The Primacy of Conscience

Could it be that the” primacy of conscience” will lead to its ultimate demise?  With Church leaders like Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago saying things such as: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that” one has to wonder if it already has.  As Pope Benedict XVI once said, the greatest danger facing the West is the “self-destruction of conscience.”  Conscience is being destroyed from within because we no longer understand what it is.  Therefore it is instructive to look at conscience and see why those who profess the primacy of conscience are misguided.

Thanks, in no small part to the magic of Disney, Conscience is often spoken of as a thing, like the proverbial angel on one’s shoulder or Jiminy Cricket guiding Pinocchio.  Conscience is not, however, a thing but an act of the intellect.  More specifically it is a judgment reason.  Conscience is not just any judgment like whether I should bring along my umbrella or not, but a moral judgment about what one ought to do in a certain situation.  The Catechism, succinctly defines conscience as “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” (CCC 1777). Rather than being something outside of us, conscience is as Gaudium et Spes defines it, “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” (GS 16).

Before looking more closely at the idea of the so-called primacy of conscience, it is helpful to examine the underlying cause for its unquestioned adoption.  The moral life seems to present us with a Catch-22.  Either one sacrifices their freedom by obeying an authority or embraces that freedom and becomes one’s own authority.  In other words, there seems to be a great divide between authority and freedom and we must choose one or the other.

Those who embrace the “primacy of conscience” have decided to assert their freedom.  One would be hard pressed to find a single mention of this phrase in any magisterial document.   Those who refer to it often cite the same passage from the Catechism that the author did — namely, a “human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” While this does put an emphasis on the necessity of following one’s conscience there is a key modifier that can’t be overlooked.  Advocates of the primacy of conscience consistently omit the modifier “certain.”  The Catechism says that we must obey a “certain” conscience so that if we are to speak of a primacy of conscience it is a primacy of a certain conscience.

Fr. John Hardon in his 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.”

In other words, a certain conscience has two components.  It is a judgment that follows from sound deliberation and second it refers to the moral law.  It is not a mere moral opinion based on a superficial assessment of a situation nor is it looking for reasons why what we want to do can be justified.  We call that rationalizing.  Instead it is principled reasoning as to how the moral law applies to the situation at hand.

Interestingly, those who appeal to the primacy of conscience rarely ever actually refer to whether they are right or not.  All that matters is whether or not the person acted in accord with it.  Think of Archbishop Cupich’s respect for the fact that the individual has been true to themselves.  Conscience trumps truth. So embedded in our language is this understanding of conscience that we even refer to St. Thomas More as a “martyr for conscience.”  It is as if he merely made up his mind that the Church was right and Henry VIII wrong and dug in his heels.  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.”   By their logic, both St. Thomas More and someone like Adolph Eichmann who said during the Nuremburg trials that he was only being true to his conscience were equally laudable

Within the Catechism’s definition of conscience, we find the blueprint for the bridge between freedom and authority. Recall 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 ultimate purpose, communion with God.  Some acts are in accord with the proper use of man’s nature and lead us to thrive (we call these good) and some are not and cause us to become slaves (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 acts as a bridge between freedom and authority.


It remains to investigate where the moral law comes from.  How can we see obeying a law as not somehow inhibiting our freedom?  The word for conscience in Latin, conscientia, gives us a clue. It is translated literally as “knowledge with.” Conscience is literally the “co-knowledge” that man shares with God.   This shared knowledge about reality shows why conscience has authority.

God governs all of creation by His Divine Providence.  Because He always acts in accord with reason, all things participate in His eternal law.  He has made all things with natural inclination towards those things that will fulfill its purpose or end.  Think of how a tree naturally grows towards the sunlight.  But unlike the tree, man, because he has an intellect and will, can know and choose to participate in this eternal law.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is our participation in the eternal law of God that is called the natural law. Therefore, the natural law comes from within insofar as it is mediated by God through reason. But because it is a participation in the divine law, it has its source outside of man, in God Himself who is the Author of human nature.

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” (cf. 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 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” (no. 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 and accept them as his own.  Conscience indeed is primary, but only a conscience that is animated by a desire to become what we were made to be—saints.

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