Important Clarifications on the Meaning of "Conscience"

Doug McManaman
(to be published in Catholic Insight)
Reproduced with Permission

There has been a great deal of talk about conscience in recent months, in particular on the part of Catholic politicians, both in the United States and Canada. In his Address to the Chamber of Commerce in Quebec City (March, 2004), Paul Martin said: "I am personally and profoundly committed to rapid and permanent changes in the way things are done in Ottawa: a change to the culture of Parliament, where all MPs, including government members, are now empowered and encouraged to defend their opinions and vote according to their conscience."

These are great words, and they can be the source of tremendous blessing to this country as long as the term "conscience" is correctly understood. The current misunderstandings of the word are for the most part exactly the same as those in the days of Cardinal Newman (1801-1890). Interestingly enough, though, some of the current misunderstandings of the relationship between conscience and papal authority have been falsely attributed to Newman. Hence, my decision to rely heavily on Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

The Primacy of Conscience

Firstly, we ought to be careful of the expression "primacy of conscience", or "supremacy of conscience". There is a sense in which conscience is primary -- and we will study precisely in what sense it is --, and there is a sense in which it is not. Conscience, as it is popularly understood, particularly in political circles, is not primary. Rather, Divine Law is primary or supreme. The reason is that conscience is fundamentally an intellectual apprehension of the Divine Law. As the etymology of the word suggests (con - 'with'; science - 'knowledge'), conscience cannot be properly understood outside of a knowledge of the divine law. If conscience were not an apprehension of Divine Law, but merely a decision on the basis of what I feel or believe is right, then there would be no reason to call it "conscience"; for I would not be acting on the basis of a knowledge of what I apprehend to be required by a higher truth or authority, but merely on the basis of my feelings.

Newman writes:

God has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.

This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual human persons and which is called 'conscience', can suffer a kind of refraction as it passes through the medium of the intellect, as pure light is refracted through a prism, becoming fragmented. Refracted light can also cause distortion, as when a fishing line in the water appears bent. So too, when the light of the Divine Law passes through the medium of the intellect and suffers refraction, the result is a limited apprehension of the Divine Law. A distorted perception can occur as well. In such cases, it is not the Divine Law that does the distorting, but the medium. Nevertheless, it does not, for that reason, lose its character of being the Divine Law, and thus it still carries the "prerogative of commanding obedience."

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman quotes Cardinal Gousset, who writes: "The Divine Law is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience."

Some Implications

A number of points follow from these principles. First, recall that a right is a correlative to a duty. A right and a duty are the same reality. For example, my right to life is nothing other than your obligation not to kill me. I too have an obligation not to kill you, thus you have a right to live. If there were no moral obligations, there would simply be no such thing as rights. Thus, when we speak of the "rights of conscience", we do so with reference to our duty to the Creator (Who is the Divine Law). Now, Individualism has always spoken of rights without reference to duties, as if rights were separate entities. That is why for the Individualist, there really is no such thing as conscience, in the true sense of that word. Yet individualists still retain the word. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a perfect example of a document permeated by the spirit of Individualism, -- especially in the way it is currently being interpreted --, and it too employs the term "conscience". This counterfeit version of conscience is something that Newman also had to contend with. He writes:

When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman's prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

But conscience is not the right of self-will. Rather, conscience is, to use Newman's expression, "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway." Conscience is one's best judgment, in a given situation, on what here and now is to be done as good, or to be avoided as evil. It is this hic et nunc (here and now) that is all important. The reason is that conscience is not, as Newman emphatically points out, a judgment upon any speculative truth or abstract doctrine. It is "a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice speaking within us."

Because conscience is one's best judgment, hic et nunc, on what is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as being evil, a person has a duty to obey his conscience. The Fourth Lateran Council says: "He who acts against his conscience loses his soul".

Now the duty to obey one's conscience includes an erroneous conscience. This is what is meant by the "primacy of conscience". If I am convinced, that is, if it is my best judgment in this particular situation right now, that walking on this patch of grass in a public park is contrary to God's will, then I have a duty not to walk on this patch of grass. Should the Pope or a local Bishop try to persuade me that there is nothing sinful in walking on this patch of grass, yet I continue to judge (erroneously) that walking on this grass would offend my Creator, I must follow my conscience and not walk on the grass. The reason is that if I were to walk on the grass, I'd be doing what in my best judgment is morally wrong.

Newman writes:

If in a particular case conscience is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. ... Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it [the Papal injunction], and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.

The primacy of conscience does not mean that I can do what I think is right, regardless of what the Pope or Church teaches. That this is true is rather easy to demonstrate. Let us say that I regularly engage in a particular behavior that I think is perfectly innocent. My conscience does not bother me in the slightest when engaging in this particular activity. Then one day a friend or colleague approaches me and says: "You know, I think what you are doing is unjustifiable, but I can't explain it now, I've got to run for an appointment. I'll talk to you later." At this point I am rather surprised, and I begin to consider my friend's character and past judgments. I know he's not a controller trying to manage my life, and I know that he's quite level headed and generally gives a great deal of thought to what he holds to be morally right or wrong.

