The Catholic Thing
The Conscience of a Catholic Print E-mail
By Anne Hendershott and Christopher White   
Saturday, 13 October 2012

Does conscience trump creed? It’s clear that some Catholic politicians, mostly of the Left, think so. How else can they call themselves Catholic even as they actively campaign to promote abortion and same-sex “marriage”?

Deceptively named groups such as Catholics for Choice (CFC) extol the “primacy of conscience” with regard to abortion. (Conscience, in fact, is the name of the organization’s quarterly magazine.)

Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice (re-branded as CFC), has made the erroneous claim that:

the Catholic Church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme. If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you are not committing a sin. You are not excommunicated and you do not need to tell it in confession, since in your case, abortion is not a sin.

This is clearly misleading, but some Catholic Democrats have taken Kissling’s advice to heart.

In 2004, forty-eight Catholic members of Congress, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), signed a letter to the USCCB warning that the Church risked damaging its authority if the bishops decided to withhold Communion from legislators whose positions are at odds with Church doctrine.

A few years later, DeLauro took the lead in releasing a “Statement of Principles” from fifty-five Catholic Democrats, who proudly proclaimed themselves “part of the living Catholic tradition.”

And again, DeLauro cautioned the bishops not to use the Eucharist as a “political weapon against elected officials,” adding, “although we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance we believe also in the primacy of conscience.”

In his book, On Conscience, Pope Benedict acknowledges the primacy of conscience, but he also stresses that Catholics are obligated to form their consciences in accord with the truth, which for a real Catholic means: the teachings of the Church.

All Catholics must accept that judgments of individual conscience can be wrong and, therefore, can contradict each other – if every individual’s conscience were infallible, it would mean that there is no truth.

Indeed, a poorly formed conscience actually blinds a person to the demands of truth: “Rather than opening the way to the redemptive road to truth, it is an erroneous conscience that dispenses with truth.” 

For the pope, the identification of conscience with superficial consciousness – the reduction of individuals to their subjectivity – does not liberate but enslaves: “It makes us totally dependent on the prevailing opinions.”

There would be no moral norms at all if each person were able, with absolute certitude, to declare for himself what is morally right in every circumstance. What saves us from subjectivism is a well-formed conscience – and an understanding of what God has revealed to us.

         DeLauro, freethinker, gesticulating

Without this counterbalance to subjectivism, we are confronted with what Pope Benedict calls a “dictatorship of relativism.”

It’s difficult to say what these conscience issues will mean for the 2012 presidential election. Polls have shown that close to 60 percent of Catholics, against the teachings of the Church, support gay marriage.

But an equal percentage of Catholics oppose the Obama administration’s HHS mandates – requiring Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing “morning-after” pills.  

While liberal and traditional Catholics alike may disagree on what the Church teaches to be true, their shared belief in liberty of religion and conscience may actually provide a common ground for 2012.

While Pope Benedict of course maintains that one is bound to act in accord with a sure conscience, even if it is mistaken, he makes it clear that there must be sources for the judgment of conscience other than the subjective reflections of each individual. 

He told a gathering of theologians that: “It is strange that some theologians have difficulty accepting the precise and limited doctrine of papal infallibility, but see no problem in granting de facto infallibility to everyone who has a conscience.”

In the pope’s analysis, “conscience” has come to be understood as a sort of “deification of subjectivity, a rock of bronze on which even the Magisterium is shattered. . . .consciences appears as subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard.”

The 2012 race will depend upon Catholic voters again voting their consciences. Unfortunately, in many cases, these are consciences shaped by a network of Catholic leftists including Catholic college theology professors and their campus colleagues, union organizers who are now affiliated with progressive Catholic advocacy organizations like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Democratic Party strategists. 

There are even some working within the bishops’s own USCCB staff who put support for food stamps and union organizing on an equal moral plane with the sacredness of the life of the unborn. 

