Lecture 4: Conscience
Praised be Jesus Christ. As we work our way through this introductory course in Moral Theology we have come today to the topic of conscience. It's a sign of our times that we don't hear much about conscience anymore, and yet it really stands at the center of the Catholic Church's teaching on the moral life. There are many who don't understand what the teaching really is, who will appeal to their conscience only when they are trying to justify their having performed some kind of immoral act. They say, "I'm just acting in accord with my conscience. The Church may teach such and such, but my conscience tells me this, and I must be faithful to my conscience." Unfortunately, these people are taking a truth of the Church but understanding and applying it incorrectly.
What is conscience? It's interesting to note that Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great Medieval theologian, does not write a great deal about conscience. He does write a lot about prudence, however, and prudence is the chief of all the virtues. Most people hear of prudence, and they think of the prudent man who is looked upon as the cautious man, the man who is characterized by committed and firm action. Yet classically understood, prudence is the highest of all virtues. It is a moral virtue, which perfects our appetite. It is also an intellectual virtue which enables us to see reality for what it is so that we can make the right kind of judgment about the course of action that is being proposed to us.
Saint Thomas tells us that the virtue of prudence has three primary activities. First of all, it is reflection; next, it is judgment; and, finally, it is the issuing of command. Saint Thomas tells us that there is a receptive part of prudence that perceives reality for what it is and reflects on it before one makes a judgment about the kind of action that ought to be performed. Leo XIII in 1891 issued Rerum Novarum, the first great modern encyclical on social justice. In it he said that nothing is so useful as looking at the world as it really is. That seems so self-evident that you wonder why a Pope would even say it, but one of the great agonies of the twentieth century is that one ideological movement after another tried to fashion a human society, not in accord with the way things are, but in accord with the way in which these ideological things should be. You had the Communists denying private property, denying religion, denying family, and brutalizing human beings in the process because they didn't look to the world as it really is.
Prudence is that perfected ability to look at the world as it really is in order to make the right kinds of judgments about what we ought to do. We must first be able to see reality for what it is, to reflect on it. Then when we reflect on the courses of action that we might take to attain our end, we make a judgment about the appropriateness of one action over another. When we have made our judgment that, for example, this particular act is wrong because it won't help me achieve my goal; or this particular action is appropriate, I should do it to achieve my goal. Then prudence goes on to issue the command. Don't do this act which will keep me from achieving my goal. Do this act which I must do to fulfill my obligation as a father, as a husband, as a teacher, whatever. So we really see in the writings of Saint Thomas prudence in many respects playing the role which later came to be associated with conscience. The most characteristic act of prudence isn't judgment but rather the issuing of the command. I now know what I should do or should not do, and then I must act upon that. We never grow in virtue unless we act. Virtues are good habits and good habits come about only through acting. I might have the greatest insights in the world about a certain situation. I might be able to come to the absolutely right judgment about what ought to be done, but if I don't do it, I don't become virtuous. I don't grow in virtue.
This is why Saint Thomas said that prudence was the mother of all of the virtues. Unless I have clarity of vision, I don't know what I must do in order to be just or courageous, temperate or chaste. Conscience represents a reflection upon a studied conclusion about the direction in which we ought to go and the action we ought to perform. Conscience is sometimes called a still small voice, but it is not as though something or someone outside us is whispering to us. It's this voice within, which is not a voice, which is drawing the conclusion and making the judgment about the course of action that we ought to make right now in these circumstances. It's not this broad awareness of the fact that we ought to do good and avoid evil. It is the judgment that in this circumstance, right now, this is the action I should perform. This is the action which I will perform, and then issue the command. One of the difficulties with conscience today is that people no longer see it as this bright eyed, clear visioned, open, free kind of movement in the world in pursuit of the good. The Gospel teaching of prudence liberates us to be free to pursue the good.
Conscience at one time in the Church's history came to be associated with the application of the law. There was a time when some moral theologians thought that the real essence of the moral life was determining whether or not the law applies and is binding on us in this case, in this situation. This was the act of conscience. Conscience was going to tell us whether we were free to act or whether we were not free to act. There was a time in which legalism worked its way into the thinking of many people within the Church. The moral life was seen as a conformity to the will of the lawgiver. The task of conscience was to determine what the will of the lawgiver was, and then to see whether or not it applied to me in this case.
