Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeits

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By Marcus Leong, The Catholic University of America

Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was a well-known English theologian, philosopher, polemicist and Anglican turned Catholic priest in England. Some of the most, if not the most, frequented and cited of his writings are those on the nature and operations of the human conscience. In this paper, I aim to lay out Newman’s understanding of conscience. To do so, I will first explain what the proper understanding of conscience is not, in other words, its counterfeits. I will then explain how Newman thinks conscience should be understood. After this, I will reflect upon what we can expect in light of this understanding of conscience from ourselves and other human beings. Finally, I will share how this teaching relates to my own life and experience.

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman explains there to be two counterfeits of conscience. On one side, conscience is understood as being a deterministic state of mind, as Newman explains:

We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational, for how can there possibly be freedom of will, how can there be consequent responsibility, in that infinite eternal network of cause and effect, in which we helplessly lie? and what retribution have we to fear, when we have had no real choice to do good or evil?[1]

On this understanding of conscience, there is absolutely no freedom of will and no real choice to do good or evil, for we helplessly lie in a pre-determined world. This is the view of conscience that those in Newman’s time claimed to be moving away from. They thought it to be the primitive understanding of conscience, suited for primitive man.

Moving away from this “primitive” view of conscience, those in Newman’s time came to embrace a different view of conscience. As Newman explains, the notion of conscience in his day in the popular mind was as such:

When men advocate the rights of conscience, they… mean… 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… [I]n this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them… It is the right of self-will.[2]

Newman summarizes this view of conscience very nicely, i.e. the sovereign right of self-will. Under this view of conscience, people think it to be their sovereign right to act solely according to their own judgement, without any consideration of the God who enables them to have judgements in the first place. With the license to take up any or no religion, to believe in this or that as he pleases, man sees himself as an autonomous, sovereign individual with not just the power of self-determination, but the possession of absolute freedom. Instead of God being the end of man, man sees himself to be his own end. It is, as Newman aptly says, a long-sighted selfishness and a (disordered) desire to be consistent with oneself.[3] While Newman might agree with a reaction against the former counterfeit of conscience, assuming this false view to be held by some in his time or not too long before him, he surely disagrees with the embrace of this latter view of conscience, which he sees to be pervading the intellectual environment of his time.

It is worth noting that Newman’s critique of the modern notion of conscience is but one side of the same coin in his critique of the intellectual culture of his time, of which his critique of liberalism is the other. Liberalism, as Newman understands it, is the inappropriate application of rationalistic criteria to revealed religion. We make a serious mistake, Newman thinks, when we subject revealed mysteries to our human judgement. Those who do so, do so by the means of the modern counterfeit of conscience as the sovereign right of self-will. Rather than adopting an authentic Christian attitude of obedience and humility towards divine revelation, they become self-wise inquirers of revelation, trusting their own wisdom with sinful self-confidence and self-conceit.[4] The self-wise inquirer, as we saw in the previous quotation, boasts of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them.

So much for the counterfeits of conscience. What does Newman think to be the proper way in which conscience should be understood? A concise definition is found in the Self-Wise Inquirer:

These are the notions which we may trust without blame; viz. such as come to us by way of our Conscience, for such come from God. I mean our certainty that there is a right and a wrong, that some things ought to be done, and other things not done; that we have duties, the neglect of which brings remorse; and further, that God is good, wise, powerful, and righteous, and that we should try to obey Him.[5]

For Newman, conscience is essentially theonomic, i.e. it has to do with God (theos) and His law (nomos). In stark contrast to the modern counterfeit of conscience as the sovereign right of self-will, with its source understood to be the autonomous, sovereign individual himself, conscience pertains to the certain notions of right and wrong, duties and obligations, of which has its source as God himself. Conscience has its normative source and is ultimately oriented towards God, not man. In the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman, citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, connects conscience to natural and eternal law. In the words of Newman himself:

“The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;”[6]

In this way, Newman is not being an innovator; he is following a veritable Catholic tradition on conscience. He simply reiterates what is at the heart of the Catholic teaching on conscience, namely, that conscience is the apprehension of the natural law in the minds of individual men, the natural law being the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law, which is in turn “the will of God commanding the observance and forbidding the disturbance of the natural order of things.”[7]

Newman then goes on to make a crucial distinction in the understanding of conscience:

  1. First, I am using the word “conscience” in the high sense in which I have already explained it, — not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us; and that this is the view properly to be taken of it, I shall not attempt to prove here, but shall assume it as a first principle.
  2. Secondly, I observe that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done. “Conscience,” says St. Thomas, “is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc [here and now] is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.”[8]

This distinction that Newman makes is also not an innovation. Rather, he draws it from Aquinas’ own doctrine of conscience (whom Newman cites in his explanation of his second point), where Aquinas distinguishes between synderesis and conscientia. It is to Aquinas that we must now turn to in order to better understand this distinction, after which we will return to Newman.