These groups are determined to prove President Obama’s social justice appeal to Catholics. It’s a strategy that worked in 2008. It remains to be seen whether it will work as well this time.

Anne Hendershott
and Christopher White, new contributors to The Catholic Thing, are coauthors of the forthcoming Beyond the Catholic Culture Wars (Encounter Books).
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Ib, October 13, 2012
The truth of the matter is that the confusion over the place of conscience in Roman Catholic moral theology has benefited liberal policies in the past and continues to benefit them in the present election. Moral theologians are all over the map on this issue, with a divide mainly between older and younger theologians, overlaid with a further division between clergy moral theologians and lay moral theologians. It is no wonder that Pope Benedict has remarked on the extreme positions of some theologians (as our authors relate in the post). However, even those with less extreme positions sow confusion by not maintaining a clarity about the nature of the human conscience and its function within a Roman Catholic theological anthropology.

People like DeLauro have no idea of what the conscience-according-to-the-Roman-Catholic-Church is. They have not read St. Augustine, let alone St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Blessed John Henry Newman, the manualist tradition, nor even much post-Vatican II moral theology. They get their notion of conscience from popular culture, which in turn, derived it from Enlightenment thinkers, especially Immanuel Kant. That the ancient Christian notion of conscience differs from the post-Reformation Enlightenment one, needs hardly be stated, but it is this debased and unChristian version of conscience that "appears as subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard."

The true Roman Catholic Christian conscience acts as an ethical compass pointing to truth and good in the earthly and spiritual realms. These are objective realities, not subjective, and so act to measure the conscience, not be measured by it. A well-formed conscience is like a good working compass that points to true moral good. A shoddily shaped conscience is like a broken compass which points any direction the person shifts it to. Kant's view of the conscience was simply to identify it with the internal sense of practical reason, which developed the maxims for right and wrong, and cannot be assumed to be the same from one human being to another. Kant tried to introduce some measure of objectivity with his "Categorical Imperative," but since different subjects will apply it in different ways, it remains entirely subjective (Kant himself stated it differently in different places, and scholars still argue about whether he means the same thing in each place). When compounded with a libertine popular culture, such a weak depiction of the human conscience, gives rise to the present idea that my conscience is "whatever I desire", rather than being what convicts me to temper and discipline my desires for the sake of moral good.

The ignorance of most Roman Catholics about the beauty and wisdom of their own Church boggles the mind and saddens the heart.
written by, October 13, 2012
The term “conscience,” in the sense of moral judgment, has been so abused that, perhaps, we should abandon it altogether. Aristotle did very well without it. Perhaps, like him, we should speak of “practical reason,” for my reason is myself and expresses itself in action. Moreover, it is axiomatic that acts of the understanding are specified by their object, so this may serve to remind us that good and bad choices are no more equivalent than apprehension and misapprehension, truth and error are equivalent; rather, bad choices are paralogisms (παραλογισμός = unreasonable or fallacious).

The good choice, “This – being such – is to be done,” is intelligible, because intelligent; the act of the bad will is a surd, ultimately unintelligible. True enough, we can often trace its causes to instinctive or dispositional factors, but it remains logically incoherent.
written by Jack,CT, October 13, 2012
Ms Hendershott,Mr White,
Very perceptive piece!I fear the
Performance" "Uncle Joe" did the other night may sway
some of our Catholic brothers and sisters.The "Hypocrit"
has ONE STANDARD for his Family and another for the
NATION!people should be insulted with that kind of
"STUFF"in Bidens words.
I agree Catholics need to come out and vote.Finally
I just wanted to plug "catholics called to witness"
it has a great "Trailer' to send to all your friends.
Please check out the site.
Thanks for a provacotive article,bye the way I always
wandered who votes for Delauro being from CT!
God Bles,
written by Mark, October 13, 2012
"But," says the pro-abortion Catholic, "my conscience tells me Church teaching about conscience is wrong; therefore...."