In the movie Going My Way, with Bing Crosby, when the young priest appears at the parish, the older priest welcomes him and suggests that they have a drink together to welcome Father to his new parish. In those days all Catholics were bound by a fast before Holy Communion from midnight the night before. The older priest looks at his watch to see if there is time for them to have that shot of whiskey together. The one looks at his watch and says, "Oh, it's too late. It's five minutes after midnight. We can't have our drink." The other one looks at his watch and says, "Oh, no, my watch says it's five minutes to midnight. We just have the time to have this drink together." They were ready to be bound by the law.
It's a cute little story that shows the way in which Catholics adapted in a very human way to this life of laws and rules which are good. They were good because they showed respect for the Blessed Sacrament and for receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist. But so often the Catholics found themselves by being either bound by the law or free from the law. Sometimes it depended on how thinly you could slice it. It was sometimes thought that it was the function of conscience to be making a judgment about whether or not one were truly free to perform this kind of action. This led in the eighteenth century to various schools of thought about the degree to which Christians could be free to act when there were doubts about whether or not they were bound by law. There were various schools of thought that developed around opinions as to how certain one had to be whether one was bound by the law or not. Let's say if you were a Frenchman who was bound by the Friday fast, you couldn't have meat on any Friday of the year. If you found yourself in Spain where the Spaniards were not bound by the Friday fast because of the great victory that they had won on behalf of all of Western Europe against the Muslims you weren't bound by the Friday fast. Well, here is this Frenchman in Spain. He was a good Catholic, and Friday rolls around. Can he have venison or not? Or does he have to eat fish? Is he bound by the same laws that the Frenchmen were or the laws in Spain? Is he free to have whatever he wants? Well, that is just a silly example of the sorts of questions that arose.
There were various schools of thought that developed reflex principles. These reflex principles don't refer to reflex in the sense of somebody pokes you in the eye with a stick and you blink, or there is a reflex when the doctor hits your knee with a little hammer and your leg goes up. This reflex comes from reflection. These are principles guiding people who are reflecting on whether or not they are free from the law, or whether they are bound by the law. The various schools of thought had different names for their principles. The rigorists thought that if there is any chance that you were bound by the law, then you had to act as though you were bound by the law. You were not free to do otherwise, so if you were this poor Frenchman in Majorca, and if there was a chance you might be bound by the Friday fast then you were not free to deviate from the law.
There was another school of thought that was a little looser. They were known as the tutiorists from the Latin word tutuswhich means safe. Tutior is the comparative that means safer. These were the ones who advocated taking the safer course. You always act as though you were bound by the laws. It wasn't simply that if there was any chance you were bound by the law, but it had to be very likely that you were not bound by the law before you could be free to act. Another school of thought were called the laxists. They were very lax about things, and they said if there is any chance that you are not bound by the law, then you are free to go ahead and do it, and don't worry about it. There were those who said it has to be more probable that you are free than you are bound by the law to be able to act. They were known as the probabilists which means that it is more probable that you were free. Others said it has to at least be equally probable that you are free of the law, or that you are bound by the law in order to act. They were known as the equi- or equal probabilists. The probabilists said if it is simply probable that you are free of the law then you can go ahead and act.
You can imagine how restrictive the Christian life must be seen under that particular kind of approach. It was all seen in terms of the law and freedom from the law. It was a great debate which was resolved finally by the great moral theologian, Saint Alphonsus. If you are going to approach the Moral Life from the vantage point of these reflex principles, then the Church finally settled upon probabilism. That is, if it is probable that you are free from the law then you are not bound by it. It's really arguing in favor of freedom. With the renewal of moral theology that has been taking place in the Church in the last century, there has been a moving away from this emphasis upon people being simply bound by the law. There is now a greater emphasis upon virtue, freedom, and clarity of vision as to what truth or goodness is while of course, always acting in accord with the moral law. It's interesting in our own day that the dissenting theologians who disagree with Church teaching very often talk like the rigorists of the eighteenth century. And they would say such things as, well, most of the time moral theologians today disagree with the Church's teaching on contraception. However it is more probable that we are not bound by it because there are so many opinions of these theologians that think otherwise.
