Conscience: the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ
2004 Fisher Lecture
The Fisher Society,
University of Cambridge
Reproduced with permission
Neither do I believe that St. John Fisher died for
conscience's sake. He died for truth, because he would not subscribe to
Any discussion of right and wrong, including discussion of the role of
individual conscience, receives a jolt when we consider the example of
Christian martyrdom. St. John Fisher is of course such an example.
We all know of the pivotal role Cambridge men played in the diffusion of
Reformation teachings in England, especially through the meetings of young
theologians at the White Horse Tavern, known to the local under-graduates as
"Little Germany". Cambridge University also provided one of the few heroes
of the Catholic resistance, the only bishop sufficiently clear headed and
courageous to understand the importance of the underlying issues. This was
of course the Bishop of Rochester .
It was fascinating during the Jubilee Year to visit the Tower of London
and learn that Churchill ordered, towards the end of the Second World War
that the room Fisher occupied should be refurbished. This was no example of
a belated religious enthusiasm, but a prerequisite for Churchill's
determination to imprison Hitler in the Tower if he survived the War. The
room Fisher used happened to be the one chosen.
St. John Fisher is one of my heroes. I have a copy of the Holbein drawing
of his portrait on the wall of my office.
My enthusiasm is partly due to clerical solidarity with a brother priest,
as an alternative to the wide popularity of the layman Thomas More.
Much more importantly any person in public life who has spoken or taken a
decision which provokes opposition understands the ultimate penalty Fisher
suffered, and the importance of friends and public support in any
controversy. One of the most admirable characteristics of the martyrdom of
Fisher (& More) is his fortitude in isolation, in the total absence of peer
Neither do I believe that St. John Fisher died for conscience's sake. He
died for truth, because he would not subscribe to untruths.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth") in
1993 Pope John Paul II claimed that the Church was facing a genuine crisis
which touched the very foundations of moral theology.
 He explained that this crisis was
no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent but of an overall and
systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine.
Today in England and Australia it is a moot point whether the crisis has
lessened or deepened, or indeed whether the situation remains basically as
it was. Rome has spoken, but in the English-speaking world there is no
evidence that the matter has been successfully concluded. I speak as an
Australian bishop primarily about the situation in Australia. It remains for
others to judge just how relevant my comments might be for the situation
here in the United Kingdom and for other parts of the Catholic world.
After a few introductory words to set the scene I wish to speak on a topic
central to human dignity and moral responsibility, which was treated
extensively in Veritatis Splendor,
the role of conscience.
The Pontificate of John Paul II
Pope John Paul II is an historical anomaly. We risk categorising his
outstanding achievements as being normative for the papacy. This is
particularly a danger for young Catholics who have known no other Pope. In
fact no Pope in history, even Pope John XXIII, has exercised such an
influence in so many fields. This is partly a consequence of the mass media
today, but more particularly it is a consequence of his unique contribution.
Veritatis Splendor was discussed everywhere throughout the Western
world. The major papers in just about every Western capital city
editorialised on this encyclical. His defence of human rights against
Communism and totalitarianism was pivotal. These are but one part of his
extraordinary achievements. An important task for the future will be to
assimilate his teachings and put them into practice.
This encyclical had been announced on the Feast of St. Alphonsus in 1987,
but did not appear until after the publication of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church . It was eagerly awaited by admirers of the Pope and
also by his opponents inside and outside the Catholic Church. The
traditional loose alliance of dissidents were well organised with their
allies in the secular media to orchestrate a chorus of dissent, as they had
done so successfully in 1968 against Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae
However the world had changed since 1968 in a number of significant ways.
