The Meaning of Conscience

Pope Benedict once said that one of the greatest dangers facing the West was the “self-destruction of conscience.”  The Church is not immune to this danger as more and more Catholics invoke the “right to dissent” from long held teachings of the Church under the guise of the Church-sanctioned “primacy of conscience.”  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a single magisterial document in which the term “primacy of conscience” is used. This type of language leads to great ambiguity in the understanding of conscience.

In order to understand conscience it is helpful to begin with a definition.  Often, conscience is spoken of as a thing.  Conscience is not, however, a thing but an act of the intellect — or, more specifically, a judgment. Like all judgments, conscience is an attempt by man to use his reason to conform his personal knowledge to objective reality. Specifically, it is a practical moral judgment of what one ought to do in a specific situation. As the Catechism says conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (no. 1777).  If conscience is not a thing, then we must put away the childish notion of conscience as something external to us like the proverbial angel on one’s shoulder.

But this is not the only immature way of looking at conscience. Many Catholics labor under a false conception of conscience born of two distinct kinds of moral immaturity.   First there are the “rebellious teenagers” who must assert their freedom by embracing “the primacy of conscience”.  On the other hand there are the “obedient children” who must submit to authority and be told what to do all the time. While these two approaches seem to differ, they both make the same fundamental error in assuming that that there is an insurmountable chasm between freedom and authority. One rejects freedom in favor of authority while the other rejects authority in favor of freedom.

Those who overemphasize the primacy of conscience often cite a  passage from the Catechism — namely, that a “human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” This definition does lend itself to a “primacy of conscience” of sorts, but not in the manner often assumed. When the Church refers to conscience it is almost always attaches a modifier to it such as “right,” “well-formed,” “Christian,” or, as the Catechism has it, “certain.” These adjectives define the necessary standards for conscience.

Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary defines a certain conscience as “a state of mind when it has no prudent fear of being wrong about its judgment on some moral issue and firmly decides that some action is right or wrong.” A certain conscience is not a mere moral opinion, but a judgment based upon sound reasoning and deliberation and with reference to the moral law.   Those who espouse the “primacy of conscience” really are masking what amounts to rationalizing—coming up with reasons why it is OK to do something that is objectively morally wrong.

The key in distinguishing between mere moral opinion and a genuine judgment of conscience is in the cultivation of the virtue of prudence. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas treated prudence and conscience as though they were synonymous. Prudence is the habit of applying right reason to practical matters. The prudent person habitually knows the good and therefore conscience is a consistent guide.

Even when an action flows from a certain conscience, appeals to “primacy of conscience” suggest that it releases the person who seeks its refuge from a certain level of responsibility. Normally, no reference is made as to whether the dictates of one’s conscience are wrong or not. All that matters is that one acted in accord with it.  This subjective definition of conscience is so embedded in our language that we refer to St. Thomas More as a “martyr for conscience” — as if he merely made up his mind that the Church was right and Henry VIII wrong and “stuck to his guns.” But St. Thomas More died not as a “martyr for conscience” but, like all martyrs, as a witness to the truth. Herein lies the problem for those who hold the mistaken idea of “primacy of conscience.” Are they really willing to admit that someone like Adolf Eichmann who, when on trial said he was only being true to his conscience, and St. Thomas More are equally laudable?

St. Thomas More Execution

Within the conservative Catholic milieu, one often hears something akin to “if all Catholics would obey the Magisterium, the world would be better off.” This proposition contains a good deal of truth, but only to a point. The problem with this view is that conscience is likened to a moral GPS by which man occasionally downloads maps from the Magisterium that lead him to where he really does not want to go. Again the dictates of conscience are understood as coming from outside of  man who must force his will to conform to that of “the authority of the Church.” Despite the conventional wisdom of popular culture, obedience is still a virtue. But like all the virtues, it must be rooted in charity in order to be a true virtue. The problem with this view is that it undermines our freedom in favor of obeisance to authority. Constant appeals to authority in matters of morality eventually stunt our ability to develop conscience freely without relying on some outside authority.  It keeps us trapped in a state of moral immaturity.

