Recently, in both the secular and Catholic World, much talk has focused on the notion of personal “conscience.” In the secular world, the question has focused on whether religious institutions may follow their conscience by not paying for their employees contraceptives, since they see contraception as morally objectionable. More interesting though, is the current debate on conscience among Catholics themselves. Yet, from the debate, it is clear that the notion of conscience is poorly understood.
On one hand, traditional Catholic teaching holds that conscience is inviolable; that is to say, the claims of one’s conscience are absolute and may not be violated. Yet depending what is meant by conscience, this leads to absurdities. A bad man may strongly feel that his conscience is telling him to break into his neighbors’ house because his neighbor deserves it. Or a neo-nazi feel that he really is right to burn down a black Church, because it deserves it. But if conscience is inviolable, it seems we need say that these people are right to act as they do, which is absurd.
On the other hand, we clearly admire people who follow their conscience at the cost of great personal risk and loss to themselves. Robert Bolt, an agnostic playwright, could not help but admire the Catholic layman, Sir Thomas More, who stood on his own conscience when he refused to say that his king was not an adulterer for divorcing his wife and attempting to take another. When asked why he admired More so much, Bolt pointed to More’s stubborn insistence on following his conscience even against all the coercive power of the English state. He admired that More “would not place his hand on an ordinary book and tell a very ordinary lie.”
So how to reconcile the two? Clearly, to follow conscience is admirable but at the same time, moral evils cannot be justified with an appeal to conscience. It must be then, that conscience is not simply a matter of strong personal feeling. A person feels a certain way, therefore conscience is speaking. This view of conscience clearly leads to the absurdities mentioned above. In this case, conscience becomes to easy to confuse with personal desire. “My conscience tells me that I can…” comes to mean little more than “I really, really want to do x, therefore I will believe that my conscience wants me to do x.” This is clearly absurd, but if conscience is internal, how can one refute it? Are there no objective, external markers, that conscience may be measured against?
If one is a Christian, of course, the answer is simple. If one’s conscience contradicts the meaning of scripture, then what one believes is his conscience is certainly no more than personal desires or something worse. Certainly, not conscience at all. If one’s desire for a second marriage contradicts the plain words of Jesus, “a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” then clearly the claim that his conscience is telling him to contradict the words of Christ is either delusion or sophistry. If one is in addition to Christian, a Catholic, then he is also bound by the tradition of the Church.
But just as “faith must be purified by reason” (Benedict XVI), conscience too can, at least partially, be measure by reason besides revelation alone. In his book, One Body, the philosopher Alexander Pruss made some useful remarks on conscience. He referred to those who say that their conscience now permits them to use contraception. In reply, Pruss pointed out several things, I mention three:
1. Conscience, when it is really conscience speaking, tends to grow more demanding and not less. This is merely the nature of moral life. The more we try sincerely to follow conscience, the more demands conscience places on us. Conscience permits, not more than it used to, but less than it used to. Hence to say that conscience once did not allow divorce, but now it does allow it, fails to fit with the nature of conscience.
2. This is connected to the last. People say “my conscience allows…”, but conscience does not really permit. The nature of conscience is to forbid. It acts typically as a check on one’s behavior and desires. Hence, any claim “my conscience allows,” seems not to fit this measure of conscience.
3. While there is moral progress, there is also moral decay (Pruss). If there is progress or development, we should expect it to grow organically out of the Christian tradition. A man develops from a child, a dog from a puppy. Yet, the current desire for divorce and remarriage and contraception (for example) seems not to develop from Christian tradition, but from secular culture. This suggests rather than decay is slipping in, influenced by secular culture, not that moral progress is being made.
This is significant for the whole modern discussion of conscience, but also the claims of some, flowing out of the recent synod, that people can, on their own, in their own consciences, discern if their divorce and second marriage (or whatever other moral issue) is permitted by their own conscience or not.
This passes the test neither of scripture nor of reason. Conscience is inviolable, to be obeyed absolutely. But desire that contradict reason and scripture, where a person is likely led by personal wish to something they already wish to do, is not conscience. It is only desire, and to replace conscience (real conscience) with desire and still call it conscience only leads us, “on the short route to chaos.”