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.”

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Women in Paganism and Christianity

In the early years of Christianity, the ancient pagan world held Christians in disgust because of their poor understanding of Christianity. The knew little about it, but they “knew” Christians practiced cannibalism, blood sacrifice, conspired against the state, and engaged in sexual deviancy. The modern world, also increasingly pagan, seems to understand Christianity little better. It knows little about Christianity, but it at least “knows” that Christians hate women and gays, are against science, and enjoy long lists of pointless rules.

All these errors are beyond purpose of this piece; rather, what concerns here is the claim that Christianity is oppressive towards women. What interests about this claim is a very odd historical coincidence: Christianity is supposed to be oppressive towards women, yet in early Christianity a majority of the converts were women. This need not disprove the claim that Christianity oppresses women, yet it is at least surely a very odd coincidence. It would be at least as strange as removing the hoods from a KKK meeting and finding a large majority of African Americans were wearing them. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly puzzling.

In, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has argued that one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity from a small break-off Jewish sect to a religion that dominated the Roman empire was its appeal to women. In pagan antiquity, women had few rights and little respect. Men generally agreed that wives were too much trouble and marriage undesirable; the promise of land and money from the Roman government did little to make women and marriage more palatable. Women who married were likely to be pushed into marriage to much older men with the result that there was little affection between the spouses. For men it was easier and more convenient to find sex elsewhere, hence adultery and affairs were common- at least for men.

Women were also likely to be forced or coerced into abortions and infanticide. They had little power. The real power, the pater potestas, lay with the husband and father, who had the power of life and death over his family. And he used it. Stark has shown that infant girls were killed in enormous numbers by romans preferring a son; this led to a significant gender gap (as in modern China), and made marriage even more difficult.

Christian behavior was different. The marriage age gap was minimized. Abortion and infanticide forbidden. The double standard on adultery was abolished and, as a result, the gender gap was diminished. The pater potestas, at least in the pagan sense, was abolished. No longer did the husband have the power of life and death over his family; the headship remained, but it was now to be a headship of service. The husband was called the head of the family, but this was said, not by way of domination, but by way of sacrifice. He was, in the language of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, to love his wife even as Christ loved his Church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her. Perhaps the ideal was no more met then than now, but it was still different than the pagan, and the ideal mattered.

Why was the Christian practice so different? First was the language already discussed of Ephesians comparing marriage of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and His Church. Such an image placed higher obligations on both partners and forced them to view their marriages differently. Marriage became a sacrament, not a mere social contract.

This has another important aspect. The marriage symbolism implied a new purpose to marriage. In the old pagan view, marriage was for heir or perhaps family alliances. But the purpose of the union of Christ and the Church was holiness. In the Christian view, the purpose of marriage was not children (though they were to be welcomed) or social benefit, but the mutual holiness of the spouses. Hence women could not be seen as mere tools, as a means to an end (heirs or alliances). Because a woman was not mere matter, but had a soul, a soul for which the husband was responsible and so a woman, because she could not be seen solely in material terms, has a basis to be treated better in the Christian than pagan world- and this is what happened.

Today, with the advent of secularism and return of the materialist philosophy, the pagan world is again slowly returning. And again, the pagan world begins to see women only in material terms, which is to say, in sexual and reproductive terms. Hence, women’s “rights” are almost exclusively seen in sexual terms, which explains the paramount importance placed on birth control and abortion. This is because since women are only matter (or thought to be so), they are are seen solely in light of a material purpose- reproduction. And the modern world is becoming as proficient at preventing women from giving birth and being born as the pagan was. This keeps women more available to serve (as tools) the sexual desires of men. The propaganda has changed, cloaked in the language of “rights” but the facts have not.