Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 70(2) May 2020
Saint John Henry Newman:
Conscience in the Daily Life of a Health
Jeffrey McGovern, MD, FCCP, FAASM
Saint John Henry Newman, formerly a distinguished Anglican prior to his full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, vigorously defended the Catholic Church against attacks from the secular world. In particular, his Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulations defended the Church, in general, and English Catholics, in particular, from the charge of disloyalty. In the Letter, Newman defines and explores the concept of conscience. His definitions and counsels on conscience relate closely to the Catholic health care provider.
They (Gentiles) show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them (Rom 2: 15)
Saint John Henry Newman
John Henry Newman, arguably the 19th-century’s most significant Roman Catholic theologian from the English-speaking west, spent the first part of his life as an Anglican in the Church of England and the latter part as a Roman Catholic. He was a priest, writer and eminent theologian in both churches and, if he remained Anglican, would likely have been named Archbishop of Canterbury. His theological esteem and contributions were so influential church historians often call him the absent bishop of Vatican II.
He was born in London, England and as a young man studied at Trinity College, Oxford. He became a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford and for 17 years was vicar of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin. He soon published eight volumes of parochial and plain sermons and two novels. He was a prominent member of the Oxford Movement, which credited the Church fathers for their contribution to theology. His historical research as well as his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine convinced him that the Roman Catholic Church was the closest in continuity with the Church established by Jesus Christ. Despite his promise as a prominent theologian and leader in the Church of England, he chose full communion as a Catholic. In 1847, he was ordained a priest in Rome and joined the Congregation of the Oratory, an order founded 300 years earlier by Saint Philip Neri. When Newman returned to England, he founded Oratory houses in London and Birmingham.
Newman was a prolific writer and eventually authored 40 books and 21,000 letters. In addition to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine , he wrote On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a spiritual biography written in response to criticism he received because of his conversion) and Essay on the Grammar of Assent. Most germane to this essay he accepted the teaching promulgated at Vatican I on papal infallibility and also addressed its strict definition which many were reluctant to do.
When Newman was named a cardinal in 1879, he accepted as his motto Cor ad cor loquitor ( Heart speaks to heart). He died in 1890 and was buried in Rednal, England. When his cause for sainthood was considered, his grave was exhumed in 2008 with a new tomb prepared at the Oratory Church in Birmingham. Three years after his death a Newman Club for Catholic students began at the University of Pennsylvania and is still active. Soon thereafter other college and universities adopted the model of the Newman Club as a center of Catholic life on campus. Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman on September 19, 2010 in England. The Pope praised his emphasis on the vital place of religion in civilization but also noted his pastoral zeal for the marginalized. Following confirmation of a second miracle attributed to his intercession, he was canonized October 13, 2019. His liturgical feast day is October 9.
Newman’s writings on conscience are the primary focus of this essay. In particular his pointed reflections on conscience have a message for health care providers caring as they do daily for their patients. Supporters familiar with this oft-misunderstood and underappreciated man profess resoundingly that Newman will be proclaimed the Doctor of Conscience. Doctor (doceo, Latin: teach) is an honorific title given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made notable contributions to theology or doctrine. There are presently 35 Doctors with the first proclaimed as Saint Athanasius (296-373) by Pope Pius V (1568) and the most recent Saint Gregory of Narek (951-1003) by Pope Francis (2015). Conscience in the spiritual and moral life of man is one of the central themes of Newman’s writings.
Events and circumstances especially those deeply moving prompt responses. In the case of the anti-Catholic pamphlet written by the Liberal English statesman William Gladstone, Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation (1874), this event prompted Newman to defend against baseless charges of disloyalty following the promulgation of papal infallibility at Vatican I (1870). In his response entitled Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulations  1, Newman addressed the Duke of Norfolk who was admittedly the head of a prominent family of England and a living example of the capacity of English Catholics to show their loyalty to church and state. Mr. Gladstone, a former prime minister, charged that “Rome receives a convert who now joins her, to forfeit his moral and mental freedom, and to place his loyalty and civil duty at the mercy of another  2.” Newman answered in his Letter the proper definition of papal infallibility, thus successfully vindicating the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the loyalty of Catholics to church and state. Equally important, Newman was capable, given his sharp intellect, to explore the same truth from other angles 3. In this case, his Letter also addressed the extreme views of papal infallibility promoted by churchmen which actually extended the pope’s infallibility beyond the Council definitions. Vatican I Council document, Pastor Aeternus, summarizes that “he (Pope) possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church in defining doctrine concerning faith and morals .” Some of Newman’s contemporaries were quick to accuse and vilify those who did not embrace their own erroneous views of infallibility. It was through an exploration of the important and vital role of conscience that Newman was capable of answering both Gladstone and the extremists.
The letter to the Duke of Norfolk elucidates the role of conscience in questions of obedience. It would serve this essay well to reproduce this definition of conscience.
God, Newman writes:
“implanted (the) Law which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. 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. ‘The eternal law,’ says Saint 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 Saint Thomas (Aquinas), ‘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;’ 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” .
God, “implanted (the) Law which is Himself, in the
intelligence of all His rational creatures. 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.
St John Henry Newman
He continues that conscience is the “voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation .” It is, he follows, “a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments .” Conscience is “a dictate” conveying ideas of “responsibility” “duty” “vividness .”