You know the old tradition of the Church in the eighteenth century never allowed the application of these reflex principles unless there was doubt concerning the law. It's the source of actions that they want to legitimize today. What these dissenting theologians want to legitimize there's no doubt about the morality of those actions. There is no doubt that contraception is immoral and that the Church teaches with regard to it is the same as adultery or telling lies so there is no way in which you can sort of balance opinion with regard to actions like that. The Church is really reaching back to an ancient tradition, a Scriptural tradition, a tradition of the early Church. The tradition of the great flowering of Catholicism in the high Middle Ages with the emphasis upon the life, the virtue in pursuit of the good being guided by reason, enlightened by Grace, and with what Revelation is able to teach us.
If you want to gain a good understanding of the beauty of the Catholic Church's moral doctrine and how it manifests the dignity of the human person turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this great gift of the Church to its people in our day. Here we see conscience being presented not as this act of the person who is concerned about whether or not he is free or bound by the law, but rather by this capacity of the human person to be open to the truth and to make judgments of the intellect, of the reason, about what is right and wrong, by reason that is ordered to God's objective created order. This is why the modern understandings of conscience don't really work. They see conscience as almost able to make up reality, but conscience refers to our ability to see the world as it is and to act in accord with the truth. The Catechism says conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality, that is the good quality, the self-fulfilling quality, of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing or has already completed. The Catechism quotes the great John Henry Cardinal Newman, a great English convert to the Faith, as saying, conscience is a messenger of Him who both in nature and in Grace speaks to us behind a veil and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is a messenger of God. Earlier in Paul's Letter to the Romans, we learned that those who sin know what is right in their hearts because God has written it in their nature. Those of us who have been graced in Baptism and have the knowledge of revelation also engage our consciences as a messenger of God Himself to help us live the truth. John Henry Cardinal Newman has this beautiful term for conscience which almost anticipated the kinds of conflicts that would arise in our own day in the Church when people were laying claim to the necessity of following their own conscience over against the teachings of the Church. He refers to conscience as the original Vicar of Christ who is here for no other reason than to speak God's truth. And even those people who do not have Jesus Christ do have the Vicar of Christ in their consciences to enable them to see the truth and to live in accord with it. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the light." There cannot be any division between the teachings of the Vicar of Christ and Christ. The aboriginal Vicar of Christ is within conscience itself, because there is only one truth which God Himself created and by which we know how we are to act. The dignity of the human person, the Catechism tells us, implies uprightness of moral conscience, the prudent judgment of conscience. Saint Thomas speaks so much about prudence and not so much about conscience, but that doesn't mean that these were opposed to one another. The last best judgment that we make about whether or not a given action is good or not is the prudent judgment of conscience that directs us to act for the good or which restrains us from acting to keep us from evil.
Saint Thomas tells us that truth is the conformity of mind to reality, and if we are going to forge a true conscience it must be conformed to reality. This guarantees our freedom. We cannot be truly free to act unless we know what reality is. We can't get on the road to drive to New York when the road is really going in the direction of Birmingham. We're not going to get to New York. We may have many good things to do in New York but we're going to wind up in Birmingham instead. It's a great place to be but maybe not for the purposes that you set out on your trip. In order to be free, we have to know the truth. Faced with a moral choice the Catechism says conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the Divine Law or on the contrary an erroneous judgment that departs from it. It doesn't know it is making an erroneous judgment, you see. Conscience wants to make the right judgment, it wants to seek the good, it wants to do the right thing. That's why we call it our last best judgment about what we ought to do. It's interesting that even if conscience makes a wrong judgment we are still bound to follow it, because it is our last best judgment about what is right and what is wrong. If we went against our conscience it would be as though we were saying that even though I know this is the thing I must do to be good, even though I know this is what I must do in order to be pleasing to God, I am not going to do it, I am going to do something that I know will be displeasing to Him. It might be that according to the objective facts we're in error, but if we don't know that, we are still bound to act in accord with our conscience. We think we are right. As far as we know, we are right. We are always bound by our conscience.
Saint Thomas says, every conscience whether it is right or wrong, whether it concerns things evil in themselves, or things morally indifferent, obliges us to act in such a way that he who acts against his conscience sins. We have to look at that teaching within the full context of Catholic Doctrine because the Church teaches that he who would act against his conscience sins. It doesn't mean that the Catholic Church falls into subjectivism as though there is no moral truth. By the simple fact that we say there is such a thing as a correct judgment of conscience or an incorrect judgment of conscience is to maintain that there is a real objective order out. There is an objective right or wrong, and it's the responsibility of conscience to try to make the right kind of judgment about that.
