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Christ's Faithful People

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Class 17

Conscience (continued)

Conscience is an act of appetition, and not of feeling. In a healthy person, the judgment of conscience supports the feelings and the feelings support the judgment. The extent of the feelings depend on the somatic constitution of the person. When we follow our conscience, we follow the judgment of reason and not that of our feelings. It is possible that the judgment of conscience can be correct even though the feelings seem to tell us otherwise. Conscience is binding because it is tied to synderesis. Since the conscience is the conclusion of a syllogism in which knowledge is applied, we must distinguish between the act of reason in applying and the act of reason in issuing a free choice. There is the level of the judgment of conscience (what am I to do?) and that to do something. The error of conscience is an error of reason; the wrong choice can come from emotions, which may blind the reason. The free choice may be wrong if it chooses something the conscience told it to do. Conscience has an administrative and judiciary power but it doesn’t have a legislative power. It doesn’t create the norms. It conducts the interiorization of the objective norm, making it a subjective norm. Like a good administrator creative in serving his country, conscience must supply the arguments supporting why I should do this or that. When it is transformed by grace, it boost the free response taking into consideration the guidance of moral norms. Free choice still makes the choices. Conscience is always binding even when in error. We are of course obliged to inform our consciences so that it won’t be erroneous. We have no other rule but our reason. The Christian conscience is transformed from within by grace.

In modern Catholic theology, we see a further development of the teaching of Saint Thomas, that conscience is the voice of God. The working of God in the practical judgment causes our deeds to be the voice of God, when we’re open to the Holy Spirit. It is through the true voice of conscience that the voice of God manifests itself in practical decision making. Cardinal Newman in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk after the declaration of papal infallibility was very careful to distinguish the true voice of conscience from subjective ideas. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they often don’t mean the rights of the Creator, he says, but of their judgment and humor without thought of God. Conscience has rights because it has duties. Conscience doesn’t have a right to dispense with conscience. It is not the right of self-will. Conscience has to be rooted in truth. Newman rejected the liberal frame of mind which has no need for truth. Conscience is the voice of God in the heart of man, distinguished from the voice of God in revelation. There is a principle planted within us before there is any training, though training is important to the proper reception of the principles. Newman attributes to the conscience all of the attributes of the papacy except infallibility. We don’t have the same objective certitude as papal declarations. The rule of measure of the conscience is not utility, nor happiness of the greatest number, not fitness, not beauty; it is not selfishness, nor sincerity, but a messenger from Him who speaks to us from behind a veil. Conscience is an aboriginal vicar of Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in peremptoriness, a priest in its admonitions. He attributes the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ to the conscience.

Modern Challenges to the traditional understanding of conscience

It is very important that we see the conscience as a window open to the truth. Saint Thomas in rooting the conscience in the synderesis, and in his understanding of the human intellect’s natural inclination to truth, perceives the dignity of conscience. Conscience binds only because it is opened to truth. The truth which conscience perceives binds, not the conscience itself. Exactly this is disputed today. The liberals today say that people can search for truth but a denial that the truth can be found. This is too demanding for the liberal. The liberal prefers an agnostic suspension, reducing the judgment of conscience to a mere subjective opinion. In the name of such a liberal approach, the dignity of conscience is raised in opposition to the magisterium. This means that the final and last resort lies with the subjective conscience. Veritatis Splendor rejects this. The theory of an infallible conscience far from elevating conscience in fact reduces conscience. If each individual conscience is held to be infallible, then there is the objective truth which is only general and incomprehensible, and the individual truth which everyone works out for himself. Conscience is reduced to personal sincerity. In practice, truth is replaced by social pressure, which means its fashionable. Such a vision of conscience is dispensed from truth, living in the realm of imagination. What is seen as truth is seen as a burden. The elevation of the individual conscience above objective truth attributes a justifying power to the subjective conscience. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable hid behind the screen of his self-justifying conscience, unaware of the need of conversion, for his conscience didn’t allow a conversion. The conscience that ignores truth becomes a mechanism of rationalization. People who give up confession and arrive to confession after five years often think they’ve got nothing to confess. They feel self-sufficient. Even though someone in this state can’t name all his sins, the important thing to stress is his pride, is his self-justification.

Newman showed the primacy of truth over conscience. The martyrdom of saints shows that following conscience is not necessarily easy, like the martyrdom of Saint Thomas More. He followed his conscience to the end, and gave him comfort by his sense of humor. The road to truth is not comfortable. The retreat from truth to self and moral subjectivity doesn’t redeem us. The recognition of truth is not easy. The perception of what is real in moral value is not always clear. The fundamental inclinations of human nature can be recognized only with difficulty and admixture of error. The teaching of the Church brings to fruition the proper inclination of the conscience and natural law to bring out what is good in us. The Pope is the advocate of the Christian memory, according to Ratzinger. The pope doesn’t propose it from without, but elucidates memory and brings it out. Without conscience there would be no papacy, which is why we must toast conscience first. The papacy is a service to the memory on which faith is based.

The Church in her teaching authority aids in the building up of virtues which helps the recognition of the truth. There is a connaturality of man and the true good. The development of this instinct of truth pointing out the way requires the Church and the virtues. The common experience is that if we don’t act as we think we begin to think as we act. If we fail to have the moral vigor to persevere in what is true, we begin to doubt what is true.

