Conscience, the Papacy and the State - Fr. D Fenlon

Conscience, the Papacy and the State - a talk given at Birmingham Oratory

by Fr Dermot Fenlon on Saturday 1 March 2008.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke to a BBC News reporter about the ‘inevitability’ of recognizing Sharia law in Britain. A furore ensued. Clarifications were issued. The Archbishop, it was rapidly understood, was not thinking of recognizing mutilation, decapitation, or stoning unto death; nor was he so reported. All the same, it was generally held that he had underestimated the possibility of being misunderstood. He duly acknowledged that he had spoken without due precision.

Dr Williams is reported to be particularly worried about the increasingly aggressive forms of secularism in this country. His critics accused him of endorsing ‘multiple jurisdictions.’ Dr Williams has denied that he was aiming at anything of the kind. I am sure we can believe him. He was not aiming at a Caliphate, nor was he thinking of converting to Catholicism. But that leaves unanswered the question, what kind of secularist aggression had he in mind?

The Archbishop has spoken of the conscience of Catholics (specifically, therefore, doctors and nurses) who are unable to undertake abortion. We should be grateful to him. Dr Williams has been a lifelong supporter of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. He is well aware that Catholics, in opposing abortion, are speaking on behalf of the conscience of humanity, not on behalf of some special interest group. They are speaking and acting as citizens of the state. Their witness is to everybody’s right to life. This has been the case since the Abortion Act of 1967. One may however, legitimately wonder whether abortion itself was the issue driving the Archbishop’s remarks.

The BBC devoted a whole programme, to the question of what Dr Williams might have meant. A panel of speakers on ‘The Moral Maze’ considered the matter. One of them, Mr Michael Portillo, spoke with some sharpness. The historic purpose of the Church of England, said Mr Portillo, was to ‘fudge the issue’. That was the ‘deal’ between Church and State in England. The Archbishop, he declared, had broken the deal.

Now Mr Portillo is a Privy Councillor and a former Cabinet Minister. We must suppose that he was not speaking off the top of his head. What, then, was the Archbishop’s offense? The offense, in Mr Portillo’s terms, appears to be the promotion of ‘multiple jurisdictions’. But that only describes the form of the fudge, not the fudge itself. Its ingredients remain elusive.

Another speaker on the panel, Ian Hargreaves, (who I think describes himself as a Christian, and as I think, an Anglican), observed, with some energy, at the conclusion of the programme that the Archbishop was defending the rights of conscience as anterior to the state. Here we have the heart of the matter laid out, as on the table. Who is to protect the rights of conscience?

St Thomas More’s question to his interrogators in 1535 is decidedly apposite here: ‘If Parliament should make a law that God should not be God, would God not then be God?’ More was the spokesman of conscience faced with the claim to Parliamentary Omnipotence. Parliamentary Jurisdiction, as he best knew, as Chancellor of the realm and conscience of the King, was the condition proper to the passage of laws which upheld the rights and privileges of subjects, and affirmed the duties of Kings.

Today we have to insist that Parliamentary Jurisdiction does not extend to the constitution of human nature as such. The human being remains sovereign before Parliament. Catholics in England have ever protested that they will be, in the words of Thomas More: ‘The King’s good servant, but God’s first’. In doing so they are not claiming special privileges. They are witnessing, as More witnessed , to the fact that that there are degrees of law: positive law, decreed by the State, Natural Law, inscribed in human nature, and Eternal Law, revealed by God. Attempts by the State to exercise a monopoly of jurisdiction over the constitution of humanity and its beliefs must expect to be met by conscientious resistance. But conscience as such is weak and easily confused. Who is to uphold the truths to which it witnesses? The answer, in modern times, is most clearly enunciated by Cardinal Newman. The protector and developer of conscience is the Church.

In 1875 Newman was called upon to uphold this truth against the claims of the Prime Minister of the day, William Gladstone. Gladstone, like Bismarck, objected to the declaration of the First Vatican Council in 1870, that the Pope was Infallible. In Germany, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf. That was a policy aimed at removing Catholic Germany from the newly unified German State. In England, an atmosphere of hostility, amounting to a kind of proto Kulturkampf arose. Catholics, it was again argued, could not be loyal to the State. They could not be trusted in the army or the police. They were in thrall to a foreign jurisdiction. The Pope could issue a fatwah any day he liked.

Newman’s reply to Gladstone calmly pointed out that the Pope was infallible in matters of faith and morals, not in matters of politics, science, mathematics or military policy. The Pope was not infallible when he blessed the Armada (in the sense of supporting Spanish intervention to restore the Mass). The Pope was not infallible when he condemned Galileo. A Pope who endorsed, or refused to endorse, the policy of a nation at war would not be exercising infallible jurisdiction. A Catholic would be free to serve in the armed forces if his conscience so persuaded him, following prayer, and due consultation.

