Tag Archives: Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“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 do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

_________

References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

Temptation and Lenten Penance

During the Lenten season, we seek to turn back from sin and to God. Each of the practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—helps us to do this. While Lent is not a season of merriment in the Church, it should nevertheless be a season of hope, and one of joy.

The Great White Fleet

Sin is a turning away from God. It is disobedience to His will for us, and it is the preference of something—anything!—else to God. Indeed, because God is not composed of parts [1], these three statements are in fact one and the same statement. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives an analogy of a good life and a good society to the sailing of a fleet of ships. To reach the fleet’s destination, the ships must be well-sailed; they must be well-coordinated so as to not interfere with each other; and they must have a clear destination and route to reach that destination. Sin in this analogy takes on three forms—the individual ships may be badly handled; or the ships are collectively poorly coordinated, so that they stray apart (or crash together) regardless of handling; or they have the wrong destination in mind, so that they do not end where they ought [2].

These three conditions for a good fleet correspond to three conditions found in a good life and a good society:

  1. The well-run ship is akin to person’s own self-mastery.
  2. The well-coordinated fleet is like the harmony between members of a society.
  3. The proper destination for the fleet is an analog to both the individual’s and the society’s being “ordered” to the good.

The first condition means that each man has developed the virtues so that his intellect (captain) governs his will (bosun or boatswain [3]) which directs his passions (crew) and can overcome his desires or appetites (fears, obstacles). The second means locally that men will help each other to increase in virtue, that they will work together towards common (and sometimes individual) goals; and on a larger scale that laws will be just, that they will enable each person to do what is right and inhibit his ability to do what is wrong. The third condition is the defining principle or “final cause” of a good society and a good life. It means that both man and society must seek (and be guided by) the highest good, which ultimately means to discern and pursue God’s will for each individual and for society as a whole.

In his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas describes three sources of temptation. These are the flesh, the world, and the devil. While these three temptations a can strike at any level, they correlate most directly to each of the three conditions of the good life and the good society:

  1. Temptations of the flesh strike at us directly attempting to ensnare us through the will, or indeed through the passions or the appetites. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the flesh tempts us by seeking “its own pleasures, namely, carnal pleasures, in which often is sin. He who indulges in carnal pleasures neglects spiritual things.” These temptations put us in internal discord. Several of the deadly sins strike us here—in particular, lust and gluttony, and to some extent sloth.
  2. Worldly temptations are temptations towards a good which may not be ours to possess. According to St. Thomas, the word tempts us with “excessive and intemperate desire for the goods of this life,” and also with “the fears engendered by persecutors and tyrants.” These temptations put us at odds with our neighbors, with society as a whole, and even with the Church as a community. The deadly sins of avarice and envy are principally provoked by temptations of the world, and wrath may be our response to our neighbors when so tempted.
  3. The devil is the subtlest tempter, as St. Thomas notes.
    “The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined… he does not at once appear to suggest something that appears to us as evil, but something that has the semblance of good. Thereby he would, at least in the beginning, turn a man from his chief purpose, and then afterwards it would be easier to induce him to sin, once he has been turned away ever so little.”
    These temptations lead most directly to discord with God and his Church as Magister. The principal deadly sins which are associated with these temptations are pride and wrath, and to a lesser extent acedia.

Three more things should be said here regarding these three types of temptations. The first is, all three can tempt us to do evil or to avoid good. Both are forms of sin, which is why our confession asks for forgiveness both for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. The second is that all three temptations can work together [4]. The third is that any of the deadly sins may strike through any of these temptations or combination of temptations, even if some temptations lend themselves more closely to certain deadly sins.