Being an “obedient child” is the surest path to the legalism Jesus condemned in the Pharisees. It leads to a moral minimalism that asks, “How far can I go until this is considered sinful?” This is not the language of a man who is free to love but of one who feels himself bound by legal constraints. Our Lord came so that we might be free, because only in freedom is love possible (cf. Gal. 5:1; Jn. 8:36). Obedience does not lead to love; instead, love includes obedience.

Finding the bridge between freedom and authority enables us to grow out of the “obedient child” or “rebellious teenager” roles in which many have been stuck.   Recall from the Catechism definition that conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.” By what standard does one determine the “moral quality of a concrete act”? Before we can answer that question, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “morality.”

Morality, simply put, is the relationship between a human act — i.e., one done with knowledge and freedom — and the use of man’s nature in fulfilling his final end, communion with God in Heaven. Some acts are in accord with the proper use of man’s nature (we call these good) and some are not (we call these evil). Because human nature and its fulfillment are objective, certain goods are common to all men. Reason recognizes these goods as true goods, and commands that they be protected, preserved, and promoted. These commandments of reason comprise the moral law. Therefore the “moral quality of a concrete act” can be determined by how it measures up to the moral law. The moral law serves as the bridge between freedom and authority.

It remains to investigate where the moral law comes from. The rebellious teenager says that moral truth comes from within the individual. The obedient toddler says the moral law is imposed on us from the outside. Which one is right?

The word for conscience in Latin, conscientia, gives us a clue. It is translated literally as “knowledge with.” Conscience is literally the “co-knowledge” of man with God. As such, it is a correct perception of the way things really are and clarifies why conscience asserts authority.

An accurate understanding of conscience involves a synthesis of the two mistaken views we have examined. Because all creation is governed by divine providence, all things partake in the eternal law of God. From this law, all things are inclined to their proper ends. As a rational creature, man can both know his end and freely choose to participate in this eternal law. Man’s participation in the eternal law of God is, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the natural law. Therefore, the natural law comes from within man insofar as it is mediated by God through reason. Because it is a participation in the divine law, it has its source outside of man, in God Himself. Man’s knowledge by participation is referred to by St. Thomas as “connatural knowledge.” It is in light of this understanding that St. Paul refers to the Gentiles, “who have not the law,” as a “law unto themselves” because they “do by nature what the law requires” ( Rom. 2:12) without any contradiction of either their freedom or the objective moral law.

The moral law comes to us through our intellect, but because of our fallen condition we now also share in the “knowledge of good and evil.” Although our innate desire for the good cannot be extinguished, the darkening of the intellect that accompanied the Fall causes us great difficulty in discovering the good. Our reason, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, must now be “suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations.” The light of God’s truth flows through the Church. The Church informs conscience in much the same way the soul informs the body — giving it life and making it what it is.

St. Thomas teaches that we need revelation in the practical order for two reasons. First, since we are fallen creatures without revelation, the truth “would be known only by a few, and after a long time, and with the mixture of many errors.” Second, because man has a supernatural end, there are certain truths that surpass human reason. The Church, as described in Veritatis Splendor, is at “the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (VS, 64). The Church does not impose the truths of man’s proper use of his nature from the outside, but instead proposes those truths to man’s reason so that he may recognize them as true internal values.  It is not, however, the case that the Church is merely making suggestions.

Not surprisingly, once the thinking on conscience, which the Second Vatican Council called “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” in Gaudium et Spes (GS, 16), becomes muddled, moral chaos quickly ensues.  To stem the tide, the Church must be free to exercise her role in forming the consciences of all men of good will, and men of good will must freely assent to the proper formation of a certain conscience.  This starts by clarifying what conscience actually is and separating it from its immature conterfeits.

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