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Aquinas and Newman on Conscience

Saturday 4th March 2017

The 2017 Aquinas Colloquium was part of the launch of the research project jointly undertaken with the Las Casas Institute on “Human Nature and Dignity: Resources for the 21st Century”. Freedom of Conscience is a right widely promoted, and widely withheld. But if, as Elizabeth Anscombe remarked, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things,” how absolute are its rights? Can it really be “the voice of God”? We need to clarify what conscience is, if we are to state its duties, privileges and limitations, and cherish it without idolising it. Aquinas is helpful, since he distinguishes “synderesis”, which God has built into us, from “conscientia”, which is the reasoned judgment we have the duty to make about what we have done and about what we should do. If “my conscience tells me to do X” has exactly the same meaning as “I judge I should do X”, then conscience’s fallibility becomes obvious – but we still need to ask what signs might tell us we should re-think a judgment. Not all scholars approve Aquinas’ distinction between synderesis and conscientia, and it is not immediately obvious how far synderesis extends; hence work remains to be done on this subject, and on how conscientia and synderesis differ from the “super-ego”.

Since there is a perception that there has been at least a shift of emphasis in the Catholic Church’s teaching on conscience, and that Newman had a role in this shift, we chose to compare and contrast Aquinas and Newman, so as to sharpen the question of what conscience is. The common elements in these theologians are in fact striking, and stand to balance a focus on conscience’s rights with reflection on its responsibilities. One strand of the research project will explore how the duty and the right to make serious moral decisions is an important part of human dignity, and how governments, the Church, families, educators, and so on, must cherish this duty and help people carry it out well.

The Colloquium included a paper contrasting Aquinas and Calvin so as to illustrate the range of accounts which Newman inherited, and which should be taken into consideration.

The 2017 Colloquium was made possible by a generous donation from Prof Barbara R Walters-Doehrman and Steven R Doehrman, in memory of, and with gratitude to, the late Eugene Walters and the late Virginia and Ralph Doehrman. The Institute is very grateful for this support.

The day’s papers were as follows:

Welcome; Introduction to the Theme  Rev. Dr Richard Conrad, OP, Director of the Institute

Aquinas on Synderesis                        Prof. Candace Vogler, Chicago

Aquinas and Calvin on Conscience    Mr Aaron Taylor, Blackfriars, Oxford

Newman on Conscience                      Prof. Fred Aquino, Abilene Christian University

“A Disputation between a 19th-Century Dominican and Fr. Newman”

Clarity over Synderesis and Conscience      Rev Dr Gerard Hughes, SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford


Abstracts of the papers can be found by following the links below:

Aquinas on Synderesis Prof Candace Vogler, Chicago [read more…]

Aquinas and Calvin on Conscience Mr Aaron Taylor, Blackfriars, Oxford [read more…]

Newman on Conscience Prof Fred Aquino, Abilene Christian University [read more…]

A Disputation between a 19th-Century Dominican and Fr Newman [read more…]

Clarity over Synderesis and Conscience Rev Dr Gerard Hughes, SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford [read more…]

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