Fall Randall Lecture Explores Conscience as Understood by Newman, Aquinas
Cardinal John Henry Newman once wrote: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts … I shall drink — to the Pope, if you please — still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
Cardinal Newman, the 19th century philosopher and theologian who founded an oratory school in England, wasn’t asserting his right to make up his own mind on moral issues, said Dr. Reinhard Huetter, the Rev. Robert J. Randall Professor in Christian Culture at Providence College.
Rather, Cardinal Newman made the statement because he knew conscience to be synonymous with the voice of God, Huetter said. He accepted this as a “first principle” of the Church, so evident that it did not need to be proven, said Huetter.
Huetter presented the Randall Lecture for the fall semester, “What Conscience Is and Why It Matters,” in Aquinas Lounge before about 150 students, faculty, and staff.
A professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School and a native of Lichtenfels, Germany, Huetter is the ninth Randall scholar. The Randall Chair was established in 2002 by Father Randall, the priest and scholar who taught for more than 25 years in the Department of English, the Development of Western Civilization Program, and the Liberal Arts Honors Program.
Huetter was introduced by College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80, who thanked Father Randall for making it possible to bring scholars such as Huetter — whose new book, Dust Bound for Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Eerdmans, 2012), was just published — to campus for the academic year.
“Father Randall’s generosity and his vision made this possible,” Father Shanley said.
Huetter, an expert in Aquinas, teaches a colloquium, Aquinas on Faith, in the Honors Program. During the lecture, he explored the meaning and importance of conscience through the writings of Aquinas and Cardinal Newman.
“St. Thomas would agree with the order of precedence in Newman’s toasts,” said Huetter.
“Conscience properly understood is always religious conscience,” Huetter said, quoting Cardinal Newman. “‘Conscience … is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil’ … Conscience to be understood is religious all the way down, to be more precise.”
A ‘counterfeit of conscience’
But even in Cardinal Newman’s time, many preferred to view conscience as a creation of man, Huetter said.
For example, Newman wrote, “When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all.”
In today’s secular world, “this counterfeit of conscience has ascended to the status of conventional wisdom among politicians, journalists, and the so-called person on the street,” said Huetter. It is now a noble word for “a long-sighted selfishness” and self-interest, he said.
And that mistaken view has consequences, he added.
“As Nazism and Communism have taught me, as a German who grew up in the second half of the 20th century: Deny the reality of (a God-governed) conscience, suppress its exercise, and the outcome is a system of political barbarity,” Huetter said.
Democratic governments are not immune to the danger, Huetter added.
“If democratic regimes become dominated in their political culture by an aggressive secularism not completely unlike that which was a typical ingredient of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, they are prone to produce their own versions of barbarity — even if they are infinitely more subtle and refined than those typical totalitarian regimes.
“There is no genuine political freedom without the proper exercise of theonomic conscience,” Huetter said.
— Vicki-Ann Downing