Tag Archives: conscience

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

_________

References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

Freedom and Fort Nights

During this fortnight for freedom, it is worth reflecting on some words of wisdom by Blessed Pope John Paul the Great: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” It is because our government is choosing the former (the “right” to do whatever we want) at the expense of the later (the ability to simply do what is right) that the bishops have united and launched this fortnight for freedom campaign. Now, the campaign is aimed specifically at the Obama administration’s tyrannical HHS Mandate, as well it should be. The freedom of religion—which includes freedom of conscience—is perhaps the most important of our liberties, excepting perhaps only the right to life [1]. There are several ways in which our freedom is under attack, including:

  • The HHS mandate which tramples on employers conscience rights and forces them to provide insurance which will cover contraception, sterilization, and even some kinds of abortion
  • The increasing hostility of what Mr Mark Shea would call the “gay brownshirts,” which largely consists of a “gay” couple suing a photographer, bed-and-breakfast, or baker for refusing to provide service to them for their “weeding”/honeymoon, and then a federal judge siding with the “gay couple” (often in the face of local laws) and leveling hefty fines or court orders that the photographer/baker/innkeeper provide his respective service. [2]
  • Taxes continue to be collected for distribution to Murder, Inc.
  • The conscience rights of pharmacists are violated when they are forced to provide contraceptives—including abortifacent contraceptives—or risk losing their jobs; this coercive power against conscience is given legal sanction in some states [3], and also now by the HHS mandate mentioned above.
  • Catholic charities adoption services are often told that they must either start placing children for adoption with “gay” couples or close their doors, despite their arguments that this is a) contrary to Catholic moral teaching and b) that this is not to the benefit of the children [4].
  • On the other side of things, the Church is being forbidden from carrying out a few works of mercy—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and especially harboring the harborless—on account of their being illegal immigrants.

And all of these name only direct, political assaults against the freedom of religion. They say nothing about the erosion which occurs thanks to pressures from society, from the media, from the academy—in short, from the greater “marketplace of ideas” [5]. There is another type of pressure against living as people of Faith, that is, against our religion and against our consciences: that is the pressure which comes from our own weaknesses, our own concupiscence, the temptations which we suffer for our own reasons.

Our late, great pope’s statement certainly can be aimed against the government which coerces conscience against freedom—the right to do what we ought. But we see that freedom is more than merely having this right: it is our own ability to act on this right, even when society, or even when our own appetites, urge us against it. There is, in other words, a moral dimension to freedom. I would go so far as to say that moral freedom—which starts with the individual—ultimately underlies political freedom, though political freedom (or the suppression thereof) can reinforce or undermine moral freedom.

Our freedom is threatened by those who wish to have a false freedom, the right to satisfy their appetites with no questions asked. The have gained ascension in the press, in the academy, and in the government: but this ascension is in part because of the decline of moral virtue, both as individuals and as a society; and, truth be told, this decline is in part because of the complacency of the Church in America. Catholics so much longed for safety within and acceptance by the larger society that when finally they had begun to earn it, they forgot that the mission of the Church is not to be liked, but to be Christ’s bride and His mystical body; the forgot, despite the emphasis of the second Vatican Council, that to be baptized was to be not only priest and king, but also prophet, to speak the ignored and at times uncomfortable Truth, and to speak that Truth to power; and to be confirmed is to be made a soldier for Truth, that is, to wage spiritual war (against the enemy, Satan) for Christ.

Part of that Truth which we are to proclaim and to fight for is morality—the moral truths according to which we ought to form our consciences. These moral truths will always be out of season with much of society; society is, after all, of us fallen men who are sinners, and thus who fall somewhat short of moral excellence. This is perhaps why morality is so hard to preach, because virtue is so hard to practice. Thus we committed the old Socratic error of relegating assuming that philosophy alone could suffice to inculcate virtue, that education was all which was needed to make men moral—and this during a time when education, and Catholic education, was in a crisis of identity.

