With college students beginning the fall semester at schools across the U.S., Bishop James D. Conley spoke at the Harvard Catholic Center about Blessed John Henry Newman, truth, and post-relativism in universities.
“It is my contention that the philosophy of relativism is not intellectually compelling nor personally satisfying for some of today's brightest students,” he said.
Bishop Conley traced the problem of relativism to a mistaken notion of conscience, identified by Cardinal Newman in the 19th century.
The cardinal was a priest in the Church of England who led the Oxford Movement and eventually converted to the Catholic Church. Bishop Conley held up Cardinal Newman as an example of someone who faced criticism, misunderstanding, and ostracism as he relentlessly followed truth.
He said that if a right understanding of conscience is promoted on campuses, it will help university students be open to truth and the meaning of life.
Religious liberalism in Cardinal Newman's England upheld “liberty of conscience,” but did so without having defined conscience and its grounding.
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 stated that many university students are disillusioned and dissatisfied with the relativist culture in which they are immersed, and that Catholics can help to orient them toward the pursuit of truth with Newman's understanding of conscience.
“At schools across the country, I believe there are many intellectually serious young people who find the dominant subjectivist viewpoint both intellectually and personally frustrating.”
Those who are not necessarily religious sense that something “must be” true, and want to discover what it is. “They are struck by life's beauty” but also “troubled by the human experience.” He pointed to those who today place more importance on questions of truth than on “worldly success or even personal happiness,” as Cardinal Newman did so many years ago.
Bishop Conley believes that Catholic intellectuals have a duty towards these students to propose “our faith to them in a serious, respectful dialogue,” encouraging their search for the truth and affirming that the truth is knowable.
Catholics can help young people to distinguish true conscience from self-will, helping them to discover the purpose of personal freedom given them by God and helping them to look inward with “the utmost honesty.”
For this reason, Bishop Conley said, the Pope is “calling for in this upcoming special 'Year of Faith' and the call of the New Evangelization.”
This realization of what conscience is will help students to create a post-relativist culture, in which they can again know and love the truth.
“By awakening to the true meaning of conscience, these students may awaken to the true meaning of life itself – to that fullness of wisdom and knowledge found in Our Lord Jesus Christ.”