Saint John Henry Newman & Conscience

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The following was a college essay written by Mary Sanders. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Sanders, Catholic University of America

John Henry Newman the Catholic and John Henry Newman the intellectual are, in every respect, inseparable. It is this intertwining of religion and intellect – this marriage of a heart receptive to His words and a mind enlightened by God’s own light – that enabled him to write on matters that concerned both. Among those matters, one in particular came to define many of Newman’s sermons and writings: conscience. Newman’s willingness to submit his intellect to the light of faith allowed him to understand the reality of conscience in all of its complexities and how those complexities both originate in and are ordered to God. In order to understand and reflect on Newman’s own understanding of conscience, it is important to work backwards through his thought process, beginning with a thorough explanation of his religious understanding of conscience, followed by a discussion on how his teaching inspires his readers to adhere to their consciences and, in so doing, remain in right relationship with God and others, and finally, an analysis of how Newman’s teaching is applicable to both personal experience and present times. Discussion on each of these aspects will elaborate upon an understanding of conscience that – though presented over a century ago – remains nonetheless applicable and in great need of reintroduction.

“Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway” (Conscience 248-249). These words offer an overview of Newman’s view on the doctrine of conscience and begin to summarize his understanding. In essence, his words provide insight into what conscience is, what it does, and the extent of its influence, all of which – as Newman creatively expresses – are comparable to the role, actions, and influence of the “external” Vicar of Christ, better known as the pope. In a word, this “aboriginal Vicar” mirrors the actions of the pope internally in every individual soul. The role of each pope since Saint Peter has remained the same: to shepherd, direct towards Truth, condemn error, and to gently convince the hearts of believers that it is to Truth – to Christ Himself – that one’s life should always be ordered. Conscience, too, finds its most important task as the internal “Vicar” to convince the soul it directs to order his or her life to Christ, in a subtle and distinctly internal way, but in such a way that punctures every action, thought, desire, and moment. For Newman – whose ideas on conscience only reflected those already held by the Church – this “spiritual, invisible influence” (Conscience 249), when acknowledged as the echo of God’s voice in the rational soul, should lead back to Him who wills the ultimate good – union with Himself – for every person. Newman’s thought on conscience mirrors that defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1776). Conscience, having originated in God and being the voice of God, is logically understood by Newman as “theonomic”. “Theonomic” translates to “God law”; thus, a proper understanding of conscience must always be a religious one. In other words, having come from God, it is irrational to attempt to analyze conscience apart from God. Discernible in Newman’s theonomic understanding is a sincere effort to draw his readers – religious and non-religious alike – to, at the very least, consider conscience as a Divine gift. He clearly desires that those who read his words would see conscience’s Divine origins not as a hindrance to human freedom, not as threatening, but as a guide given by a God who is incomprehensibly good. It is acceptance of that truth that then leads to a certain rejoicing in conscience. As Newman clarifies, “We must gain the habit of feeling that we are in God’s presence, that He sees what we are doing; and a liking that He does so, a love of knowing it, a delight in the reflection, ‘Thou, God, seest me’…” (The Infidelity of the Future 127). Newman’s analysis of conscience as theonomic is rooted in the thought of both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and he frequently references the thought of both: “… ‘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.’”(Conscience 247).  Newman’s teaching on conscience is, in many respects, a continuation of the contributions of both Aquinas and Augustine. Drawing on their thought, he himself concludes: “The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.”(Conscience 247). Newman acknowledges the authority of conscience not as an overbearing or burdensome command for the human being, but rather as an invitation to be concerned with the things of God. Conscience, that inner orientation towards that which is morally right and good – that which God is concerned with –  is a gift; a revelation of a person’s dignity in that God, in His mercy, recognized man’s inability to be good apart from Himself and, in so doing, granted him a conscience. The obligation to follow one’s conscience does not hinder freedom, but instead invites the person to the deeper freedom of following the Divine Law. Newman elaborates further: “This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called ‘conscience;’ and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience.” (Conscience 247).In these words, not only does Newman further explain his understanding of conscience, but also touches upon a distinction formerly considered by Aquinas pertaining to the practical use of conscience: that between “synderesis” and “conscientia”. Aquinas’ distinction between synderesis and conscientia provides a foundation upon which Newman is able to elaborate. This distinction can be broadly understood as conscience having two “levels.” Specifically, synderesis is proper to the ontological level, whereas conscientia is proper to the more practical level. In other words, synderesis can be defined as “a fundamental level of innate principles ready to be activated” (Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit). It is a natural inclination towards that good, found within the intellect, that continually directs an individual towards the good. Synderesis, what Aquinas deems as the “primordial perception” of the good enables human beings to “participate in the eternal law.” It is this idea that deepens Newman’s theonomic understanding of conscience. Building on synderesis is Aquinas’ doctrine of conscientia. Conscientia can be understood as the application of these “innate principles” to “concrete actions” (Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit). Conscientia includes two steps: 1) The “actualization of the first principles of moral truth” (Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit) and 2) The “application of this knowledge to action” (Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit). To summarize, conscientia, as Newman interprets and understands it, is a “particular judgement we make as to what is to be done in light of the common principle…what is to be done here and now”(Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit). In writing and speaking thoroughly on the topic of conscience as theonomic – through arguments based upon Aquinas and Augustine as well as through his own careful discernment of the times in which he lived – Newman is able to recognize not only conscience’s theonomic origins, but also the truth that there is a certain freedom found in acknowledging conscience as originating in God. Conscience, when recognized as the “echo of God’s voice in the creature” (Huetter Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit), is a great gift, for it guides, simplifies, and grants the humble follower an undivided heart towards God, inspiring within a person a desire to continuously choose the good. Conscience, properly understood and followed, should help to “elevate” the soul above the self; to bring the soul into deeper union with the Author of conscience by attuning it to the concerns of it’s Creator. More than this, that which Newman and the faithful are able to truly rejoice in is the reality that conscience inspires confidence, not in the self but in God. To further clarify, conscience, when followed, leads a soul to choose what is good and right and in that the soul’s happiness is found. Conscience alleviates the burden of having to be anxiously concerned with “being consistent with myself” (Huetter, Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit) for my own sake. Conscience, as the inner voice of God in the soul, helps the soul to recognize that God Himself is the object of its desires, and consequently, the effort of consistently choosing what is morally right should be infinitely more attractive. Following one’s conscience, while simultaneously growing in love for God, emboldens, frees, and simplifies a soul. Newman elaborates on this: “The … feeling is frequently expressed in the Psalms: a consciousness of innocence and integrity, a satisfaction in it, an appeal to God concerning it, and a confidence of God’s favour in consequence. For instance, ‘Be thou my judge, O Lord,’ says David; he appeals to the heart-searching God, ‘for I have walked innocently; my trust hath been also in the Lord, therefore shall I not fall.’ He proceeds to beg of God to aid him in this self-knowledge: ‘Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try out my reins and my heart…it is possible to be innocent, and to have that sense of our innocence which makes us happy in the thought of God’s eye being upon us…’” (Testimony of Conscience, 238-239).  To summarize, for Newman, conscience is theonomic; as such, it is the voice of God, the Divine Law, the standard of right and wrong, and the soul’s happiness. The very reality of conscience always presents the option to pursue the good. It is important to consider, however, that, as with any guide or compass, one can choose to follow or ignore it; so too with conscience. Regardless of whether one chooses to follow their conscience or abuse it, the reality of its existence in the soul presents certain expectations that the person it directs should adhere to.

