The reaffirmation of conscience
‘Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). With these powerful and poetic words, Vatican II reaffirmed an ancient Christian moral principle: conscience.
Present in the earliest practice of the Church, elaborated most articulately by the great Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, the principle of conscience — a person’s “most secret core” or sanctuary where one is “alone with God” — has been a persistent part of the Church’s moral teaching, despite distortions and attempts to play it down in favour of moral legalism.
Conscience, properly understood, is an ongoing exercise in making judgments? and like any form of exercise, the more you do it the better you get at it. Conscience is formed by exercising it. And conscience must also be informed- by getting to know, understand and interpret the moral teachings of the Church. Aquinas summed it up neatly: “Follow your formed and informed conscience.”
The Council further suggested that “[t]hrough loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships”.
Of course, many have objected that appealing to conscience is dangerous. People make wrong choices. People are driven by self-interest. Some would go so far as to say that since people are inherently sinful they will inevitably make the wrong moral choices. Hence, argues theologian-psychologist Bart Kiely, it is better to do as Holy Mother Church tells you—and if the Church is wrong you are not morally blameworthy.
A variant of this school of thought, proposed by Germain Grisez and John Finnis among others, argues that one only follows their conscience correctly if their moral judgment is in accord with the Church. While one might more easily reject the Kiely approach as too pessimistic about human nature, this second approach demands a more careful examination.
It is true to say that one’s conscience may be in error. Here the Church and Vatican II acknowledge two forms of error: “It often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is gradually almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”
This is helpful because it distinguishes between genuine ignorance and a refusal to bother to be properly morally informed. The great danger with conscience, which both the Kiely and Grisez-Finnis schools emphasise and which Aquinas himself understood all too well, is that it can become an excuse for people at best not exercising proper moral discernment, at worst appealing to self-interest.
However, the danger for the Grisez-Finnis school is that it may conflate conscience (which must be an exercise of God-given freedom) with a kind of “inner policeman” (what Freud called the superego) which, when exercised by those who confuse authority with power, can become spiritually abusive.
A historical example of this might be the case of Nazi concentration camp guards who committed genocide and justified themselves by saying they were “just following orders”. This defence, as we know, was rejected at the Nuremberg trials after World War: following commands does not make actions morally right in and of themselves.
Conscience goes even further. There may come a point where I may have to go against the commands of authority in order to be true to that “inner voice”. To use another historical example, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstatter was called up for service in the German army during the Nazi era. Despite the exhortations of his family, his parish priest and his bishop to accept induction into the army, he refused. Deep within his conscience he rejected military force and believed further that he would be serving an evil regime if he obeyed. That he was beheaded by the Nazis illustrates all too well the cost of conscience.
In 1965 Vatican II affirmed the Jägerstatters of this world by reiterating the importance of following conscience. Do we listen to our conscience? Or do we goosestep merrily to whoever waves the biggest stick?