So ... acknowledging up front that this blog seems to coming All Wall Street Journal Criticism All The Time ... the US government has an ostensibly worthy entity called the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. In Friday's WSJ, two of its members -- Princeton professor Robert "Robby" George and Katrina Lantos Swett -- argue that that the US has a legitimate role advocating world-wide for the freedom of people to believe in any religion, or none. That's fine in principle, the question is what specific foreign policies this might justify, upon which they don't elaborate.
Anyway, in the course of the argument, they deploy none other than Cardinal Newman --
The British religious thinker John Henry Newman observed in 1874 that "conscience has rights because it has duties." We honor the rights of conscience in matters of faith because people must be free to fulfill what they believe to be their solemn duties.
Given Newman's religious trajectory, this quote warranted a check and here's the essay from which it comes. What does Newman mean by "conscience"? Luckily, he tells us what it is:
First, I am using the word "conscience" in the high sense in which I have already explained it,—not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us; and that this is the view properly to be taken of it, I shall not attempt to prove here, but shall assume it as a first principle.. Secondly, I observe that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done. "Conscience," says St. Thomas, "is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil." Hence conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.
and, what it isn't:
but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.
Thus, invoking Newman on conscience may have been a nice rhetorical flourish, it carries a lot more weight than you'd understand from how it is used above.
Photo: Newman House on St Stephen's Green in Dublin via Wikipedia, the ancestor of University College, Dublin.