Just days after he was named the new Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop James Conley urged students at Harvard University to heed Blessed John Henry Newman’s warnings about the dangers of moral relativism, according to EWTN.
“It is my contention that the philosophy of relativism is not intellectually compelling nor personally satisfying for some of today’s brightest students,” Bishop Conley said.
And he should know. While a priest assisting the Vatican Congregation for Bishops from 1996 to 2006, Bishop Conley served two Newman Guide colleges as an adjunct theology professor at Christendom College’s Rome campus and chaplain to the University of Dallas Rome campus. He also was chaplain to the Newman Center at Wichita State University.
Bishop Conley suggested that the modern understanding of “conscience” has made truth inaccessible, and this misunderstanding has ushered in the dangerous reign of moral relativism.
Blessed Cardinal Newman saw this problem early in the 19th century, Bishop Conley noted. Blessed Newman’s view of conscience is very different from what many mean when they speak of “primacy of conscience.” Newman believed that moral truth is the key to conscience and that a conscience could never lead a Catholic to believe something different than the Church. As reported by EWTN News:
Cardinal Newman’s view was that conscience is rooted in moral law which is based outside the individual person, and thus it has both rights and responsibilities. Freedom of thought is ordered to help the person assent to what is true.
Newman’s account of conscience laid the foundation for Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom in its declaration “Dignitatis humanae.”
Those who opposed Newman argued that conscience has no relation to moral law, and so freedom of thought has no obligation to seek truth.
This erroneous understanding of conscience became the basis for modern-day relativism, the denial that truth can be known or even exists.
Bishop Conley distinguished between the two notions of toleration that flow from the two understandings of conscience. The legitimate sense of toleration, taught by Vatican II, is a duty owed by those who know the truth to those who do not.
“Christian tolerance is fundamentally an orientation of love toward those in error … I am called to imitate God’s patience and mercy.”
The tolerance advocated by relativism is one of indifference, towards both truth and persons.
It is indifference to persons which makes relativism unsustainable and bad for communities. If conscience and conviction are private opinion, then they have lost any connection to reality and reason, and cannot be meaningfully shared and debated in the public forum.
“Authentic communities cannot be built upon an ideology that fosters interpersonal isolation, personal immorality, and intellectual shallowness,” he told the audience at the Harvard center.
Bishop Conley told the audience that Catholic intellectuals have a duty toward students to propose “our Faith to them in a serious, respectful dialogue,” and encourage them in their search for the truth.
Not a truth. The truth.
Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.