First of all the scope for dissent had enlarged immeasurably. In 1968 the
arguments for individual judgement or private conscience were advanced on
the topic of the new means of contraception, which it was alleged, with some
justification, was disputed even within the Catholic tradition. Today what
remains in dispute are the grounds for moral argumentation itself within the
Catholic and indeed Christian tradition, and the controverted areas now
include every area of sexual practice, and many issues which touch human
life. Consequently there are also significant debates on marriage and family
life. There has been no period in Church history where such a range of moral
teachings has been rejected and the rejectors have continued to insist on
remaining within the Church and aspiring to change Church teaching. Also
there has probably been no period in Church history where so many have been
able to do this without effective retribution. To my knowledge no bishop has
taken up the recommendation of the Holy Father in Veritatis Splendor
 to take away the title "Catholic"
from Catholic institutions which are deviating significantly from sound
In 1968 many in the Church were optimistic that the progressive reforms
of the Second Vatican Council would soon bring wonderful fruits, and that
dialogue with the world would be one of the means for this. Humanae Vitae
was a valuable corrective to this inflated optimism. The collapse of the
Church, for example, in Holland and French-speaking Canada then lay in the
future, as did the exodus of many priests and religious and the radical
decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in many parts of
the Church. Today we are much better aware of the consequences of the acid
rain of modernity on our Catholic communities, of our minority status as
serious Christians everywhere in the English-speaking world, and of the
damaging power of the neo-pagan world of communications. Probably too we are
better aware of the fruits of internal dissent.
However Pope John Paul II has been an immensely more powerful influence than
Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul was fated to lead the Church at an intensely
difficult time but he will not rank with Leo the Great or Gregory the Great.
John Paul II will, and one major reason for this will be his moral teaching,
especially as outlined in Veritatis Splendor
and Evangelium Vitae
("The Gospel of Life"), (1995).
No Primacy of Conscience
Sections 54-64 of Veritatis Splendor are the best short piece
written on conscience since Cardinal Newman's Letter to the Duke of
Norfolk in 1875. It is a sophisticated and accessible piece of work,
quoting section 16 of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on "the
Church in the Modern World" ( Gaudium et Spes ) about the voice of
conscience always summoning us to love good and avoid evil. "For man has in
his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man;
according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:-14-16)". Naturally, though
this law is written in our hearts, it is not our hearts' law: it is God's
law. There is an explicit reference to the development in the Church's moral
doctrine similar to the development in the doctrines of faith, provided the
original meaning is preserved intact.
The encyclical is not fundamentalist.
Naturally I accept the teaching of the Second
Vatican Council and Veritatis Splendor on the crucial role of
conscience for us all. However for some years I have spoken and written
against the so-called "doctrine of the primacy of conscience", arguing that
this is incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching.
Naturally I accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and
Veritatis Splendor on the crucial role of conscience for us all. However
for some years I have spoken and written against the so-called "doctrine of
the primacy of conscience", arguing that this is incompatible with
traditional Catholic teaching. Not surprisingly this has in turn provoked a
number of hostile public criticisms and quite a number of letters from
friends and acquaintances attempting to persuade me of the error of my ways.
My object is twofold: firstly to explain that increasingly, even in
Catholic circles, the appeal to the primacy of conscience is being used to
justify what we would like to do rather than what God wants us to do. Even
within Catholic discourse two different notions of conscience are at work;
a) neo-pagan or secular, which feels free to override official Catholic
moral teaching, even when it is confirming New Testament teaching, and b) a
Christian understanding of conscience which recognises explicitly the
authority of New Testament moral teaching and the official Catholic
affirmation or development of that teaching. My second claim is that
conscience does not, even in the second and Catholic sense, enjoy primacy,
because conscience always involves a human act of judgement which could be
mistaken, innocently or otherwise and the consequences of all decisions have
to be played out in some ordered human community. Every human community has
to limit the rights of its members to "err" however error is defined.
One should say that the word of God has primacy or that truth has
primacy, and that a person uses his conscience to discern the truth in
particular cases. Individual conscience cannot confer the right to reject or
distort New Testament morality as affirmed or developed by the Church. To
use the language of Veritatis Splendor , conscience is "the proximate
norm of personal morality" whose authority in its voice and judgement
"derives from the truth about moral good and evil".