Aquinas explains synderesis to be the ontological level of conscience. It is a natural (not acquired), innate disposition or quality of the intellect belonging to it as such, perceiving, and inclining to, the good proper to the human being. It is an inner compass built in the intellect, containing the first precept of the natural law, that good is to be done and evil to be avoided. It is then this urgency of truth within the very attraction of the good that is at the heart of the intimate awareness of duty and obligation. In virtue of this natural disposition, human beings participate in God’s own mind, the eternal law. Conscientia on the other hand, pertains to what is to be done, in light of our first principles of moral truth, on particular actions here and now. Conscientia, translated literally, means knowing together. By first actualizing the first principles of moral truth in our minds, we then make an application of this knowledge on a specific action. Aquinas then explains that this application can be done in three ways. Firstly, conscience is said to witness, to be retrospective or testificatory. Secondly, conscience is said to bind or incite, to be prospective or exhortatory. Thirdly, conscience is said to accuse, torment, rebuke or evaluate.[9]

Returning to Newman, Newman’s distinction is simply a reiteration of the distinction between synderesis and conscientia. His first point states conscience as the natural disposition of synderesis as the echo of the divine voice speaking within us, this echo being nothing but the first principles of moral truth in the human intellect. He does not attempt to prove its existence (at least not in this letter), but assumes it as a first principle. His second point then states the function of conscience as conscientia, as giving the practical dictates about what here and now is to be done as good or avoided as evil.

Now that I have laid out Newman’s understanding of conscience, I aim to reflect upon what we can expect in light of this understanding of conscience from ourselves and other human beings. In contrast to the modern counterfeit of conscience, conscience as properly understood entails an objective moral order and real moral knowledge. We have, or at least ought to have, certainty that there is objective right and wrong, that some things ought to be done and other things not done, and we ought to be confident that we can have such real knowledge. We ought to have certainty that God exists, objectively, and that it is God Himself who has determined this moral order, to which we ought to be obedient. I expect all of us as human beings to trust in God, who has nothing but the best in mind for us.

Given that there exists an objective moral order, I expect us to be mindful of the presence in us of an erroneous conscience, and to work diligently towards having our conscience be continuously formed so as to be in closer conformity to the objective moral order. By erroneous conscience, I am referring to the operation of conscientia, i.e. the application of the universal principles of synderesis to particular actions, as being wrong because of ignorance, whether voluntary or involuntary. To give an example, Sean grew up in a society where child sacrifice was practiced on a monthly basis as an offering to God. When it was Sean’s turn to sacrifice his own daughter, he willingly brought her to the altar where she was burned alive. In this example, Sean acted on an erroneous conscience. He thought that sacrificing his daughter to God was the right thing to do. Although this is a stark example, we can think of many other examples where people acted wrongly because of an erroneous conscience.

One whose erroneous conscience is voluntary is culpable for it, while one who’s erroneous conscience is involuntary is not culpable for it. In the case of Sean, his ignorance was involuntary, since he had no contact with other cultures and had never encountered a society where child sacrifice was considered illegal and immoral. Thus, he is not culpable for his erroneous conscience. His ignorance would have been voluntary, however, if he knew there were priests or teachers in his country who were actively denouncing the act of child sacrifice as immoral, but he actively avoided them in order to preserve his state of ignorance. In this case, he would be culpable for his erroneous conscience. With the great increase of wealth across countries all over the world and the globalized and technological civilization that has been formed, I would think the erroneous conscience of many people today to be voluntary. For example, of the 40 million American people who regularly watch pornography, I would think that those who do so out of an erroneous conscience are voluntarily ignorant of the immoral nature of pornography and are habituated towards silencing this part of their conscience. Most, if not all of them, definitely know of the existence of arguments against the use and production of pornography on moral grounds, but who choose not be informed by them because they want to continue consuming junk on the internet. If what Newman says about conscience is true, then I expect people to, or rather hope that people will, stop silencing their conscience and to start to take their inner voice seriously, because that inner voice is the voice of God Himself.

