Moral Progress, Conscience, and Moral Decay

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.”

The World’s Hatred: A Letter to Catholics

This was initially submitted to my local diocesan paper as an OP-Ed.  The paper published it as a short letter.  Hence, I present the original here.  

As the Holy Father concludes his visit to the United States, the Catholic Church seems to wear a more attractive face. Pope Francis’s popularity and the enormously positive media coverage seem almost overwhelming. Doubtless too, it comes as a welcome relief to Catholics tired of being attacked for their supposedly backward and narrow views on a range of issues from abortion to marriage and beyond. The Pope is popular, the Church is popular, and all seems well. We need no longer talk about unpopular, controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, we can “reach out” to people, by talking about easier subjects. At least, so it seems.

Enjoying this period of popularity is perfectly understandable and probably even morally neutral. But a thing can be morally neutral and still lead one into danger. We may enjoy this period of popularity while it lasts, but herein lies the danger, that we might be tempted to try to make it last. We might be tempted to try to make this time of popularity last by trying to get along too well with the world or by not talking about “controversial” subjects. We might try to put aside Our Lord’s hard words: His talk about suffering, crosses, sin, and hell. We might focus on the Christ who said to help the poor and not to judge, but not the Christ who flipped tables, called his enemies “whitewashed tombs,” and told his closest follower, “get behind me Satan.”

This is the danger: that hoping to maintain present popularity, we may be tempted not to present the full truth of Christ. That we might be tempted to abandon it for mere popularity. And popularity is something no follower of Christ should expect. Our Lord never promised popularity, but a cross; and no one can follow Him and hope to escape it. The world says “blessed are the popular,” but Our Lord said, “blessed are you when they persecute you, revile you, and slander you because of me.” The world says, “woe to the unpopular,” but Our Lord says, “woe to you when men speak well of you.”

If we do not present the full truth of Christ to people, the hard as well as the easy, then we are not presenting the true Christ. If we are not presenting the true Christ, then we are presenting a false Christ. And to deprive people of the truth of Christ and hence of the true Christ is a betrayal of Christ, His gospel, and the poor themselves. Cardinal Sarah, an African Cardinal, and hence someone who knows something about poverty, has recently said that the worst form of discrimination against the poor is not to give them Christ.

Hence, failure to present the whole Gospel is a betrayal of the poor and the weak themselves. It is a betrayal of children— denied a father and a mother—who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage and the family. It is a betrayal of the unborn, the poorest of all, who have no one to defend them but us.

The world may hate us for that defense. But such is our duty, and Christ warned his followers that if the world hates them, know it hated Him first. In His life, same crowds that shouted “hosanna” on Sunday, shouted “crucify” the next Friday. He never sought to escape it. Neither can we.

Care for the Poor: Who Are the Poor? Medieval and Modern Views

Pope Francis has recently gained significant acclaim with his love of the poor and of poverty. He has suggested that he wants a “poor Church for the poor and excoriated excesses of the modern economic system that turn man into an economic animal rather than a spiritual one.” His call to care for the poor has seemed to resonate with a world that also professes its own desire to care for the poor. Sometimes, this is even used by enemies of orthodox Catholicism as a tool to be set against traditional Catholic concerns like abortion– the defense of the unborn– and marriage. Forget about that nonsense, say Francis’s secular admirers, focus on the poor, who we really need to care about. Rather than be “obsessed” with controversial social issues, focus instead on the poor. And some Catholics have agreed, preferring the agreement to conflict.

Yet, who are the poor and what does it mean to be poor? In the modern world, poverty means a lack of money. This may say more about the modern world than about genuine poverty. In the Middle Ages, though, poverty had a broader meaning. Poverty, paupertas, meant not so much the lack of money, as the lack of power. Poverty meant powerlessness. The poor were the weakest members of society: this meant they often lacked money, but it was not quite the same thing. In the earlier Middle Ages the poor were monks- men who stepped away from the violence of aristocratic, feudal society and threw down their weapons to live as unarmed monks. And as the poor, they suffered helpless the attacks of other noble warriors and, even more so, the attacks of Vikings, which devastated monasteries throughout Europe. Later, poverty came to refer more to giving up money, as with St. Francis, who gave up his wealthy middle class lifestyle to become a poor vagrant. Yet, even here, the emphasis was not just on giving up of money, but of power. St. Paul had written that “in my weakness, I am strong,”- this was the point.

So, who are the poor today? The modern world, with its obsession with money, simply equates poverty with the lack of money, but possibly the Middle Ages has something to offer. If paupertas, poverty, is seen not only as lack of money, but the classic sense of lack of power, i.e. weakness, then this would force reconsideration of who the poor are today.

If paupertas is weakness, then who are the poor? Who are the weakest members of society we should care about? Seen in this light, a man from the Middle Ages would consider absurd the claim that we should forget about the unborn and focus on the poor. Or that we should forget about marriage controversies and focus on the poor. This would be a contradiction in terms. Who in society is weaker than the unborn? Who is more powerless? Who is weaker than the children who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage?

If modernity is not too proud to take some lessons from the past, then perhaps it might learn something from past views of poverty and weakness. It might learn the absurdity of claiming to care for the poor, but not the unborn, who are the poorest and weakest of all. And it might drop the ridiculous sophistry of saying that we should talk less about abortion and more about poverty. Liberals sometimes accuse anti-abortionists of only caring about children before they are born. Of course, this is nonsense. Catholic Charities is among the largest non-governmental charitable organizations in the United States. But it also misses an important point: that the need to care for the poor, also entails the need to care for the unborn.

If the modern, secular world really wishes to take some lessons from Pope Francis and his concern for the poor, then one lesson it must take is this: care for the poor will necessitate care for the unborn, on pain of hypocrisy.