John Henry Newman was a religious genius. And his understanding of religion enabled him to produce an account of freedom - in particular the freedom of conscience - . . . from which we today have much to learn. . . . Newman . . . locates the foundation of honorable freedoms in a concern for human excellence and human flourishing.
Newman has the immense advantage . . . of believing in human fallenness (what Christian faith knows as original sin), and so he is spared naive optimism and faith in human progress. . . . He is cognizant of both the need for restraints on freedom, lest men descend into vice and self-degradation, and the supreme importance of central freedoms as conditions for the realization of values that truly constitute the integral flourishing of men and women as free and rational creatures - creatures whose freedom and rationality reflects their having been made in the very image and likeness of God.
Newman's dedication to the rights of conscience is well known. Even long after his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, he famously toasted "the Pope, yes, but conscience first," as he put it in his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" (1875). Our obligation to follow conscience was, he insisted, in a profound sense primary and even overriding.
Is there a duty to follow the teachings of the pope? Yes, to be sure. As a Catholic, he would affirm that with all his heart. If, however, a conflict were to arise, such that conscience (formed as best one could form it) forbade one's following the pope, well, it is the obligation of conscience that must prevail.
Of course, many a contemporary dissenting Catholic would be tempted right there to shout, "Right on, Brother Newman!" But that's only if they didn't know the rest of the story. Newman, though the most powerful defender of freedom of conscience, held a view of conscience and of freedom that could not be more deeply at odds with the liberal ideology that is dominant (even, dare one say, orthodox?) in the contemporary secular intellectual culture and in those sectors of religious culture that have fallen under its influence.
Let's permit Newman to speak for himself, for he had already identified in the 19th century the tendency of thought about rights, liberty, and conscience that have become the secular liberal orthodoxy today:
"Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it if they had. It is the right of self-will."
Conscience, as Newman understood it, is the very opposite of "autonomy" in the modern liberal sense. It is not a writer of permission slips. It is not in the business of licensing us to do as we please or conferring on us (in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court) "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
Rather, conscience is one's last best judgment specifying the bearing of moral principles one grasps, yet in no way makes up for oneself, on concrete proposals for action. Conscience identifies one's duties under the moral law. It speaks of what one must do and what one must not do. Understood in this way, conscience is indeed what Newman said it is: a stern monitor.
Contrast this understanding of conscience with what Newman condemns as its counterfeit. Conscience as "self-will" is a matter of feeling or emotion, not reason. It is concerned not so much with identifying what one has a duty to do or not do, one's feelings and desires to the contrary notwithstanding, but rather with sorting out one's feelings. Conscience as self-will identifies permissions, not obligations. It licenses behavior by establishing that one doesn't feel bad about doing it - or at least one doesn't feel so bad about doing it that one prefers the alternative of not doing it.
I'm with Newman. His key distinction is between conscience, authentically understood, and self-will - conscience as the permissions department. His core insight is that conscience has rights because it has duties. The right to follow one's conscience and the obligation to respect conscience - especially in matters of faith, where the right of conscience takes the form of religious liberty of individuals and communities of faith - obtain not because people as autonomous agents should be able to do as they please; they obtain, and are stringent and sometimes overriding, because people have duties and the obligation to fulfill them.
The duty to follow conscience is a duty to do things or refrain from doing things not because one wants to follow one's duty but even if one strongly does not want to follow it. The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under an obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion to fulfill it. If there is a form of words that sums up the antithesis of Newman's view of conscience as a stern monitor, it is the imbecilic slogan that will forever stand as a verbal monument to the Me Generation: "If it feels good, do it."
Let me conclude with a few words about the centrality and one might even say priority of religious freedom among the basic civil liberties. . . . [Freedom of religion] is rightly labeled in America "the first freedom," not only because it is listed first in our Bill of Rights and because of its foundational historical role in establishing free institutions but even more importantly because it protects an aspect of our flourishing as human persons that is architectonic to the way we lead our lives.
Religion concerns ultimate things. In the focal cases, it represents our efforts to bring ourselves into a relationship of friendship with transcendent sources of meaning and value. Our religious questioning, understanding, judging, and practicing shape what we do not only in the specifically "religious" aspects of our lives (prayer, liturgy, fellowship, and so forth) but in every aspect of our lives. It helps us to view our lives as a whole and to direct our choices and activities in ways that have integrity - both in the moral sense of that term and in the broader sense of having a life that hangs together.
Religion is not the only basic human good; nor are the other basic human goods mere means to the fuller realization of the good of religion. But religion is an intrinsic and constitutive aspect of our integral flourishing as human persons and also a good that shapes and integrates all the other intrinsic and constitutive aspects of human well-being and fulfillment.
Finally, there is the critical role of religion, and thus of religious freedom, in civil society in the carrying out of essential health, education, and welfare functions, and thus in limiting the scope of government and checking the power of the state.
Religion provides authority structures and, where it flourishes and is healthy, is among the key institutions of civil society providing a buffer between the individual and the state. This is a vital way in which religion and religious institutions, when they respect the legitimate autonomy of the secular sphere and avoid illiberalism, timeserving subservience to the state, and theocracy, serve the common good. In the face of tyrannical regimes, they can, if they avoid corruption and co-option, serve the common good even more dramatically by doing, for example, what the Catholic Church did in the face of communist tyranny in Poland.
Religion can, in other words, contribute to both the theory and the practice of resistance - but only where it is basically healthy (that is, uncorrupted) and capable of providing, or providing resources for, prophetic witness. This is one more reason to cherish religious freedom and to push back hard against forces that threaten to erode or diminish it - especially when the threats come from overreaching governments.