The function of the moral law is to enlighten the mind so that conscience can properly choose. The education of the conscience avails itself of the written moral exhortations, but our interior instincts must also be awakened by this teaching. Veritatis Splendor says that the authority of the Church on moral questions in no way undermines the freedom of conscience, because freedom of conscience is not freedom from the truth but in the truth. The Church brings to light truths which it already ought to possess. The true teaching awakens the soul. When we speak about the freedom of the conscience, we have to distinguish freedom as an act of the will and freedom as an act of the intellect. This is what critics bring up in the proclamations of the 19th century to the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae.

If there is a seeming discrepancy it is the job of theologians to study the texts to see how they can be tied. The understanding in the 19th century of the liberty of the conscience was understood as the liberty of the intellect to ignore truth. In the 20th century, religious freedom is seen as an act of the will — is it licit to force another to do religious acts against his will. This is why there is a seeming discrepancy. Freedom of conscience meaning freedom from external pressure is certainly wrong. It is wrong to force Muslims against their will to go to Mass. This would be against the dignity of conscience. Freedom of conscience doesn’t mean freedom of the intellect, as if we could ignore the truth and if conscience could choose whatever "truth" it wanted. There are different traditions in the East and West in the approach to truth, whether by faith or by reason. For this reason, Veritatis Splendor rejects a creative character of conscience. We cannot mix-up decision and conscience. There is creativity in conscience, but not in respect to the moral norm. We have to be creative in life to be truly virtuous. We must make moral decision in concrete practical decisions. These decisions in which the conscience is active, if they lead to demanding acts of virtue, they must be creation, like Saint Thomas More’s joke while ascending the scaffolding. We need to be creative to ever to do anything new in life. The Christian life is undertaking of actions in charity. The acts must spring from a mature and independent personality capable of perceiving in a novel way the situation in front of him.

We have to make the appropriate distinctions. Conscience doesn’t decide but judges, but in so doing conditions the decision. There is a double process of reason: the stage of judgment (strictly speaking conscience) — the simple judgment of truth; and the mutual action of reason and will in which the cognition of the conscience is applied to the act. It may happen that the judgment of conscience is correct but the free choice may be evil. The inadequacy of the will or the attraction of the senses may cause us to do differently than the judgment of conscience. The person errs in the election of the act, not in the judgment of conscience. The conscience doesn’t create truth in issuing a free act. In the joint action of the reason and the will, the act is created, not the moral value. Its quality is measured by its conformity to true goods, as perceived by the reason. It is possible to maintain both the creativity of moral acts and the objectivity of moral norms. Reason and will are only truly free when they apply to the inherent attractiveness of that which is truly good.

The formation of conscience

In the education of conscience, we have to develop the ability to choose freely and to perceive the truth. Some people manage to perceive the truth, but fail to put it into practice due to lack of virtues. Their conscience can issue true statements, but they fail to act in a moral way. In time, if this is not overcome, they will begin to question the standards conscience perceives. We are a composite whole and if we lack perseverance, in time we back out from truth. We can ask ourselves to what extent the prevalent subjectivity in culture is a result of the lack of moral vigor and the lack of sound philosophy. The lack of moral strength can be the result of the lack of a father figure in education. There may be the lack of a personal relationship with God which permits the overcoming of difficulties when we’ve failed, and by which we can let him pick us up and return to him and the moral standards. The lack may be caused by the failure to express the assertive emotions. In such cases, the judgment of conscience may be true, but very little will flow out of it. The divine image is manifested in the charity of the Christian and perfected by his free choice in accord with the truth we perceive.

Conscience has to be formed. What is involved? It must be formed so that it will be in accord with the objective truth of reality. The next step is that conscience must be certain, capable of influencing decision making. We must both be able to perceive the values and make choices with confidence and certainty. Some people fail to have confidence in the judgment of conscience, and always hesitate, which is a sign of immaturity. Traditional moral theology worked out several principles to aid the conscience in doubtful cases. The first was that in doubt, you’re free (in dubio, libertas). When there’s a doubt, use your brains. This is when there’s true doubt, not questioning about the justification. There may be doubts about whether the law applies. Doubt doesn’t apply if there is a question as to what reasoning led to the conclusion, there is no doubt. There’s no doubt about contraception, because the teaching is clear, even though some don’t see the argumentation. The second was that in doubt the condition of he who possesses is better. The third is that no one is required to do impossible things. The fourth is the obligations and punishments are to be interpreted strictly, whereas privileges widely. These rules were worked out in the times of casuistry to help people not to fall into fear neuroses.

An erroneous conscience has to be respected. We have no right to force people to act against their conscience. If someone is culpable for not finding out what he should and could have known, then he’s at fault, but not for following his conscience but for failing to inform it. The formation of conscience begins in childhood. The five-year old is capable of assessing he has done something wrong; therefore he has the right to have his conscience formed. It is wrong to say that children are innocent and angels, which is from the Enlightenment and is contrary to experience. They have a right to catechesis and sacramental confession. The education of the conscience should lead to a capacity to discern the work of the Holy Spirit. To educate one’s conscience it is important to know oneself and to perceive God within. The regular examination of one’s conscience to see the faults but also the graces is important. Spiritual direction should aid in the formation of a clear judgment of conscience, to make clear hidden motivations, and lead to an appropriate knowledge of oneself. We need a long process of purification of our faculties so that the beauty of the divine image will be manifested within us. Conscience should lead to sincerity, to the recognition of our weaknesses and our dependence in God. Supernatural means are necessary to form consciences: both the sacraments and contemplative prayer.


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