Saint Thomas says that a correct conscience binds us per se, by its very nature. Why? Because it's conformed to reality itself. An incorrect conscience binds us accidentally. It's an accident that we don't know reality for what it is and the true course of action that we are taking. It binds us, but it tells us, in this distinction made by Saint Thomas, that it is not conforming us to reality.
A conscience can be erroneous and certain. That is, I'm wrong about this course of action, I'm erroneous in my judgment, and I'm certain. I've doubted it all and then go ahead and act in accord with this erroneous conscience. In order for us to be free from guilt in a case like this we have to be invincibly ignorant of the fact that our conscience is in error. "Invincibly ignorant" means that we cannot overcome that ignorance on our own. Somebody would have to enlighten us. There is no culpability for a person who would materially perform an action that is wrong when he is invincibly ignorant. He is not formally guilty of that sin. However, if one has doubts about the judgment of his conscience then one may be vincibly ignorant, that is, he has an ignorance that could be overcome. It can be immoral to act with an uncertain conscience, with a vincibly ignorant conscience, because we have the responsibility to do our utmost to determine what the truth of the situation is. The only situation in which we act with an erroneous conscience that leaves us free of immorality is when we are completely ignorant of what the truth might be. If there is doubt then we have to resolve those doubts before we can act in accord with our conscience.
One of the greatest places where we can turn to eliminate our doubt is the Church. We know that the Church has been given the Spirit of God to lead us into all truth. We know that we can rely, with full servitude, upon the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. When we are trying to resolve a doubt we can look to the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of good, decent, upright men and women around us. We can look to the Scriptures to see what we should be doing to overcome this doubt. We can look to the Church itself for help. If we would act morally, we are bound to try to resolve those doubts by looking in those various sources.
What kind of certitude do we have in the realm of morality? The Church has told us, Saint Thomas has told us, the great moral philosophers of the world have told us, and Aristotle has told us that in most moral questions, we simply don't have the same kind of certitude that we have in mathematics, for example, or in the hard sciences. Why? We are ignorant. We are limited. We are finite. We may not have all the facts. We may reflect on a circumstance and think we are making the right choice when our child has come to us with a problem. He has filled us in with the facts. We think we have made the right judgment with regard to what he has told us and, lo and behold, he has left out a very important detail of this situation that could render our judgment not accurate. It's simply because of our ignorance or because of the incredible complexity of some moral problems. We can't be absolutely certain, as we could be in the natural sciences, for example, as certain as we can be that two and two equals four, about the course of action which we have to take in this given circumstance. However, there is a certitude which is appropriate in the moral life, and it is probable certitude. We make a prudential judgment which allows us to act on the basis of that certitude that we have with confidence that what we are doing is not going to be displeasing to God and will be good for us and fulfilling of our person. It's an appropriate kind of certitude to morality. We needn't become overly scrupulous of when we are acting in accord with our conscience. I've met some people who have almost been paralyzed because they think that they have to have all doubts removed and have that kind of mathematical certitude which really is inappropriate in most of the areas of moral judgments that we make.
There is no question about those that never murder, never commit adultery, never lie, never steal. There are some areas in which it is never morally permitted ever -- to take the life of an innocent human being -- but we might find ourselves as a physician engaged in some treatment that might lead to the death of that person. The lack of certitude that arises there is when a physician says, "I would never directly take the life of a human being. But this treatment that I am using to reduce this man's pain and suffering might hasten his death, or this procedure might end up killing him." There is doubt then. You are not always certain, you know what the moral principle is when you never directly take an innocent human life, but as I am trying to apply it in this concrete situation, is what I am doing directly taking this human person's life? Or is it not? Here's where the area of doubt comes up. There is a certitude which is appropriate to the moral life. It's prudential certitude when we've reflected on everything, looked at the facts, know what the moral principles are and go ahead and make a judgment. We issue the command to act and place ourselves in God's care that we are doing the things which are right for us in that moment.
We read in first Corinthians 8:12 that we must always proceed by way of respect for our neighbors and particularly the consciences of our neighbors. As Paul tells us that in sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience you sin against Christ. The reason we don't want to act contrary to our conscience as Christians is because we don't want to do something which would offend God, our brothers, or ourselves. The motivation for the Christian life is always that of love. What will bring us true happiness is this loving relationship with God our families or our neighbors in Christ. To wound the conscience is to wound Christ who, as John Henry Cardinal Newman said, speaks to us through our consciences.