Then, Newman changes course from defining conscience to mandating what must follow from an acceptance of this concept. “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul .” Conscience is a “principle planted within us, before we have had any training… such training and experience is necessary for its strength, growth and due formation .”
Newman circles back to the vilification of the pope in the bigoted pamphlet of Gladstone and emphasizes that God has representatives on Earth who preserve and proclaim the moral law. Conscience is not in isolation. “Conscience is 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, 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 .” The pope, His representative, may only pass on what he received from the Apostles. “The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles .”
Finally, Newman evinces his frustration at the attacks on conscience. He no less echoes the cries of the modern Christian against intrusions of the state on individual conscience.
“All through my day there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. Literature and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition. Public writers, day after day, have indoctrinated the minds of innumerable readers with theories subversive of its claims .”
“All through my day there has been a resolute warfare,
I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience….”
St John Henry Newman
What then can the contemporary health care provider, more specifically the Roman Catholic provider, take away from Newman’s definitions of conscience and counsels to witness to individual conscience?
Conscience is indeed the voice of God. It speaks daily to the heart of the provider who listens despite the noise to its promptings. We know that our patients are vulnerable and yearning for healing. We summon our training and demeanor toward their care. They generally trust us and we continue to strive never to abuse that trust in their utmost vulnerability. A loss of respect for honoring our formed conscience can only erode this trust. In like fashion, we make simple and complex judgements daily and do so often without clear or distinct communication. As providers we profess judgements which affect the mental and physical well- being of our patients. How does the provider cope with the awesome responsibility of this judgement? Humility, termed the mother of all virtues, guides the purveyor of medicine. What he has learned, what skills he has mastered, what future knowledge and skills he will acquire are all for the good and well-being of the patient. Though we may think that our intellection is superior and our skills unparalled, they are ultimately the gifts of a loving and merciful Father. If we are to be perfect in our practice and listen to this voice of God, we must first master the virtue of humility.
Conscience must be obeyed. Do we ever think that our erroneous decisions would lead to eternal perdition? It is an inconvenient truth that our decisions and actions have eternal consequences. We can misdiagnose and mistreat and have our poor decisions and miscues flayed open by our patients or malpractice lawyers. We can more frighteningly have our decisions and actions not guided by conscience judged by a just God. Obedience to this voice of God is essential and when it is stifled by our arrogance or obstinacy we have the opportunity and necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession supernaturally makes our relationship right again and permits us to accept this obedience not as a servant would do so for a master, but rather as a son or daughter does for a father.
Finally, how Newman’s words of “resolute warfare” “conspiracy” and “antagonistic tradition” resonate with us. His words of the 19th century are words similar to those of the early Church living amidst the pagan Roman Empire. Newman cries out in protest but does not leave us in despair. He is also detailing the fight we will have and in which we must engage. The fight is the same throughout the ages. The fight to preserve this “Divine Law” is guided by “His representatives.” The weapons in our battle are a deep prayer life, participation in the Sacraments of the Church, basking in the wisdom of Scripture and strong and devout associations with fellow warriors. The result of our constancy will indeed be rewarded as The Evangelist John reinforces in Revelation 7: 13-14. He writes: “Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’ He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
Saint John Henry Newman used his keen intellect to answer courageously and effectively the attacks on his faith. So convinced was he of his belief in this ancient church that he spoke out despite his membership in a minority church. Attentive to the history of the church he reminds us of the of the former names of conscience in ‘eternal law’ (Saint Augustine) and ‘natural law’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas). He also emphasizes the power of conscience as the ‘voice of God,’ a responsibility to carry out without reserve even in the midst of ‘resolute warfare.’ The health care provider is no less obligated to follow this dictum. They are admittedly held to a higher standard given their training and participation in one of the higher arts. Constancy to this awesome responsibility does have its rewards but executing on a daily basis is challenging and seemingly hopeless. We have as our source of help, however, our brothers and sisters in Heaven, those ‘prayers of the holy ones.’ (Revelation 5:8) It is no less fitting that following his canonization then that the health care provider can thereafter ask for the intercession of Saint John Henry Newman to imbue him with the light of a well formed and resolute conscience.
Jeffrey McGovern, MD, FCCP, FAASM is Board certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine and in practice in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the founder and President of the Catholic Medical Alliance, an apostolate recognized by the Diocese of Erie. He presented this essay at the 10th White Mass celebrated in Erie, Pennsylvania.
- Newman, John Henry.1962 “Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation.” In Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees. South Bend. Notre Dame Press.
- Gladstone, William. 1962. “The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation. “In Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees. Page 6. South Bend. Notre Dame Press.
- McCusker, Matthew. 2018.”The Teaching of Bl. John Henry Newman on Conscience and Obedience,” Rome Life Forum. May 2018. https://www.voiceofthefamily.com/the-teaching-of-bl-john-henry-newman-on-conscience-and-obedience.
- PiusIX, Pope Blessed. 1870. “Pastor Aeternus.” Chapter IV. https://www.catholicplanet.org/councils/20-pastor-aeternus.htm.
- Newman. 1962. Page 127
- Newman. 1962. Page 128.
- Newman.1962. Page 128.
- Newman. 1962. Page 128.
- Newman. 1962. Page 136-138.
- Newman. 1962. Page 128.
- Newman. 1962. Page 129.
- Pius IX, Pope Blessed. 1870. Chapter IV.
- Newman. 1962. Page 129.