But while philosophy may aide in inculcating virtue, it is certainly not enough—for some of the most immoral men are quite educated, or at the least have quite a bit of schooling. Education taken more broadly can be helpful—a part of correctly forming your conscience is to learn what is right and what is wrong and why, and a part of becoming virtuous and morally upright is to heed the warnings of a well-formed conscience. On the other hand, there is also an element of child-like simplicity: if we are to become innocent, we must also become obedient, trusting of God and His authority.

“Fortnight,” or “fort night”? Source.

There is a sense in which the “Fornight for Freedom” is really also a “Fort Night for Freedom” (to borrow a pun from my friend Mr Gregory Turco). Indeed, there are at least two senses in which this is true. There is the childlike sense implied in mistaking a “fortnight” for a “fort night.” Then there is the perhaps more spiritually mature sense of recognizing that this is no mere physical, political battle, but a spiritual one; and the Church is our only Fort in that fight, and the Church is the only army on earth which can storm that enemy’s stronghold.

It is no mere coincidence that the Fortnight for Freedom was begun on the feast day of Sts Thomas More and John Fisher. For they were witnesses to a truth, a reflection of the Truth, against the secular tyranny of their day. And they also won out, by God’s grace, against the enemies which ultimately underlies all such tyranny: our own sinfulness, and the temptations of Satan. Now it is for us to do the same. It is, moreover, no mere coincidence that this fortnight involves some form of fasting or sacrifice, some asceticism; for asceticism is the weapon we use against our own desires, and prayer against the temptation of the devil.

In the second volume of his History of Christendom, the late historian Warren H Carroll mentions an episode between another great saint who was faced with the tyrannical demands of the government of his day: adhere to the Arianizing creed (that is, proclaim as true the heresy of his day), or else. Professor Carrol presents this exchange between the newly elected bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (Asia Minor) and Prefect Modestus, an agent of Eastern Emperor Valens, which took place in AD 371:

MODESTUS: What, do you not fear my power?

BASIL: What could happen to me? What might I suffer?

MODESTUS: Any one of the numerous torments which are in my power.

BASIL: What are these? Tell me about them.

MODESTUS: Confiscation, exile, torture, death.

BASIL: If you have any other, you can threaten me with it, for there is nothing so far whcih affects me.

MODESTUS: Why, what do you mean?

BASIL: Well, in truth confiscation means nothing to a man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags, and a few books: that is all I possess. As to exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard this whole earth as belonging to God, and I consider myself as a stranger or sojourner wherever I may be. As for torture, how will you apply this? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow that you give me, for that will be the only one in your power. As for death, this will be a benefit to me, for it will take me the sooner to the God for Whom I live, for Whom I act, and for Whom I am more than half dead, and Whom I have desired long since.

Carroll notes that the prefect (Modestus) and later the Eastern Emperor Valens himself, retired from these conversations rather abashed, and left St Basil alone. Saint Basil was truly and radically free, because he was obedient to the LORD. I pray that for us, it won’t come to these punishments in persecution. But I pray even more that we would be willing to suffer these things if that is what it takes to bear witness to the Truth. Saints Thomas Moore and John Fisher, pray for us! Saint Basil, pray for us!

 

Footnotes

[1] Which is itself threatened in various ways by the current President and his administration and his party.

[2] It also consists of some vandalism of Churches, disruption of the Mass, or even death threats against those who speak out.

[3] You’ll have to scroll down a bit, and the map in question is two years old, so some things have changed.

[4] And somehow, I suspect that the Regenerus study—which shows lots of evidence that the Church is right about this—will continue to be roundly ignored or worse, decried on the patently absurd ground that it was funded by a conservative organization (The Witherspoon Institute), all the while ignoring the axe to grind which is held by the various smaller, more limited, and frankly biased studies which sought to show that there is no difference between “gay” and “straight” parents as concerns the well-being of the children.