The reality of conscience is the voice of God that echoes in His creatures. Such a reality undoubtedly demands and elicits a certain response on the part of the latter. This response is best expressed as a question: “What can we expect in light of Newman’s understanding of conscience from ourselves and others?” In this question, it is implied that our expectations should be twofold: expectations for the self and for other people. For the self, the reality of conscience should lead a person to recognize the great need for humility; to recognize that, as God the Father once said to St. Catherine of Siena, “I am He who Is, you are she who is not.” Conscience invites a person to listen to God’s voice over their own, and, in so doing, invites humility. Following one’s conscience diligently keeps an individual’s soul aligned with God, and demands a certain and ongoing humble obedience to the Author of conscience. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48) serves to summarize this; all individuals have been gifted with a conscience that, when used properly, leads back to God. The gift of conscience is in itself a great gift of mercy, and the way to use such a gift properly is to recognize, with humility, who one is before God. Newman is the embodiment of a person whose conscience is submitted to God; in humble recognition, he sees conscience as a gift, one that will always allow him to determine right from wrong and will not lead him astray. Newman’s submission to his conscience – and therefore to God – is evident throughout his writings. The fruit of this is discernible and enables him to say: “…what I trust that I may claim all through what I have written, is this, — an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine Mercy, a fair measure of success” (Biglietto Speech, 63-64). Newman’s understanding of conscience requires a willingness to beguided and an acknowledgement that conscience is there each time a decision, a course of action, or a desire presents itself. Therefore, to submit desires, goals, aspirations, and hopes to its subtle promptings and guidance is to trust that it alone is a secure path that directs one towards He who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Not only does conscience establish standards for the self, but also for others. In light of Newman’s theonomic understanding of conscience, it is reasonable to expect that others – the religious and non-religious alike – would recognize, by virtue of their conscience, that there is a sense of morality and an objective right and wrong and that all actions should be submitted to that standard. Ultimately, by submitting actions to the standard of right and wrong given by conscience, and carefully discerning those actions that are in accordance with his conscience, an individual is able to grow in the virtues of love and charity. Newman’s understanding of conscience not only offers insight into the expectations that conscience establishes for individuals and people in relation to them, but also begins to draw upon a crucial distinction.