There are those who are not Christians who also want to act in accord with their conscience and don't understand even that it is the voice of Christ. This is why the Church has always said that we must respect the consciences of others. When someone makes a judgment that they consider to be right and true and good, and we understand these people as being upright individuals, they are free to act in accord with their conscience. If we see that, in the social order, it would constitute an act of injustice or harm against another person, then one can't appeal a case like that to the call of one's conscience. One's conscience would never allow us to do harm to ourselves or harm to another. It is for us as Christians a way in which we can come to serve Jesus Christ through acts of conscience ordered to the true and the good. That is what makes conscience noble and worthy of honor because it is conformed to the truth.
There was a statue raised in London to Saint Thomas More, the great attorney and chief law enforcement officer under King Henry VIII who refused to submit to the Oath of Supremacy and to acknowledge the King as the supreme head of the Church in England. Thomas lost his position, his wealth, and finally his life itself rather than forsake his faith. The statue was raised to honor Saint Thomas More as a martyr to conscience. There was a way in which he would have said, "No, I'm not a martyr to conscience. I didn't do what I did because of conscience, or for the sake of conscience. I did what I did for the sake of truth. I would not acknowledge the King of England as the supreme head of the Church because he is not." The beauty and dignity of conscience derives from the truth. Saint Thomas More would not violate the truth. His conscience would not let him. That is where the true dignity of the conscience comes from.
The theologians get rather technical sometimes about types of conscience. An antecedent conscience is an act of judgment prior to the performance of an act. There is also consequent conscience made after the act has been performed. Sometimes conscience doesn't let us know that what we have done is wrong until after we have done it. This is why every night we should be making an examination of conscience. I hope and pray that everyone will begin taking just three minutes in the evening before they go to bed to do an examination of conscience. Think back over the past day to see if you have done anything that was wrong, that you were insensitive to, that you weren't alert to. We can convict ourselves after the fact. This is consequent conscience. We do that because we want to avoid that kind of error in the future. There is a commanding conscience when conscience issues a command to do something. A forbidding conscience tells us that this particular act should not be done.
There is greater clarity when it comes to a forbidding conscience because negative precepts are so much more focused than positive precepts. For example, a conscience tells us to give alms, to be charitable and generous with those in need. But how exactly do I do that? What circumstances have to be there to allow me to do it? When this man comes up to me and asks me for money and says he needs money, do I give it to him or do I not? Do I make the judgment from his appearance and perhaps from his breath that he is not going to use that money to buy food but rather to buy drink, which is actually going to do him more harm? A forbidding conscience can be very clear. Thou shalt not commit adultery. It doesn't matter the circumstances. It doesn't matter the woman. That is something we don't have to reflect on at all. It doesn't require long consideration. It's simply forbidden, and we don't do it. A permitting conscience gives us two or three courses of action, none of which are judged to be immoral, and we're permitted to pursue any one of them. There may be reasons other than morality why we choose one course of action over another. We want to do something on a given evening and none of the proposed actions that have been put before us are immoral. We might decide to do the one action because it is less expensive than the other, or because we know Susie is going to this movie and we are interested in Susie. This is a permitting conscience. It allows us to perform an act that may or may not be done.
A counseling conscience gives us a number of courses of action that may be open to us and be perfectly legitimate. Conscience would counsel us with regard to one course of action over another. If you look at all the circumstances, one course of action may be preferable but you are free not to take it. You can see by the kinds of designations that are given to conscience that it's an act of the intellect. We make judgments about what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, and about actions which may never be done. It is not as though conscience would never allow us to perform an action which would be intrinsically immoral. You see, there is a degree of subjectivity here with individuals making judgments about an action to be done or not to be done. This doesn't result in our falling into subjectivism, because there is an objective criterion if we will only take the trouble to know and understand what it is. It is impossible to make an appeal to conscience which would have us acting in a way contrary to the very clear voice of Jesus Christ as it is heard in the Magisterium of His Church. The bishops and particularly His Vicar on earth, the Bishop of Rome, who speak to us the truth so that the truth can set us free. God wants us to be free and fulfilled and to be happy. This is why the Church speaks the truth in love and why if we would be happy we will do our utmost to conform our consciences to the Word of God, to the truth of things as He has created them.