Three Lenten practices

Just as there are three sources of temptation—the flesh, the world, and the devil—so there are three Lenten practices which combat these temptations. These are the aforementioned practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each of these practices helps us to better resist temptation in general, but we can also see that each one is especially good at strengthening us against a particular type of temptation:

  1. Fasting helps us to gain mastery over our desires, and fights temptations of the flesh. Note that fasting here need not mean only “eating little” or even “eating less,” though this is the literal translation. It can mean giving up any thing which gives us pleasure, be it eating chocolate or spending time on facebook or reading dime comics and penny dreadfuls, etc. This is the reason behind the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” This is also why giving up something innocuous is still beneficial to us.
  2. Almsgiving helps to order ourselves as members of a good society and fight temptations of the world. By freely giving away from what we have, we learn detachment from our worldly belongings, and are reminded that all we have—time, talent, treasure—are so many gifts from God. We become less covetous of that which we will give away.
  3. Prayer helps us to discern the will of God for us, and it also helps to fight temptations of the devil. In prayer we turn back to God, we praise Him for his goodness, we thank Him for His blessings, we ask Him for His grace, and we request His guidance in our lives. Indeed, we pray that He will “lead us not into temptation,” which is different from asking that we will not be tempted. We are here asking that God will not withdraw His graces from us, because it is when He does this that we are most apt to actually consent to the temptation rather than resisting it.

I think that there are two things which are left to be said in this brief essay. The first is that we should, when undertaking penances, bear in mind the difference between self-discipline and self-punishment; between mortification and torture. The second is related to this, which is that we should therefore approach the Lenten practices and penances with some sense of Joy. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen writes in his reflection on the Seven Last Words that

The Christian fasts not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the soul… The Christian does not fast because he believes the body is wicked, but in order to make it pliable in the hands of the soul, like a tool in the hands of a skilled workman….

We are to mortify bodily hunger and thirst, not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it, lest it become a tyrant…. When such surrenders of the superfluous food and drink are made for the soul’s sake, let it all be done in a spirit of joy. ‘And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that though appear not to men to fast, by to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” [Matthew 6:16-18].

We are, in addition, to cultivate a spiritual hunger and thirst. Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.

Far from being a gloomy rejection of our pleasures, the penances of Lent are a joyful movement towards God. Part of this is becoming masters of ourselves, including of our bodies, and another part is in becoming a good society. We are undergoing a sort of spiritual growth, and with this comes some growth pains. We will expect some struggles in this, and it takes discipline. We will fail, perhaps often: but we will also draw ever nearer to our heavenly home, which is cause for joy.

As for our failures, our sins: they may be many, they may be grievous, but God’s mercy is more abundant. As John Henry Cardinal Newman notes in his Meditations and Devotions,

“Lord, our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by you. You count our sins, and, as You count, so can You forgive; for that reckoning…comes to an end; but Your mercies fail not, and Your Son’s merits are infinite.”

 

—-Footnotes—-

[0] Featured image is a photo of Ein Gedi, Israel, by Rob Bye, posted on Unsplash. I have cropped it slightly.

[1] That God is absolutely simple—and thus not composed of parts—is a doctrine of classical philosophy which has been adopted and expanded upon by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 43). The Fourth Lateran Council’s Confession of Faith begins, “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”

[2] To this might be added another situation, that they know where they want to go but do not know where they are. Discernment means learning not only the desired final state or outcome, but the “initial conditions,” and indeed the correct path to get from the latter to the former.

[3] I suppose to extend the analogy further, when the individual goes bad, the will becomes like the quartermaster of a pirate ship, complete with veto power of the captain (intellect) on behalf of the crew (passions etc.)

[4] In his science fiction short story, “The Feeders,” Michael Flynn has this brief dialogue between two characters (Heinrich, the main character, and his former seminarian comrade, Georg) on temptation:

“What are they,” he [Heinrich] whispered.
“What are what?”
He had not realized he had spoken aloud. “The three sources of sin,” he said, casting the first random thought into his mouth.
“Oh.” They walked a few paces further. “The world is one,” Georg said. “It provides opportunity. A pretty girl. An unwatched billfold. A careless enemy. Then, the flesh provides weakness. We call that Original Sin. It makes us prey to the temptations of the world. Then, finally: the Devil.”
“And what does the Devil do?”
“Why, as we stand there weakening before temptation, the little pumper-nickle creeps up behind us and gives us a push.”

If this is a sightly different synthesis of the three sources of temptation from what is offered above (and by St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer), it is one which compliments rather than contradicts what has been said above.