In reflecting on Newman’s understanding of conscience, a distinction between pride and humility begins to emerge. Newman, while never explicitly stating that distinction, nonetheless implies it throughout his writing. If one humbly recognizes that conscience is God-given and enables an individual to listen to Him and follow His voice, then there must also be a way to ignore that voice; this, Newman would consider the “counterfeit of conscience” or the “right of self-will” (Conscience 250) which, he argues, is a deeply prevalent problem of his – and arguably subsequent – times: “…in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very … freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations…Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of…it is the right of self-will” (Conscience 250). Self-will is a misinterpretation and manipulation of the role of conscience and a consequence of pride. In contrast, as Newman establishes again and again, an adherence to one’s conscience – and a certain reverence for it – as a gift from God results from humility. This distinction between pride and humility is relevant for Newman’s times, as well as our own. I believe that it is this distinction that best analyzes Newman’s understanding of conscience in relation to our present times and my own experience. In order to explain the latter, in relation to Newman’s teaching on conscience, I find that the best way I am able to do so is to first acknowledge that the majority of people in my life consider themselves to be agnostic. For them, God might exist and He might not, and all views, ideas, or theories about God should be tolerated. There’s a general feeling that God might be an option for some people, but they do not personally feel they “need Him.” I think that it would be fair to say that most of these people that I’m referring to would agree with the statement “My life is my own,” believing that they – not God – are the author of their lives, that life is “what you make it,” that tolerance of all things – religions, behaviors, morals – is acceptable and good. I cannot know to the full extent the reasons behind holding these beliefs, and consequently, would never blatantly make the claim that they don’t follow their conscience. However, I would argue that they fall into Newman’s understanding of how conscience is currently understood as something apart from God (a non-theonomic understanding): “When men advocate the rights 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 … demand … for each to be his own master in all things…to profess what he pleases…” (Conscience 250). The idea of conscience as theonomic would sound irrational to the vast majority of the people in my life; they might consider that as an “option” if it were introduced to them or simply, and more likely, as my “view” or “opinion” but not as a truth applicable to them. The ultimate danger of pursuing the false understanding of conscience – defined by Newman as self-will – is that man becomes his own God, whether knowingly or unknowingly. By using – and abusing – conscience simply as a justification of the prideful self-will, a person falls into the lie of believing that a “liberty of conscience” is a mark of a progressive society, of the supremacy of human reason, when it is, in reality, a doctrine that leads one to worship the “Trinity” of “me, myself, and I”. These misunderstandings of conscience stem from individuals, but have evidently made their way into every aspect of society, including, but not limited to, academia and politics, both of which Newman addresses throughout his writings.

Decades after Newman wrote on conscience, Archbishop Fulton Sheen commented: “We are all born with the power of speech, but we need grammar. Conscience, too, needs Revelation.” Though Newman himself would not have heard the former Archbishop speak those words, he would have undoubtedly agreed. Sheen’s words echo the truth that Newman – referred to occasionally as the “Doctor of Conscience” – drew upon again and again: that conscience is theonomic; it is a Divine gift, a light that illumines continuously, a voice that instructs gently, and a solid foundation that establishes, confirms, and directs unceasingly.


Newman, John Henry. “Conscience.” (From the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk). The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader, pp. 247-250.

Newman, John Henry. “Biglietto Speech.” The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader, pp. 63-64.

Newman, John Henry. “The Self-Wise Inquirer.” PPS, vol. 5, ser. 17.  The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader.

Newman, John Henry. “The Testimony of Conscience.” PPS, vol. 5, ser. 17.  The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader, pp. 238-239.

Newman, John Henry. “The Infidelity of the Future.”ser. 9.  The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader, pp. 127.

“Moral Conscience” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1776.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica I, q. 79, a.13.

Huetter, Reinhard. “Newman on Conscience and its Counterfeit.” The Catholic University of America. 25 February 2021. Lecture.



Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

One Response

  1. I wonder if Newman’s view of a theonomic conscience is the same as the spiritual discernment that Paul speaks of in 1Corinthians 2:9-16. He calls it the mind of Christ that we have when the Spirit of God is within us. The gifts and graces from God flow into us by His Spirit. The natural person without the Spirit of God does not have this spiritual discernment.
    Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 12 says: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (111) [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ (8*) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.”
    The V2 reference to 1John 2:20, 27 says: “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things…But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.”
    Conscience sounds like the anointing that Vatican II speaks of in Lumen Gentium 12 and that John speaks of in 1John 2:20, 27. This is something that we can carry into all of the aspects of our life.
    Jeremiah 31:33 may be alluding to this anointing when he says: “After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
    The things of God are received by humility towards Him (see James 4:6-10). It’s as simple as being anxious for nothing by casting all of our care on God (see Philippians 4:6-7, 1Peter 5:5-7, Proverbs 3:5, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, and Galatians 5:22-23). Humility is the opposite of pride which is “right of self-will”.

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