 That is so for everyone, but in a
special sense for Catholics, for whom the Church's moral teaching cannot be
just "another view", along with dissenting theologians, Cambridge
professors, the B.B.C., etc.
Whatever the pressures for conformity produced by public opinion and the
mass media today, there is a healthy rhetoric about respect for the rights
of the individual, including the right to private judgement, in the
English-speaking democracies. Today we value our freedom of speech, however
much political correctness and prevailing taboos in the media limit public
discussion with invisible parameters, like the proverbial glass ceilings. We
take it for granted that all citizens have a freedom to choose their career,
their home and all adults presume unreflectingly the right to choose a
spouse - or now, increasingly in Australia , a temporary partner. Just as
people have the right in a democracy to choose their religion so too some
Catholics feel they should be able to choose the type of morality they
follow and remain "good" Catholics . The title "smorgasbord Catholics" is
not rejected as an insult, but as a proper right and title. Of course, no
one actually "chooses" a morality: conscience is not the ability to make
morality out of nothing. Too often, though, it is presented as moral source,
not moral knowledge.
Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions
are made explicit, the claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily
becomes in our cultural context the same as a claim to personal moral
Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions are made explicit, the
claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily becomes in our cultural
context the same as a claim to personal moral autonomy. Fine though autonomy
is, in Christian hands this has tended to become code for "rationalisation
of personal wishes" and there is no dignity in that, unless our wishes are
for the genuine good. A wish isn't dignifying just because it's mine. Most
Western moral philosophers since the eighteenth century, with the exceptions
of the Marxists and the Christians, have followed Kant in advocating some
form of moral self-legislation and government (autonomy), as distinct from
heteronomy or rule by others. Kant would be appalled by contemporary
autonomy liberalism. He believed in objective morality ("practical reason")
which autonomy gives us the means and opportunity to follow, never a
self-made morality of private preference.
We should ask what is the extent of the agent's freedom to follow his own
will? In response one can usefully give two versions of moral autonomy. The
first emphasises the person's right to choose in the areas of life generally
open to moral evaluation, leaving the limits outside which the agent might
curtail his right generally unspecified.
John Rawls has defined the extreme of this version of autonomy with
characteristic lucidity. It is "the complete freedom to form our moral
opinions so that the conscientious judgement of every moral agent ought
absolutely to be respected" . The
realities of social life and public order constrain us into recognising the
impracticalities of such a principle as a basis for our personal conduct. In
any society the only two alternatives are unanimity or the exercise of
authority. The second version of autonomy, the more practical version,
always spells out in some way the constraints necessary for social life. The
principle of autonomy which informs Rawls' own work, his alternative and
more practical meaning, defines acting autonomously as "acting from
principles that we would consent to as free and equal rational beings".
I am not arguing this account is adequate; merely that it is one example of
the limitations and precisions required.
Those Catholics who appeal to the primacy of conscience cite a number of
classical references. The first comes from the Second Vatican Council's
"Declaration on Religious Freedom" ( Dignitatis Humanae ), which
states that religious freedom "has to do with immunity from coercion in
civil society"; "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own
truth". However these advocates often leave unsaid the conciliar teaching
from the same paragraph that religious freedom "leaves untouched traditional
Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men in society towards the true
religion and towards the one Church of Christ ".
 So while the Declaration explains
that in matters religious "no man is to be forced to act in a manner
contrary to his own beliefs ... within due limits", it also goes on to say
that all men are "bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially
religious truth". 
The American Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who had such a profound
influence in the production of the Declaration wrote in his introduction to
the English translation: "The conciliar affirmation of the principle of
freedom was narrowly limited - in the text. But the text itself was flung
into a pool whose shores are wide as the Universal Church . The ripples will
run far. Inevitably, a great second argument will be set afoot - now on the
theological meaning of Christian freedom".
In other words Dignitatis Humanae speaks of relationships between
state and Church, and between the state and individual. It does not deal
with the relationship between the magisterium and the baptised.
