What About Conscience?

As my last post was so concerned with the nature of authority in the Church, particularly the maintenance of correct doctrine by an infallible adjudicator, over and against the characteristically Protestant doctrine of private judgement, I thought it may be useful to look at the other element that an individual may use to determine and apprehend truth, namely conscience. Clearly, the Church cannot simply dictate its doctrines to the faithful in an authoritarian manner (though many have mischaracterised it as doing so, and indeed I’m sure it has been guilty of such at times) and expect them to be absorbed without question or appreciation of what they are being taught. Put plainly, one cannot accept what one does not understand or believe to be true, no matter how sternly or persistently it is urged. To explore how the faculty of conscience operates within the life of the Church, I would first like to explore a little how we receive information in the first place, in any context.

We tend to think of ourselves as so many tabula rasa, honestly and critically seeking the truth with an open and unbiased mind. However, in reality we are all brought up in certain environments, we have all developed certain tastes and prejudices, and this combined set of influences produces in is a natural inclination to certain types of information, or even certain ways of information being presented to us. We thus all have formed within us intellectual habits or customs, and are predisposed to receiving or rejecting certain ideas that are not congenial to these customs. For instance, in the current cultural climate of the West, it is very difficult to get anyone to listen to arguments rooted in the idea of objective morality, since most people are relativists. This, combined with the closely related intellectual custom of seeing everything in a highly individualistic and utilitarian context (e.g.; ‘What’s true for me may not be true for you’ and ‘Well, as long as it’s not hurting anybody’) makes it very difficult to argue from moral absolutes, and any attempt to do so will require basic assumptions to be addressed before any successful discussion can get off the ground, if it can at all.

If this be the case, and I believe it is undeniably so, how can one established in a worldview sometimes antithetical to the truths of the Faith, ever hope to discover them? This is where conscience comes in, and also…private judgement! Firstly, whatever circumstances we may have grown up in, and whatever attitudes may have become entrenched in our mind, we all have a very basic intuition for there being a criterion of moral judgement; for their being such a thing as right and wrong, true and false, which can be separated from any particular theory of ethics. Newman puts it thus:

Though I lose my sense of the obligation which I lie under to abstain from acts of dishonesty, I should not in consequence lose my sense that such actions were an outrage offered to my moral nature…Thus conscience has both a critical and a judicial office, and though its promptings, in the breasts of millions of human beings to whom it is given, are not in all cases correct, that does not necessarily interfere with the force of its testimony and of its sanction to that testimony conveyed in the feelings which attend right or wrong conduct.

An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent (1955), Image Books, p.98.

Conscience, through its promptings at the deepest levels of our being, and acted upon by the inscrutable operations of divine grace, can witness to us the existence of objective truth, and if we are truly open to its promptings, we may be led to question our long-held assumptions and discover a different worldview. This then, is where private judgement comes in – it requires a certain natural scepticism to question the foundations of our beliefs and to follow the path of discovery. As a believer in objective truth and goodness, I of course consider (and have had it borne out in my own experience) that if one does sincerely follow the (sometimes evanescent) rays of light initially given, the further one travels along the road, the clearer things become. However, when the goal is finally reached, and truth is believed to have been found, this is no longer appropriate; for by the very nature of believing that there is such a thing as objective truth, one must believe it to be something invariable and real. To continue in a process of sceptical inquiry, questioning the truth that has been found and deciding for oneself whether it continues to have any validity, is really to admit a lack of conviction in that truth. Newman again:

And here we see what is meant when a person says that the Catholic system comes home to his mind, fulfils his ideas of religion, satisfies his sympathies, and the like; and thereupon becomes a Catholic…Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgement; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be the thought of bringing it into his drawing room?

Loss and Gain (1986), Oxford University Press, p.143.

            Now the question emerges as to the role of conscience within the Church itself. Despite the role of the magisterium, and ultimately, the Pope, to define and pronounce on faith and morals infallibly, conscience is still a vital element of the Catholic life. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that conscience always binds – that if one is sincerely convinced of a truth, one should always follow it (De Veritate, Question 17, Articles 2&3). Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that ‘man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters”’ (1782). However, as mentioned earlier, it is clear from experience both individual and collective that consciences do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, when an individual becomes part of the life of the Church, their conscience must be (if they are to be faithfully oriented to the truth and sincere in their continuing commitment to it) formed by the ecclesial community they are now a part of. The Catechism is also very clear on this point when it states that ‘in the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer, and put it into practice…we are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church’ (1785).

Conscience then is an operative principle within the life of the Church, and remains the primary means we have for apprehending truth rightly, but once one accepts the authority of the Church as guardian and teacher of the Faith, humility must be exercised, so that one’s conscience may be formed and educated in accordance with the contours of the truths held therein. There will be times when things do not seem clear, or perhaps even seem counterintuitive to the intellectual habits developed over the course of years living in a cultural environment antithetical to Christian teaching. But, once the source of truth has been discovered, it is not only appropriate but wise to walk forward in humility and faith, trusting that greater riches lie ahead, and that we are apprenticed to the greatest Teacher it is possible to know, and One who will not mislead us. Saint Anselm, cut to the heart of the matter in his Proslogion:

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm (1973), Penguin, p.244

            It only remains then to say a little about what those of us who claim to have found this Truth should do to draw others to it. As I stated at the beginning of this post, many today are profoundly affected by a culture of relativism, which does not allow arguments appealing to an objective foundation to get through at all. Many, even when the cogency of such arguments is recognised, simply do not care. How then can one penetrate this cloud? I have mentioned in an earlier post the compelling case made my Fr. Robert Barron, who suggests first presenting people with Beauty, as a means of leading them towards the Good and the True. I further argued that this encounter with Beauty could perhaps be particularly effective when embodied in our own lives – that by daily striving towards a greater personal holiness and thereby evidencing a moral beauty to our neighbour, we may awaken something within them that will reach out further. I would now add that as well as this, we must eagerly follow the example and instruction of Saint Paul, who urges us to ‘preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2), with the proviso that we respect the boundaries and beliefs of others and recognise when it is not appropriate to bear witness in such a manner. The goodness of our persons however, we can always bear witness with – there is no impropriety in acting rightly and living a life of self-giving love. The rest we must leave up to God, whom we know ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4).

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One thought on “What About Conscience?

  1. Pingback: Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism | Journey Towards Easter

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