It is worth noticing that problems of this kind actually arose in the Falklands war of 1982, when the Cardinal of Westminster, and the Archbishop of Liverpool were at odds about the Pope’s opposition to the war. Archbishop Warlock, much to the annoyance of Cardinal Hume, helped to bring about a meeting in Rome of the Cardinals of England and Argentina. Those of us who were students in Rome at that time have our own memories of the fraught atmosphere. A student at the English College, now a Father of the Birmingham Oratory, Fr Guy Nicholls, was shouted at by the Pope: ‘Your country is making war!’

What was the solution?

The solution was the Mass at St Peter’s, and the Pope’s visit to England. I shall never forget the Pope’s sermon at the Mass in Rome. ‘Peace is possible’ he declared, and Peace is necessary’. I remember thinking ‘Holy Father, I hate to disagree with you. Peace is necessary, but it is not possible’. How wrong I was! Flanked by the Argentinian Cardinal and the English Cardinal on either side of him, the Pope’s elevation of the host at that Mass was unforgettable. He came to England ‘against advice’: he might seem to be favouring one or other of the contestants. Enoch Powell opposed his visit on the grounds that the Pope represented a ‘foreign jurisdiction.’ The Pope’s visit, in this view, was a betrayal of the Protestant Reformation and the Church of England. To her great credit, the Prime Minister begged him to come. How right she was.

The rest, I heard later that summer: how a small boy, listening to the Pope’s words at Coventry, ‘We are building a Cathedral of Peace’ turned to his father, and cried ‘Daddy, that’s a great political speech’.

Was it? Or was it something more?

Was this the exercise of a foreign jurisdiction? Or was it prayer, overcoming the passions of war? The Pope went from Coventry to Argentina. Friends told me how people in Argentina tuned in their radios to the Pope’s speech in Coventry. They heard the word ‘Peace’. By the time the Pope arrived, they were out on the streets, chanting ‘We want peace! We want Peace.’ Galtieri’s Government fell. Peace was declared.

Foreign intervention? Or the power of prayer?

The only people who have reason to fear ‘multiple jurisdictions’ in the Pope’s ‘divisions’ are the dictators: Stalin, who enquired ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’on hearing that the Pope had condemned his pact with Hitler for the invasion of Poland. Under John Paul II and Lech Walewsa the answer came for the dictators. Only those who override conscience have reason to fear.

But ancient memories need healing; in England, the Armada. It is well to recall that Catholics who offered to fight the Spaniards were nonetheless rounded up and put in prison under Elizabeth. The Mass was forbidden. The penal laws remained in place until the American war of Independence, the necessity of troop recruitment and the movement of Catholic Emancipation matched by the flow of Irish Catholic immigrants to the great cities of Liverpool. London, Birmingham and Manchester brought about a change. Anti Catholic Bigotry remained. Anti Catholicism, like anti Semitism, is easily fuelled. That is where Newman’s conversion and witness became decisive. Newman emerged as the great witness to the truth of the Catholic faith, in England and in the English speaking world.

To Gladstone’s astonishment Newman showed how it was the consistent teaching of the Church that conscience, even a wrongly informed conscience, must always be obeyed. The Pope cannot act against conscience. He can only serve it. The voice of conscience, as Newman never ceased to urge, is, however easily silenced, easily confused and easily corrupted: by sin, by fear, by the world. In the course of his own lifetime, Newman observed, the true meaning of conscience as adherence to the Ten Commandments, had been overturned by a counterfeit doctrine of conscience: doing whatever you like unless it harmed someone else. This was the doctrine of John Stuart Mill. This counterfeit conscience, taught in schools and univerisites, steadily replaced Christianity and became in the twentieth century the doctrine of the State. It moved people into attitudes of direct contradiction to the truth.

In a famous passage of his reply to Gladstone Newman declared that the Pope could not act against conscience, for the Papacy was ‘of conscience’. If Anglicans proposed the ‘loyal toast’ in the form of Church and Queen, (something which Newman did ‘not think quite the thing’), Catholics would raise their glass to Conscience and the Pope: to Conscience first, and the Pope second.

