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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