A second reference frequently quoted, and indeed cited by the Holy Father
himself in Crossing the Threshold of Hope
comes from St. Thomas
Aquinas, who explains that if a man is admonished by his conscience, even
when it is erroneous he must always listen to it and follow it.
The supporters of primacy of conscience do not go on to explain, as Aquinas
does and John Paul II has done over a life-time of writing, that the binding
force of conscience, even mistaken conscience, comes from the person's
belief that the conscientious decision is in accord with the law of God.
I also believe that a person following Aquinas' advice might not only err in
an objective sense, but could be guilty for his mistaken views. But more on
"The aboriginal Vicar of Christ"
A final passage, also frequently cited, is Cardinal Newman's famous
declaration at the end of his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk
"Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts
(which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink - to the Pope, if
you please - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards".
Newman was concerned about the
Ultramontane claims of extreme infallibilists, facetiously explaining that
if the Pope told the English bishop s to order their priests to work for
teetotalism or to hold a lottery in each mission, they would not be obliged
to do so.
Here he is addressing a
situation in which Popes issue orders - not moral teaching - that exceed
their authority. Newman would of course believe that confronted with Church
teaching, we all have the obligation to form and inform our consciences by
that. But there is no doubt also that his understanding of conscience is
very specifically Christocentric and God-centred, within the Catholic
Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a
desire to be consistent with oneself; but it 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 should cease to be, in it the sacerdotal
principle would remain and would have a sway.
Newman carefully distinguishes this proper understanding of Christian
conscience from its secular alternative, which is "in one way or another a
creation of man". "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". 
Some reject the Christian version as "a twist in primitive and untutored
man" where the very notion of guiltiness is "simply irrational".
 They espouse "the right of
thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their judgement or
their humour, without any thought of God at all"; for what "they think is an
Englishman's prerogative for each to be his own master in all things". It is
the "very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience".
He also points out, in a clarification which is more useful today than it
was in 1874, that when Pope Gregory XVI and Pope Pius IX condemned freedom
of conscience (a " deliramentum " or madness according to Gregory)
they were not condemning what the Church now proposes, not condemning the
notion of conscience Newman proposed i.e. conscience in "a high sense" as
"dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us".
 They condemned a conscience
which rejected God and natural law.
Newman also explains elegantly why conscience is "the highest of all
teachers, yet the least luminous". It is because "the sense of right and
wrong, which is the first element in religion is â€¦ so easily, puzzled,
obscured, perverted â€¦ so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its
course".  He was completely
Neither would Newman have hesitated to reject the notion that any secular
notion of conscience has primacy. Might he claim that a proper notion of
Christian conscience does have primacy? Would this be a primacy of honour or
a primacy of jurisdiction or no primacy at all?
He is typically precise and limited in his claims, pointing out that
conscience is "not a judgement about any speculative truth", but "bears
immediately on conduct, something to be done or not done".
 He outlined a number of
incidents from St. Peter to Pope Urban VIII, who persecuted Galileo, when
popes erred (and therefore were not infallible on those occasions), and
acknowledges that "conscience truly so called" does have "the right of
opposing the supreme, thought not infallible Authority of the Pope".
He does not spell out the possible alternative consequences of refusing
to follow an infallible papal teaching, but he differs from the Second
Vatican Council in talking about the relationship between the magisterium
and believers and follows Cardinal Jacobatius in acknowledging that if a
person cannot "conform himself to the judgement of the Pope, in that case it
is his duty to follow his own private conscience, and patiently to bear it,
if the Pope punishes him". 
It is interesting that few argue that if your
conscience instructs you to be racist or weak on social justice issues, it
is acceptable to be so. Primacy of conscience only appears with the sexual,
or like, issues. This does look rather suspicious.
