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Conscience – and Cicero – under Siege Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Friday, 19 October 2012

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has not been shy about carrying water for a distinctive brand of politicized medicine. If it is in the Orwellian “Affordable Care Act” (where promised savings of $2,500 on insurance premiums morph into $3,000 increases), the NEJM is ready to offer its “scientific” imprimatur. 

It ran earnest pro-rationing and pro-euthanasia pieces not long after Obamacare’s opponents were denounced as delusional alarmists; insiders now admit they see a need for death panels.

I was making my way through another article in the NEJM last month, fully prepared for its slanted perspective, when something extraordinary happened.  Well, I should say that the author ended an exceptionally disturbing and poorly argued piece, entitled “Recognizing Conscience in Abortion Provision,” with an extraordinarily instructive statement.

The author, Dr. Lisa Harris from the University of Michigan, wants us to believe that the term “conscience” should not be conceded as the sole property of abortion opponents because some people, like her, feel compelled to provide abortion as a matter of conscience.

It is not enough that abortion has been legalized. It is not enough that others are forced to subsidize it. Now, others must come to recognize it as a positive good, at least in some people’s minds. 

Dr. Harris concludes with this telling gem: “Failure to recognize that conscience compels abortion provision, just as it compels refusals to offer abortion care, renders conscience an empty concept and leaves us all with no moral ground (high or low) on which to stand.”

The undiagnosed schizophrenia condensed into this one sentence is breathtaking, at least as it epitomizes the moral confusion of our times. She couldn’t be more wrong about what conscience compels (to say nothing about the oxymoronic locution “abortion care”).

Yet she is absolutely right, in isolation, to sense that conscience runs the risk of becoming an “empty concept” if it becomes dislodged from its moral grounding.

Unwilling to follow her own line of reasoning any further, she is utterly blind to the dogmatic quality of her own preference for floating rather than fixed moral criteria, even with respect to matters of life and death: no threats to her freedom to decide for herself may be entertained.                

As long as my view is sincerely held, such thinking goes, any actions stemming from it are to be protected by “conscience.” Who dares nowadays to say I am wrong? I am golden. Critics would just be atavistically judgmental anyway.

But if I am ever accused of wrongdoing, I can turn the tables: I stand not accused but justified – by my conscience.  In other words, by me! Conscience becomes an unprincipled, neutral harbor, where even vessels carrying evil cargo may drop anchor.  

Exploring the truth is out of the question when one has already committed to retreating from it. This is precisely how one faulty concept of conscience, Benedict XVI observes, has tended to function of late – as “subjectivitys protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality.”


Man hides there in plain view, it seems, with plenty of company; too many will read Dr. Harris’s article and nod. Benedict argues that this view of conscience leads to social conformism and rewards “superficial conviction” (with prestigious university posts and published articles in the NEJM for example): “the less depth he [man] has, the better off he is.” 

Conscience understood as holding fast to the truth becomes inherently discriminatory, even liable to sanction by the State. We’re now enduring a crash course on this reality.

Even a pagan like Cicero would have recognized the obvious injustice; the just state must protect rather than encroach upon conscience and the natural law to which it submits with docility.

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature” Cicero wrote in On the Republic; “it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions.”

Dr. Harris recognizes this latter, important point: that conscience binds us to do certain things just as it compels us to refrain from others. But she’s clearly not on board with the rest of it. (The entire passage is worth a look). 

So what if the old Roman insists that there will not be “different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times?”

That’s the thing about the cult of self: you can just as readily reject the arts of human reason and wisdom that have stood the test of time as you can reject religious authority. 

But I wonder how she’d react, deep down, to what Cicero adds to his description of the true law: “it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked.”

That’s got to hurt. Cicero read her mind – its willful imperviousness to the commands and prohibitions of true law – two thousand years ago not by crystal ball, but by careful observation of human nature. 

The truth always cuts us to the quick. Unless you choose to blow it off entirely.

Dr. Harris doesn’t need supernatural foresight – elementary hindsight is all that is required – to see mayhem incubating within the mindset that says I am compelled to do evil acts because my conscience tells me they are good.

A conscience deadened to what constitutes wrongdoing, Benedict maintains, “is an even more dangerous sickness of the soul” than the guilt present in “the one who still recognizes the shamefulness of his actions.”

When you can’t get such a basic diagnosis right, Physician, heal thyself becomes an even taller order.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Bangwell Putt, October 19, 2012
In the early days of our nation, thoughtful men and women of high moral purpose and educational attainment, some professing faith in God, some who, at great personal sacrifice, participated in writing documents professing noble beliefs and aspirations, tolerated the brutal, inhuman practice of black slavery, apparently by blinding themselves to the humanity of the African people.

