed.

  4. The problem with the Synods of Pope Francis is they ignore Sacred Scripture, Tradition and all previous pontificates to make stuff up. There is no St. Adulterous or St. Sodomite. Saints who practiced such sins repented and progressed along the purgative way to union with God. We help no one by enabling grave sin.
    The Synodal game of this pontificate is to bypass doctrine to tolerate and bless unorthodox practices.
    The Synods will ask Catholics to bless in practice what is “positive” in same-sex unions, etc. Perhaps this is why you want me to bless what is positive in this pontificate?
    I prefer to love my neighbor by sharing the Word of God with them.

  5. This is the same stupidity as seen with giving Holy Communion to unrepentant sinners.
    Communion on earth means communion in heaven.
    With sinners admitted to heaven, then there is no need of a church at all.
    Which means rather than go to church and make that donation for its support, that folk just need to stay home and use that money to buy something nice for themselves, as they deserve it, because, after all, God wants them to be happy.
    And this is exactly what more and more are doing, and these “medicine” dispensing clergy are putting themselves out of a job.
    Exactly as party loyalists voting for the party that will eliminate their own jobs.

  6. Bob: Congratulations! You really think like you are God. You think like a gatekeeper who controls and determines who receives or not God’s grace.

    • Actually, dear Alda, I think Bob is accurately discerning the root cause of the debilitating sickness in our Church.

      Genuine prophets of God often get accused: “You think you are God!”

  7. Alda Grace don’t you know that grace has manifold goods and effects and we can talk about the different parts without having to feel we are eliminating anything or anyone.

    Here is a discussion by Fernandez repeating the same error as you. The original article had the picture of him pointing his finger directly at the camera but they changed it. The one like “Uncle Sam Wants You.”

    He makes other errors but right now I am not commissioned to point them out; and this too is grace as I have it even though you do not have it or the answer.

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