It is beside my purposes to debate whether it was wise for a pope to
excommunicate Queen Elizabeth I or imprison Galileo, although in most cases
popes and bishops who governed unwisely (or unjustly) were probably
following their consciences. My concern is with moral teaching. Nor am I
arguing that a person should act contrary to her personal conscientious
judgement. However such a judgement is not the last word in a number of
ways. First, is this conscience, or a wish? It is interesting that few argue
that if your conscience instructs you to be racist or weak on social justice
issues, it is acceptable to be so. Primacy of conscience only appears with
the sexual, or like, issues. This does look rather suspicious.
Any moral ruling and the obedience or disobedience of the subject must be
evaluated in the light of revealed Christian teaching and the various grades
of authority of official Catholic teaching. Rulers and subjects might act
correctly or erroneously, innocently or with malice, ignorantly or after
deep study, but all will answer to God for their decisions. Also the
Catholic authorities, primarily the pope and bishops as guardians of the
apostolic tradition, have an obligation in truth to preserve and defend core
Catholic teachings in morality as well as faith and to preserve prudently
and charitably rudimentary Church order. Therefore it is possible that not
only individual actions might exclude us from the body of believers, e.g.
abortion, apostasy, physically attacking the Pope, but that explicit
rejection of solemnly taught Catholic moral teachings (e.g. as defined in
"Evangelium Vitae" on killing the innocent, abortion, euthanasia) might call
into question our membership of the Church.
For these reasons no individual moral decision of
conscience, nor, any general conscientious moral teaching, has the primacy
i.e. is the ultimate judgement or decision. All actions and decisions are
judged by conformity to the truth, or even to the Word of God. Truth and
truth specified as the word of God have primacy.
For these reasons no individual moral decision of conscience, nor, any
general conscientious moral teaching, has the primacy i.e. is the ultimate
judgement or decision. All actions and decisions are judged by conformity to
the truth, or even to the Word of God. Truth and truth specified as the word
of God have primacy. It is interesting that when St. Thomas deals with these
matters, in his disputed question on truth, it is to a part of our minds
called synderesis that he grants infallible knowledge of the human
good. Conscientia or conscience is the act of applying that knowledge
and this is fallible. Without a good moral education, a sustained attempt to
understand Church teaching, and a humble disposition, we will be vulnerable
to erroneous conscientious judgements. There is many a slip between cup and
lip - or between synderesis and conscientia.
Therefore in Catholic theological language the claim to primacy of
secular conscience is a cliché, which only requires preliminary examination
for us to conclude that it needs to be refined and developed to have any
plausible meaning at all. I do not even favour the substitution of the
primacy of informed Christian conscience, because it is also possible
that with good will and conscientious study a devout Catholic could fail to
recognise some moral truth, act upon this failure and have to face the
While occasionally at the theological level I feel that all I am doing is
forcing my way through an open door, it is at the pastoral level that this
espousal of the primacy of conscience has disastrous effect. Let me give you
a crass but actual example, recounted to me by a friend who witnessed this
encounter. A man asked this question; suppose I have been regularly
"sleeping with my girlfriend". Would it be wrong for me to be receiving Holy
Communion? Without hesitation the theologian replied, "Vatican II has taught
that in answering any moral question, you must obey your conscience. Just do
that". Such a teaching is insufficient and misleading. Does it mean there
are no moral absolutes or authorities? Is it sufficient to follow one's
feelings? Or was Charlie Brown correct forty years ago to claim that "it
doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere"? That enquirer
truly wanted to know, and the theologian gave him nothing, just left him
where he was.
In many places, even in the Catholic world, the category of mortal or
death-bearing sin is now an endangered species, because the unthinking
presumption is that everyone is honestly doing his or her "own thing",
following conscience. Obviously public opinion places limits to this world
of easy options, often coterminous with the limits of political correctness,
but many areas of sexual conduct and activities such as contraception,
abortion, euthanasia, the number of children are "free go" areas, where one
opinion is held to be as good as another.
This reflects the fact that there has been a dramatic shift in the tectonic
plates of public moral discourse within the Catholic Church, and certainly
within the ranks of the other Christian churches. The public disarray in the
Anglican churches on the suitability of ordaining homosexually active men
and women to the Anglican ministry is one spectacular example of this.