In our times, men and women of high moral purpose and educational attainment, some even still professing faith in God, people who, at personal sacrifice, participate in public service and exhibit great good will toward their neighbors, are blind to the brutal practice of forcibly removing children from the womb, apparently refusing to recognize the humanity of the unborn children.

It is possible to understand that a doctor faced with a desperate situation involving terrible suffering, life and death, will make the best possible decision at that time according to the highest standards of the medical profession. He or she is faced with the responsibility at that time and must act.

But, the fact that, at this time and in the United States of America, we tolerate the cold and clinical definition of abortion as it is given on a United States government web site - "abortion" as a "legal, induced intervention performed by a licensed clinician intended to terminate an ongoing pregnancy" (no mention of crisis or life and death situations, simply "rights") is truly terrifying.
written by Manfred, October 19, 2012
Thank you for this timely article and B.Putt's comments. A general observation: there is a striking dichotomy between some commenters to this site. One group makes their points predicated on facts, what is really occurring "on the ground". The other seems to have a flaccid, dreamy concept of some personal relationship with Christ that each should strive for. The Church is made of substance. It has dogmas, doctrines and creeds.It can write down what it teaches in a Catechism. It has tribunals and courts (the Signatura).The pivot point was Vat. II.The Church suppressed its juridical positions and became "popular". Instead of "this is what we teach", each was asked "How do you feel about?"(racism, anti-semtism, abortion, etc.)Catholicism became subjective. No sexual morality was taught for forty-four years. Priests charged with predation on teen boys would respond to the prosecutor: "I committed a sin, I confessed and the matter is behind me." The prosecutor would respond: "You sexually molested a citizen of this jurisdiction. You committed a CRIME and you are going to jail!" The priest would be shown sitting there stunned as his mind could not absorb that he was facing a reality which did not fit with his perception of what life/the world was about. So it is with the Churchmen today. They cannot perceive THEY ARE BEING DESTROYED. They respond, maybe if I make "nice" to these government leaders they will leave us alone. The government leaders are often "Catholics" who are assisting in this destruction.Are any excommunicated? Of course not."If I only love Jesus a little more, maybe these bad things will go away." Their Catholicism(?) is the religion of fools.
written by Grump, October 19, 2012
Victor Hugo said "conscience is God present in man." Sophocles said, "There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us."

In short, all humans know instinctively what is right and wrong. If mental gymnastics were an Olympic sport, Harris would get a lousy score.
written by ib, October 19, 2012
A good post, presenting the truth of the matter concerning the confusion between my "deepest desires" and the traditional Roman Catholic notion of conscience. Due to the influence of Kant's reduction of conscience to the subjective psychology of moral feelings, which merely motivates adherence to duties of the subject, nowadays conscience does float free from the objective world.

Dr. Lisa Harris's response to the argument from Dr. Hanley would simply rule Cicero's notions of conscience as out-of-date, remnants of a by-gone age, now put to rest by modern thinkers following and expanding on Kant. Rather than feel hurt by Cicero's put-down, she would probably regard it as quaint and fusty. The fact that Kantianism is manifestly false and has provided cover for the degradation of morals in the West for the past 250 years wouldn't hold her up either. Whether a way of thinking is true or not doesn't matter to people like her. C.S. Lewis caught this type of scientistic-fascism with scary accuracy in his novel "That Hideous Strength."

But Dr. Hanley has stood up for the truth here in his post. Cicero's expressions of natural law have been a source for Roman Catholic moral theology for centuries. And the truth of natural law thinking can be ignored, but never gainsaid. As faithful Roman Catholics, who know and believe the moral theological tradition of the RC Church, we must be prepared to confront the errors of our contemporaries. I commend Dr. Hanley for not bowing before the potentates of the NEJM. May God bless the work of your hands.
written by Facile1, October 24, 2012
Language is a human invention. The TRUTH is not. One must not confuse language with the TRUTH.

'Conscience' is a word. What is the TRUTH? For people of FAITH, 'conscience' is the voice of God. For people like Dr. Harris, 'conscience' is the voice of reason (not truly distinguishable from her self.)

And this is the point where words fail us because it it impossible to talk about the TRUTH without first speaking about LOVE and SIN.

All SIN is idolatry --- whether it is the love for animals and/or things (paganism), the love for humans (humanism), or the love for self (narcissism).

Only one love is psychologically healthy and that is the LOVE for the TRUTH (which is God.) When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape God. When one truly loves God, love for one's self and others follow. It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one's love for anything else in its proper place --- whether it is love for the mother, the child or the common good.

St. Thomas Aquinas said “Love follows knowledge.”

I disagree.

I say, "We cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST." Knowledge follows LOVE.

As humans we WILL love first. It is our God-given nature. But it is only when we love GOD FIRST that we come to know the TRUTH.

And in this respect, St. Thomas Aquinas got it right: “The things that we love tell us what we are.” Children of God.

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