How Can We Hear the

Jiminy Cricket may have advised Pinocchio to “give a little whistle” and “always let your conscience be your guide” when “you don’t know right from wrong,” but in the course of Disney’s version of the Carlo Collodi fairy tale, Pinocchio often goes astray.

Pinocchio may be a fairy tale, but we face the same pitfalls in making the right choices, especially if we haven’t formed our conscience according to the right standards, or even have the wrong idea about what our conscience is. Sometimes, even Catholics say, “That might be what the Church teaches, but I have to follow my conscience,” setting up a conflict between the teaching authority of the Church and the individual conscience — where no conflict should exist.

Newman and Norfolk

Cardinal John Henry Newman was one of the great intellectual minds of the Catholic Church in the 19th century. CNS photo from Crosiers

In the 19th century, Blessed John Henry Newman saw this conflict developing. He wrote a great defense of conscience in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk in which he made a crucial connection between the freedom of conscience and the search for truth answered fully in Jesus Christ and His Church. Newman wrote this letter to the Duke of Norfolk, a prominent lay Catholic in England, because former Prime Minister William Gladstone had argued that Catholics could not be good citizens after the proclamation of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

Newman set out to demonstrate that individual Catholics were indeed free to follow the guidance of their consciences. He also showed that conscience is “the voice of God in the nature and heart of man” that needs “training and experience . . . for its strength, growth and due formation.” He says conscience as a natural voice of God’s eternal law is an “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” But then he contrasts this true definition of conscience to its counterfeit: the common view of conscience as something completely free of any duty to anything outside itself.

In a great expressive passage he shows how this view means nothing more than “the right of self-will,” with no reference to truth. In the same way that Newman would speak of the spirit of “liberalism in religion” in his Biglietto speech of 1879, when Pope Leo XIII had made him a cardinal, he notes this view of conscience means the individual has become the judge of religion, setting the standards of critiquing how well a church’s teaching conforms with his own view. For 18 centuries, Newman comments, “the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word” had been the norm — to Catholics of the past, this counterfeit is unrecognizable.

St. Thomas More would agree with Newman. While he is often praised as a great defender of conscience in his opposition to King Henry VIII, that 16th-century martyr spoke of it only in the classic sense, as formed by the study of the truth. Furthermore, he respected the authority of the Church to guide him in that search for truth and his duty to obey the Church.

St. Thomas More believed his conscience was not a rule unto itself. Even though many around him were taking the oaths that King Henry demanded, More appealed to the entire Church, on earth and in heaven, when he defended his right to follow his conscience. He made that plea at his trial, but nevertheless was condemned to death for treason against his temporal ruler.

Newman and Gladstone

Newman and the Catholics of England weren’t facing such a life-and-death matter, but Gladstone had called upon them, in his “Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance,” to deny the doctrine of papal infallibility as their forebears had opposed the Spanish Armada. So, Newman, after defining conscience, went on to correct Gladstone’s view of papal infallibility and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, and to clarify their claims on individual conscience.

Since the teaching authority of the pope and the Church concerns matters of faith and morals, of “abstract doctrine” and “the condemnation of particular and given errors,” Newman states there is no conflict at all between it and the individual conscience: the conscience seeks truth, and the Church teaches and defends truth. The pope’s authority as Christ’s Vicar on Earth relies upon the authority of conscience, that “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

Blessed John Henry Newman further states that for one to oppose even “the supreme, though not infallible authority of the pope” in some matter (he uses the example of a pope prohibiting Catholics from drinking wine or beer), the individual cannot rely on the counterfeit idea of conscience: “serious thought, prayer and all available means of arriving at a right judgment” must be followed, and the burden of proof is on the individual, not on the pope.

Joseph Ratzinger, both as cardinal and as pope, had praised Newman’s “clear avowal of the papacy.” Commenting on Newman’s beatification in his comments to the Roman Curia on Dec. 20, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI summarized Newman’s understanding of conscience: “Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.” Because Blessed John Henry Newman followed the “kindly light” of truth, it led him to become a Catholic in 1845, and as Pope Benedict noted, that conversion cost him everything “that was dear and precious to him,” perhaps even his great opportunity to influence Christian theology in his lifetime. His life as a Catholic was obscure and filled with failed projects, but his letter to the Duke of Norfolk provided a great example of the influence he could have.

The chapter on conscience ends with a toast that many have misinterpreted: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I drink — to the pope, if you please — still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.” Pope Benedict provides us with the correct interpretation: Newman is not reverting to that counterfeit version of conscience as “the right of self-will.” In the first toast Newman is again expressing our natural ability to seek and find the truth; the second toast is “dedicated to the pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,” available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kan., and blogs at

Pope John Paul II on Conscience
The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the “heart” of the person, in his moral conscience.

According to St. Paul, conscience in a certain sense confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a “witness” for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness with regard to the law, of his essential moral rectitude or iniquity. Conscience is the only witness, since what takes place in the heart of the person is hidden from the eyes of everyone outside. Conscience makes its witness known only to the person himself. And, in turn, only the person himself knows what his own response is to the voice of conscience.

The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man.

St. Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.” Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience.

— Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Nos. 54,57-58