Already, my conscience has been changed, even though my friend had no time to explain himself to me. When I find myself in a situation in which I am about to engage in this activity, my judgment bearing upon the act is now different. Here and now I know that choosing this course of action might very well be morally wrong--although at this point I don't quite fully understand how--, because my friend whom I know to be reasonable told me that it is wrong. My best judgment now is that "perhaps I should wait and think about this further". In other words, I have to consider what my friend said to me, and I have to investigate the reasons for his position. Now, if this is true for a friend or a colleague, how much more so for the Vicar of Christ himself?

The only time I could reasonably act against my friend's counsel is if I judge, here and now, in this particular situation, that were I not to engage in this particular activity, I'd be doing something that in my best judgment is morally wrong. If I regularly tell certain kinds of jokes to students, and my friend has told me that I ought not to be doing that but had no time to explain why, I must listen now to my conscience, which commands me to hesitate and think a moment. If I know that my friend could be right, I should desist from telling these kinds of jokes until I hear him out. If I am convinced that I ought to tell those jokes now, to this group of students, and that to choose not to would be contrary to God's will and thus morally wrong, then I ought to follow my conscience and tell the jokes. This is the case even if my friend turns out to be the Pope. Consider the Mennonites who, on the basis of conscience, refused to take part in war. It was their best judgment that should they pick up a gun and shoot an enemy soldier, they would be committing serious sin. Newman writes:

Thus, if the Pope told the English Bishops to order their priests to stir themselves energetically in favour of teetotalism [complete abstination from alcoholic drinks], and a particular priest was fully persuaded that abstinence from wine, &c., was practically a Gnostic error, and therefore felt he could not so exert himself without sin; or suppose there was a Papal order to hold lotteries in each mission for some religious object, and a priest could say in God's sight that he believed lotteries to be morally wrong, that priest in either of these cases would commit a sin hic et nunc if he obeyed the Pope, whether he was right or wrong in his opinion, and, if wrong, although he had not taken proper pains to get at the truth of the matter.

Confusing Dissent with Conscience

It should be obvious at this point how the expression "primacy of conscience" has been abused, as it was in Newman's day. If a Catholic politician claims to be able to vote, in good conscience, for legislation that is contrary to Catholic moral principles, it must mean that he is convinced, here and now, in the depths of his conscience, that God is commanding him to vote a certain way, and that if he does not, for example if he does not vote in favor of making abortion more available, in his mind he would be acting in a way displeasing to God. In other words, taking a pro-life stand would, in his mind, be a sin against the Creator. That would certainly constitute an erroneous conscience. Nevertheless, he or she would be obliged to obey it.

This, however, is not what Catholic politicians are maintaining when they appeal to conscience. They are merely disagreeing with Church teaching on issues like abortion, unisex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, etc.,. That is something very different than an act of conscience. It is dissent. Now dissent can be legitimate, if it is based on Catholic principles, as is renowned Catholic Moral Theologian Germain Grisez' dissent on the Church's traditional position on capital punishment, which has never been officially defined as has her teaching on abortion or contraception, for example. Most dissent among Catholics, however, is not based on Catholic principles and is thus illegitimate. For example, it is impossible to justify dissent on direct abortion or active euthanasia on the basis of Catholic principles. But it is very possible to argue convincingly on the basis of those principles that the death penalty is morally wrong.

Newman was careful to point out that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth or abstract doctrine. "Hence," he concludes, "conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors." Moreover, he writes:

Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head's side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope's authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.

For a Catholic to make a moral decision on the basis of illegitimate dissent is to act in violation of conscience, not in accordance with it. The very fact that one is not plagued by guilt afterwards does not mitigate the argument. Feelings of guilt do not always accompany decisions that we know might be wrong, are probably wrong, or are in fact wrong.

Final Thoughts

If conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, then the Pope's authority is rooted in conscience. For without conscience, he'd have no authority. Conscience is his raison d'être. And his authority is not superfluous only because conscience, although the highest of all teachers, is the least luminous. Hence, Newman writes:

But the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biassed by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.

A Pope is not infallible in his acts of administration or public policy, nor in his laws or commands. This is where a collision is possible between conscience and Papal authority. Conscience is a practical dictate, so when the Pope legislates (not teaches on matters of faith and morals), or gives particular orders, a conflict of conscience may arise. Newman writes:

Since then infallibility alone could block the exercise of conscience, and the Pope is not infallible in that subject-matter in which conscience is of supreme authority, no deadlock, such as is implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.

In an individualist culture nursed by a Charter of Rights in which the word "duty" does not appear even once, but which includes "freedom of conscience" as a fundamental right belonging to everyone [section 2(a)], it is difficult to imagine how Catholic politicians only vauguely familiar with the fundamentals of ethics can avoid operating under a counterfeit notion of conscience. We've already begun to witness its misuse on the political level, which began with Trudeau and seems to be reaching a crescendo with respect to more recent issues. So perhaps it is understandable that many of our Catholic politicians are confused about what exactly "primacy of conscience" really means; after all, Catholics in general today are simply unaware of the rich intellectual and spiritual heritage that belongs to them. But it seems to me that Bishops and priests, who have been exposed to that rich heritage, have no excuse for employing a version of "conscience" which, in the final analysis, undercuts their very authority and renders it unnecessarily imposing and offensive. If they don't begin to speak out soon and correct this and similar popular misunderstandings, it is difficult to see how their audience and influence in such a culture as ours cannot but dwindle so as to become virtually ineffective.