Newman’s meaning was that Christ is the first voice speaking in the awakening soul, the voice of inward conscience. The Pope, who is of Christ, speaks to confirm the truth, however buried that truth may be under the weight of ignorance, of sin, of fear or of worldliness. That is what the Papacy is for. When conscience, including the conscience of Catholics, is clouded or confused, the voice of Christ speaks in the person of the Pope. The Pope’s gift of truth is protected by the prayer of Christ,it speaks to conscience.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century Newman’s words were torn from their context and twisted against their meaning, by opponents of Papal teaching. This began in 1968, with the emergence of Catholic dissent from Papal teaching on a massive scale. In that year the Catholic writer Norman St John Stevas emerged as the leader of dissent. He quoted Newman’s words to attack the teaching of the Church in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Pope was reiterating what his predecessor Pius XI had taught in his encyclical Casti Conubii, affirming the truth that the procreative and unitive meaning of the marriage act could never be legitimately separated, that the marriage act must remain open to the gift of life, and that artificial contraceptive intervention to prevent that was contrary to the law of God. In 1930 the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church had given its approbation to contraception. Casti Conubii was the result: the reaffirmation of doctrine of Christian matrimony common to Protestants and Catholics alike, in the face of a doctrine appealing to libido as the sufficient bond. In reality, the practice of contraception, the separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of the marriage act, closed the door on the presence of God in the covenant of matrimony. It left appetite in charge. In 1968, when Paul VI renewed the true teaching, Catholics like Norman St John Stevas came out against it and used Newman’s words to attack the Pope. In the course of the past year, 2007, Catholic dissenters like Gary Wills have claimed that Newman would support abortion.

The deliberate misuse of Newman is a token of a crisis, unprecedented in the history of the Church. It has grown around the Catholic acceptance of a promotion of the counterfeit doctrine of conscience promoted by Mill and corrected by Newman. Among Catholics, that counterfeit was put in place by the opposition to Humanae Vitae. It was an opposition created by theologians, promoted in the Catholic press and transmitted by priests who urged the faithful to ‘follow your conscience’, without helping the faithful to form their conscience in the light of the teaching of the Church with the help of the sacraments, the gift of grace and presence of Christ.

The scale of this catastrophe and the fact that it was promoted from within seminaries, has meant that the extent of the confusion now leaves many without bearings in the great questions of faith and morals which constitute the field of increasingly deadly Parliamentary legislation. The confusion of the many, and the clarification of the Church: Newman’s doctrine of conscience has come to define the Papacy both of John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Both are products of the struggle between the Church and the totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Stalinism. Both were elevated to the Papacy. Their mission has been to address the tyranny of the strong over the weak in the West and through the West, worldwide: both have witnessed against the strength of the powerful over the helpless: they speak to parents tempted to destroy their children, and to children tempted to consign their parents to a loveless grave. Both recognize, as Newman recognized, the legislative grounding of these temptations in ‘permissive’ rulings which override the weak and vulnerable: the right to live, increasingly corroded by a legislated culture of death. The symbol of that culture is the Bomb.

When John Paul II urged the nuclear powers at the United Nations in 1982, to disarm, he did so by describing his role as ‘the pure conscience of humanity’. That was the voice of Newman speaking in the Pope. In the wake of World War II his right hand man, Cardinal Ratzinger had entered the priesthood with Newman’s voice ringing in his ears. Goebbels had declared: ‘I have no conscience. My conscience is Hitler’. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, the teaching of Newman on the creation and nurturing of conscience became the teaching of Joseph Ratzinger. In an essay of the 1980’s he spoke of conscience as a plant needing the right degrees of water, light and warmth in order to grow. Christ is that light and it is he who provides the growth. That was the teaching of Newman. It is now the doctrine of the Church. It is directed to the education of conscience in a time of unprecedented moral confusion.

As a young man in the Church of England, in the years 1827-1841 Newman had upheld the Anglican State Monopoly preventing higher education and hence access to office in the State to Catholics, Baptists and Nonconformists. The young Newman sought to mobilize the Church of England against the champion of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell and the Irish MPs in the House of Commons. The mature Newman became instead, the advocate of the education of conscience in an age where the Church must look, no longer for a state monopoly, but a place to speak freely on a free field. He taught this doctrine to the Church. Newman understood the potentiality of democracy to corrupt into the victory of the strong over the weak, of selfish passions over human persons. He knew that such passions asserted themselves in the revolt of humanity against its Creator, and the refusal of its Redeemer. He also knew that in an age of moral confusion, the voice of conscience, searching, needed patience, light and grace. He wrote a prayer for our times. It is now known as the Prayer for the Light of Truth.’I should like’ wrote Newman ‘an enquirer to say continually’:

My God, I confess that you can enlighten my darkness. I confess that you alone can. I wish my darkness to be enlightened. I do not know whether you will; but that you can and that I wish, are sufficient reasons for me to ask. I hereby promise that by your grace which I am asking, I will embrace whatever I at length feel certain is the truth. And by your grace I will guard against all self- deceit which may lead me to take what nature would have, rather than what reason approves.

For Newman, only the Church could save democracy from following its appetites to self destruction. Newman, so frequently and erroneously described as lacking a social doctrine, is now the spiritual father of the Christian commitment to uphold the truth of everybody’s right to life and the conditions necessary to nurturing it, especially in the sick the weak the elderly and the unborn. He is the theologian of our time.