Leo Varadkar quoted the newly canonised John Henry Newman in the Dáil this week during a debate about future relations between Church and State. He was responding to Brendan Howlin, leader of the Labour party, and the Taoiseach quoted the famous line from Newman that he would drink to his conscience first, and the Pope second. But he used the quote totally out of context.

Deputy Howlin, in his intervention, had criticised Archbishop Eamon Martin for claiming that Catholic politicians have “a responsibility to support laws which uphold the dignity of every human person”. Howlin questioned this. He said: “As we become more pluralist and our society becomes infinitely more multicultural, the idea of Catholic politicians could become deeply problematic, especially for growing minority groups”.

Responding, Leo Varadkar said: “Deputy Howlin mentioned the views expressed by Archbishop Martin on the obligations of Catholic politicians. As he was speaking, I was reminded of the words of St. John Henry Newman, who was canonised in Rome this weekend. When he learned about the new doctrine of papal infallibility, he said he would drink to the Pope, but would first drink to his own conscience. What St. John Henry Newman was encapsulating in that was the idea in the Catholic faith that allows people to act according to their conscience, even Catholic politicians.”

Varadkar in his comment seems to endorse Howlin’s position, and refers to Newman as if he was maintaining that a Catholic’s religious beliefs should be placed to one side in favour of their conscience, as if a Catholic could ever separate the two.

This famous toast to conscience appears in Newman’s book ‘A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk’, published in 1875, five years after the declaration of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council. So, it is historically inaccurate to present it as a comment made by Newman “when he learned about the new doctrine of papal infallibility”.

In 19th century Britain the old accusation that Catholics could not be loyal to the Crown persisted, as it did afterwards and in its own way to this day. Newman was responding to this.

Not long before he wrote ‘The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk’, British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone claimed that Catholics cannot be good legislators and good citizens if they are faithful to the Pope, rather than to their country. Gladstone affirmed that papal infallibility made Catholics moral and mental slaves, compromising their loyalty and civic duty. This isn’t so far away from what Brendan Howlin seemed to be saying in the Dáil.

Similarly, The Times newspaper, echoing Gladstone, had criticised Catholics for drinking a toast to the Pope before the Queen.

This is why Newman puts conscience first. It comes before the Pope, or the Crown, or anything else. But he means conscience in a very specific way. He does not mean conscience disconnected from the moral law and God. (1)

Newman basically challenges Gladstone. Does he put his conscience before the Queen? In other words, does he obey the moral law first, or the Queen no matter what?

The same could be put to Leo Varadkar. Would he, as Taoiseach, toast his conscience first and the State afterwards, or is the State supreme over his conscience? And what shapes Leo Varadkar’s conscience; the moral law, or something else? How does he define ‘moral law’? These questions also apply to Brendan Howlin and every other politician in Leinster House.

The Catholic faith not only allows people, and Catholic politicians, to act according to their conscience, as the Taoiseach said, but it requires them to do so. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are entitled to legislate against the dignity of human persons, and presumably neither Leo Varadkar nor Brendan Howlin would do so either.

Catholics, Newman reminds us, understand conscience as “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature”.(2) This implies that, as Archbishop Martin said, they have “a responsibility to support laws which uphold the dignity of every human person”. This responsibility extends to all of us.


(1) “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 humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; 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.” (J. H. Newman, A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)

(2) “I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam. (J. H. Newman, A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)



Dr Angelo Bottone has published books and articles on John Henry Newman, Paul Ricoeur, Ludwig Wittgenstein, multiculturalism, ethics and politics. He lectures in philosophy at University College Dublin and Dublin Business School. Born in Italy, he has lived in Ireland since 2002.