In order for people to work towards informing their conscience, I would also expect them to seek good counsel by those who can guide them in doing so. The people that they should turn to are those who can offer instruction based on the natural law. Ultimately, however, the prime tutor of conscience must be the Catholic Church’s moral instruction, undertaken by the magisterium of the Pope and his Bishops who are guided by the Holy Spirit to instruct us in the revealed law and to teach the Gospel in His name. The moral instruction of the Catholic Church is not in opposition to our conscience, as many contemporary people would think. Keeping in mind Newman’s theonomic understanding of conscience, if God has indeed entered human history and revealed his law to us, as Christianity claims, then our conscience will thus necessarily be sharpened when we submit it to the revealed law. In fact, Newman asserts that if we obey our conscience, they will of a certainty lead us to a firm belief in Scripture, where our vague conjectures about truth would be abundantly sanctioned, completed and illustrated.[10] Though conscience is the interior, “aboriginal Vicar of Christ”[11], It needs to be sharpened by the exterior vicar of Christ, the Pope, who through the magisterium of Bishops in union with him instructs us in the revealed law, educating our conscience such that its concrete operations transpire to an ever greater degree its transcendent theonomic illumination. The Church’s moral instruction helps get our conscience fired up, as it were, and to become more transparent to their theonomic root. Thus, it is imperative that people are led towards submitting to the moral instruction of the Catholic Church.

After having laid out Newman’s understanding of conscience and what I expect from us in light of it, I now aim to share how this teaching relates to my own life and experience. I can say, forcefully, that the highly secularized culture in which we live in today makes it very hard for us to acknowledge the theonomic nature of our conscience. Even though I grew up in Malaysia, a non-Western country, secular Western influence is very strong among those in the urban and affluent community, of which I was a part. I grew up consuming more Western, in particular American, media than media from my own country or region. Thus, I was accustomed to think of human beings as autonomous, sovereign individuals. I would actively promote the freedom of conscience, only realizing later that the notion of conscience that I actively promoted is but a counterfeit. As I grew older, however, I progressively came to learn and understand better the Catholic Church’s moral teachings. After reading St. Thomas Aquinas’ own teaching on conscience and most recently here, Newman’s, I have become much more cognizant of the errors of my past. In my own evangelization efforts, I try to journey with others and help them to move from an attitude of self-confidence and self-conceit, which I find to be the case for many people today, towards an attitude of humility and obedience towards our God that created us and loves us immensely.

Though I do my best in trusting in God’s grace in my evangelization efforts, however, I am often tempted to despair, given the direction in which the world is continuously heading. It very often seems like the world is like a train that is falling downhill, with only a miracle capable of bringing it out from under the darkness it has fallen into. It seems to me that, although the central idea of modernity was the autonomy of man, with the conscience of man being the sovereign right of self-will, there were still many who conceived of autonomy as having its fundamental source in God. As society continued to progress, however, this anthropocentrism, coupled with an almost purely materialistic conception of the world, has seemed to have led the popular culture and many of our politicians towards purging God almost entirely out of society. In eight out of ten movies that I watch, I would hear the name of our Lord being used as a curse. In political campaigns and on the streets, I see the attitude of pride, what Christians believe to be the root of sin, to be openly and confidently celebrated. I wonder if a miracle is what is needed for human beings to return to a properly theonomic understanding of conscience, and more generally, the lives of ourselves, our families and whole societies back to our loving Father.  


Newman, John Henry. “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” Newman Reader. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Newman, John Henry. “The Self-Wise Enquirer.” Newman Reader. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2008): I, Q.79, Art.12-13

[1] John Henry Newman. “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” Newman Reader. Accessed March 4, 2021., 247.

[2] Newman, “Norfolk”, 250.

[3] Newman, “Norfolk”, 248.

[4] John Henry Newman. “The Self-Wise Enquirer.” Newman Reader. Accessed March 4, 2021., 215-216.

[5] Newman, “Self-Wise”, 216.

[6] Newman, “Norfolk”, 246-247

[7] Newman, “Norfolk”, 247

[8] Newman, “Norfolk”, 255-256

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2008): I, Q.79, Art.12-13

[10] Newman, “Self-Wise”, 217

[11] Newman, “Norfolk”, 248-249

One Response

  1. A person has a well-formed conscience when it is informed by the spiritual discernment that comes to us from the Holy Spirit. This is called the mind of Christ (see 1Corinthians 2:9-16 and 1John 2:20, 27).

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