TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question G: How is conscience misunderstood in the modern world?

1. Today conscience often is confused with arbitrariness. For instance: “My conscience tells me it is all right to do X—so it is all right for me, and nobody else can tell me I am wrong.” Or: “I do not see that doing X really hurts anybody, and it does not bother my conscience. So doing X is all right.” Or again: “I know a lot of decent people who are doing X, and I would not presume to pass judgment on them, so it would be all right for me to do X, too. Of course, I never do—well, hardly ever.”

John Henry Newman observed the beginning of this view of conscience and criticized it bitingly in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, written in 1874. “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 license 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 Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had.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.”23 The situation today is very like that described by Newman.

2. This popular erroneous conception of conscience amounts to moral subjectivism (see 4‑A and 4‑C). The subjectivist account of conscience is to some extent simply a rationalizing attempt to justify refusal to submit to moral norms; but subjectivism is also to some extent a mistaken theory which follows from certain confusions.

3. The first of these concerns the sense in which conscience is personal. Although conscience is one’s own grasp of moral truth, this does not make it one’s own wish or fiat. Conscience is personal just as seeing something for oneself is personal. What one sees truly for oneself is an objective fact which others, too, can see. And the moral truth grasped by one’s conscience is true apart from one’s grasping of it.

4. The second confusion concerns the role of conscience in relation to legal impositions on the one hand and moral principles on the other. Because it knows moral requirements, conscience is a locus of personal dignity for the individual confronted with arbitrary, morally unacceptable legal impositions. But the situation is different when conscience faces moral principles: Here it confronts the source of its own authority. Those whose consciences are at odds with these principles need to correct their error, not withstand moral truth in the name of personal freedom.24

5. In appealing to freedom in such a situation, one is claiming the liberty to do as one pleases. A person who supposes that the basic moral categories are the permissible and the forbidden is inclined to do this. One whose practical judgments are affected by a residue of superego and awareness of social convention is likely both to confuse moral norms with legal impositions and to suppose that the basic moral categories are the permitted and the forbidden. Hence, such a person is likely to appeal to liberty against moral norms which are not felt to be personally acceptable.

6. Unlike persons of immature conscience, those whose consciences operate maturely do not perceive objective norms as standing apart from personal conscience. Thus, faithful Catholics with mature consciences will not regard the Church’s teaching as a burden to be eased as much as possible, but as a bright light to be gratefully accepted and followed. As Leo XIII teaches, this light is liberating: “For the truth which proceeds from the teaching of Christ clearly demonstrates the real nature and value of every being; and man, being endowed with this knowledge, if he but obey the truth as perceived, will make all things subject to himself, not himself to them; his appetites to his reason, not his reason to his appetites. Thus the slavery of sin and falsehood will be shaken off, and the most perfect liberty attained: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (Jn 8.32).’ ”25

After the publication of the encyclical, Humanae vitae, in July 1968, many episcopal conferences issued pastoral statements.26 Most discussed conscience. While virtually everything said in these statements about conscience has a true sense, still many people were misled by them. Why this happened can be understood from the following general observation, which holds equally in any pastoral situation.

Normally, conscience becomes a subject of reflection when one is thinking about one’s past action or someone else’s action. In forming one’s conscience here and now, one pays attention to the relevant moral truth, not to conscience. It follows that when someone seeks pastoral guidance, he or she wants to know what the Church believes is truly the right thing to do. If one responds by saying that a person who follows a sincere conscience is morally blameless, the remark can be misleading. It is true, but the truth about conscience is not what is being asked for. The question is: What should I think I may do? The question is not: If I do what I think I should do but happen to be mistaken, then how do I stand?

Thus, when an advisor in a pastoral situation talks about conscience and about the moral norms proposed by the Church at the same time, the talk about conscience is likely to be mistaken for talk about one’s substantive moral responsibilities. The teaching on conscience does not form conscience; it merely says that if one blamelessly thinks doing X is right, then choosing to do X is blameless.

But this truism is likely to be taken as significant and to be misinterpreted to mean: “If you think that doing X is morally unobjectionable, and if you are blameless in having come to think so, then I, as your pastor, assure you that you may do X blamelessly.” In other words: “If you think it is right, then it is right for you.” Thus, inappropriate talk about conscience is likely to be understood by the faithful who need formation of conscience as an endorsement of subjectivism. Subjectivism is completely alien to a Christian conception of moral principles.

23. John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans Considered . . . a Letter addressed to the Duke of Norfolk (London: Longmans, Green, 1897), 250. Defenders of dissent from the Church’s moral teaching often quote the sentence at the end (261) of this section: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” They do not mention that the immediately preceding discussion concerns a possible duty in conscience to disobey an order, not a moral teaching, of the pope. Gladstone had suggested that since the papacy is a foreign power, Catholics might not be loyal citizens, for they might feel bound to follow the pope’s orders in case of a political dispute between England and Rome.

24. Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 317–28, provides a cogent analysis and critique of subjectivism based on “freedom of conscience” analogous to that offered here. But Scheler distinguishes between (1) universally valid and nonformal moral propositions, which cannot be played off against conscience, and (2) the adaptation of moral insight to what is good as such for me. The second Scheler thinks in principle irreplaceable by any possible norm (324–25). This position in part depends on Scheler’s inadequate account of the essential relation between values and personal fulfillment, which makes him imagine one must move from the former to the latter. It also depends in part on his overlooking the fact that in comparison with any social context, each individual has added personal considerations (for example, my prior commitments and personal vocation, my abilities and opportunities) which require normative judgments no one else can supply. Such judgments, if true, still will be universally valid, although in fact they might be relevant only to a single instance; they will bear on what is good simply, which also is good for me insofar as I share in an intelligible existential order of interpersonal communion open to all who can be fulfilled in the goods of human persons.

25. Leo XIII, Tametsi futura prospicientibus, 33 ASS (1900–1901) 281; The Papal Encyclicals, 153.9.

26. For a brief discussion of these statements and references: John C. Ford, S.J., and Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 308–12. It should be noticed that insofar as some of these statements disagree with received Catholic teaching on conscience, they also disagree with one another. Certain conferences which published rather questionable statements under the pressures immediately following the publication of Humanae vitae later issued more deliberate and far sounder treatments of relevant points. See, for example, Canadian Catholic Conference, Statement on the Formation of Conscience (1 December 1973), in Catholic Mind, 72 (April 1974), 40–51. The bishops of the United States also published a later statement which provides an adequate, brief summary of common Catholic teaching on conscience and many other general and particular questions in Christian morality: To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life (11 November 1976). This letter was drafted with great care after wide consultation; it accurately presents common Catholic teaching in a contemporary form and format.