[5] These pressures we will always have wit us to some extent or other. They do, however, lack the coercive power of government (or of employers, as sometimes the case may be concerning consciences clauses).

Conscience and Authority

Last week I came across a publication explicitly dedicated to lobbying for abortion… and simultaneously claiming to be Catholic. (See my footnote for more on abortion.)

Inside the magazine’s front cover was a list of several quotations. Among them: “Conscience is the most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes). “A good conscience is the palace of Christ” (St. Augustine). “I shall drink — to the pope if you please — still to conscience first and to the pope afterwards” (Bl. John Henry Newman). “He who acts against his conscience always sins” (St. Thomas Aquinas).

The implication, of course, is that the Church may say that abortion is a grave moral evil, but if your conscience tells you otherwise, then abortion isn’t wrong for you. This (mistaken) conclusion is related to moral relativism, of course, yet it also springs from  understandable confusion over the relationship between one’s individual conscience and the Church’s authority. Confusion on this point is understandable: The Church simultaneously teaches that “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (no matter what his conscience is telling him) and that the moral law “is universal in its precepts” with authority over all people.

So there seem to be two commandments: 1) Obey your conscience and 2) Obey the moral law, which the Church authoritatively teaches and explains. For many people, these two dictates sometimes point in opposite directions. So how are they compatible?

In a nutshell: They’re compatible because your conscience can be wrong… and you are morally responsible for making it right, i.e., for bringing it into alignment with the moral law. Sounds a bit harsh, but think of it this way: Everyone knows that slavery is wrong. But for hundreds of years, self-proclaimed Christians owned slaves and often whipped or raped them. We now condemn the slaveowners for doing this, even though their consciences (apparently) didn’t tell them slavery was wrong. Whatever their cultural background or family upbringing, they should have recognized that slavery is an objective moral wrong and is completely incompatible with Christianity.

So virtually 100% of people believe the Church’s teaching on conscience and authority when it comes to slavery (when it comes to issues directly related to their own lives, however, they may not). They realize that there is such a thing as an objective moral law (slavery is wrong!) and that everyone’s conscience is accountable to the moral law. Slaveowners were guilty of sin not because their consciences condemned slavery (since apparently their consciences did not) but because they neglected to form their consciences, replacing God’s commands with social norms and utilitarian considerations.

Similarly, a murderer may not feel guilty for killing someone — his conscience may not say “Don’t do this, murder is wrong!” But he remains guilty of murder because he so radically neglected the proper formation of his conscience, or (more likely) because he so determinedly ignored his conscience that he managed to pervert its original accordance with the moral law.

Of course, there are degrees of guilt and responsibility. If the murderer was physically abused as a child, abandoned by his parents, and forced into a gang as a teenager — thus lacking a moral education and never experiencing God’s love — he would be less guilty for committing murder than a sane, well-educated Christian murderer would be. For the protection of society, the court system puts murderers in jail without making these distinctions. The Church, in her mercy, does. Yet note the general emphasis on moral responsibility.

To bring this post full-circle, the Church teaches that abortion is always wrong even if your conscience does not condemn it. The Church cannot err; your conscience, however, can. For a more extended reflection on these issues, read Pope Benedict’s lecture “Conscience and Truth,” which he delivered (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) to a conference of bishops in 1991.

To close with St. Paul:

I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.

 

Footnote: I am not condemning women who have had abortions. Though Catholics believe that abortion is wrong, we recognize that many women feel pressured or forced to have abortions and that they suffer greatly as a result. If you’re hurting from an abortion, I would refer you to Project Rachel, the Sisters of Life, and your local parish, which can help you find healing and peace.

If you’re pregnant and feel pressured to have an abortion, contact the Sisters of Life and find many other resources via the Priests for Life.

If you’re pro-choice, I would ask you to consider the evidence that abortion hurts women and that human life begins at conception. Abortion is not just another surgical procedure; it ends the life of a human being.