Once upon a time it was pastorally useful, sometimes necessary to explain
the possibility of invincible ignorance among those who differed from us,
because of the temptation to presume bad faith in opponents. Nowadays, it
can mean "invincibly wilful". Now for many, tolerance is the first and most
important Commandment. Therefore it is necessary and important for us to
argue for the possibility of culpable ignorance, indeed the possibility of
culpable ignorance, that usually has been built up through years of sin and
is psychologically invincible, short of a miracle. The idea of culpable
moral blindness is discussed as infrequently as the pains of hell.
Jesus knew human nature very well and Veritatis Splendor quotes
that marvellous saying of Our Lord from St. Matthews gospel: "the eye is the
lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of
light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of
darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"
Christian writers at different times have expounded wonderfully on the
concept of culpable moral blindness. St. Thomas More wrote his Dialogue
of Comfort Against Tribulation in the final year of his imprisonment in
the Tower, speaking there of conscience's susceptibility to corruption
whether by the cynicism and self-love of Father Renard (Father Fox) and
Master Wolf, or by conscientious blindness through the stupidity of poor
scrupulous Master Ass.
Even earlier, in 1377-78, St. Catherine of Sienna in her Dialogue
spoke of the consequences of pride, sensuality, impatience and the
consequent lack of discernment. These four chief vices constitute a tree of
death. "Within these trees a worm of conscience nibbles. But as long as a
person lives in deadly sin the worm is blinded and is so little felt".
Sin darkens the intellect. Old spiritual books used to say that as a
commonplace, but today it has been largely forgotten. Those who live
conscientiously by the Commandments are better judges of morality than
clever people who live in sin. That can sound arrogant, but it is simply the
truth. As Newman put it, it is a better ethical disposition that enables
some to discover the truth. Newman also spoke of an "ethical incredulity"
that blocked some from accepting genuine evident miracles.
Courage to face the truth, a desire to know the truth, and
humility in accepting it from others or from a higher authority such as
the New Testament and official Church teaching, play a greater part in
having right moral and religious beliefs than native intelligence or
In conclusion a few disclaimers. My thesis, about the centrality, power
and limitations of personal conscience in no way implies that the directives
or teachings of individual bishops must always be obeyed or accepted
automatically. As you know these are sometimes, perhaps often contradictory.
Wider considerations must be invoked.
Neither am I concerned here about any prudential non-moral directive e.g.
to avoid discussion on the ordination of women. The rights and limitations
of conscience are different here.
My concerns are to maintain the purity of Christian conscience as it is
used to identify moral truths. In other words to work so that a secular
understanding of conscience does not replace the role of conscience as "the
aboriginal Vicar of Christ".
1. Veritatis Splendor Â§5.
2. VS Â§4.
3. VS Â§116.
4. VS Â§54 & n.100.
5. VS Â§60.
6. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press,
Oxford: 1973), 518.
7. Ibid. 516.
8. Dignitatis Humanae Â§1.
9. DH Â§2.
10. John Courtney Murray SJ, The Documents of Vatican II , gen.
ed. William M. Abbot SJ (Chapman, London & Dublin: 1966), 674.
11. Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Jonathan
Cape, London: 1994), 191.
12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1-2, 19.5. See also the
Commentary In Epistolam ad Romanos , c.14 lect. 2 (ad v.5).
13. John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875); in
The Genius of John Henry Newman: Selections from his Writings
(Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1989), 267.
15. Ibid. 263-64. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994)
16. Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk 247.
17. Ibid. 249.
18. Ibid. 250.
19. Ibid. 251-52; 255.
20. Ibid. 253-54.
21. Ibid. 256.
22. Ibid. 257.
23. Ibid. 261.
24. John Henry Newman, Two Essays on Biblical and Ecclesiastical
Miracles . 2nd ed. 1907. 183-84.