The Apostle Paul equates obedience with faith. A lack of one is a lack of the other.
written by Manfred, October 13, 2012
Is it not fascinating to watch how God is punishing the world? It has been occurring for decades, and anyone but a fool realizes there is no natural solution to make it cease.
In fact,no matter how hard we try it keeps getting worse. All of this could have been obviated by the popes following the instruction from the MOTHER OF GOD that her last Fatima message be released no later than 1960. All of the last popes FOLLOWED THEIR CONSCIENCES and chose NOT to release the message. Benedict, who as Fr. Ratzinger, a peritus at Vat. II who were a suit and tie as a PRIEST at the Council, is now as pope citing plenary indulgences, a "return to the Rosary" for the Year of Faith? He has known for fifty years what the problem is as he mentions the Third Secret in the book The Ratzinger Report in 1984, stating that the Secret was not broadcast because it might make the Church appear medieval and sensational. Ergo, the MOTHER OF GOD was overruled!
written by Mack, October 13, 2012
The practitioners of "freedom of choice" - a hideous expression that could have come from CSL's N.I.C.E. - have not for years even pretended that they care about the health of children or of mothers; they are satanically, lasciviously enthusiastic about the mass-murder of children. God have mercy on us all.
written by Christophe, October 13, 2012
Why hasn't there been an outcry over Paul Ryan's statement in the debate that abortion should be allowed for rape, incest, and life of the mother? How does that comport with the Catholic Faith? Where is his conscience there?
written by Brad Miner, October 13, 2012
@Christophe: Rep. Ryan modified his statement by saying, "it will be the policy of the Romney Administration . . ." This is politics. In truth, under the aegis of previous Supreme Court decisions, there's little for an Administration to do with regard to abortion: reimpose the Mexico City policy is an example; defunding Planned Parenthood (which Romney has promised) is another. But, judged by its policy statements (and not moral absolutes), a Romney Administration would be vastly more friendly to the unborn than is the current Administration, the most hostile in history.
written by Christophe, October 13, 2012
Brad – I get all that, and I’m going to vote for Romney/Ryan in large part because of their position on prolife issues. But Ryan’s backtracking on his long-held no-exceptions stance was jarring to this father of nine. Here’s my reductio ad Hitlerem – it’s like running against Hitler and saying, “I will shut down the gas chambers for all Jews above the age of two years.” Obviously, a lot of lives would be saved, but still reprehensible.
written by Brad Miner, October 13, 2012
@Christophe: A valid point, one with which this father of two cannot disagree.
written by ib, October 13, 2012

Yes. Aristotle never discovered the conscience in his moral thinking (nor did Plato). But as I wrote before every major Roman Catholic moral theologian has. Indeed, this goes back to Scripture, where St. Paul mentions conscience numerous times (Rom 13:5, 1Cor 10:25-29, 2 Cor 1:12, 2Cor 4:2, etc), and St. Peter uses the term in his first Epistle (1 Pet 3:21). It also occurs in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 24:16, etc). So to suggest chucking it out, is to suggest violent reformation of the tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology. Perhaps something along the lines of radical Anabaptist pietism. Historically, the road to Kant's thinking on conscience was laid precisely along those pietistic lines. This I can't agree with.

Although Aristotle was perhaps the greatest human philosopher, and I count myself an Aristotelean on many fronts, it is important to acknowledge that even he does not have all the answers. The Roman Catholic Church in its 2000-year-long tradition of moral theology has recognized the work of both the conscience and synderesis in taking moral action. I see no point in the sort of revolutionary reform you suggest.
written by Tony, October 13, 2012
Several distinctions ought to be made.

First: The conscience instructs us on what MUST BE DONE or WHAT MUST NOT BE DONE in the particular situation in which we find ourselves. It prescinds from general principles, but it does not so much form those principles as recognize them; and they are principles that are either self-evident, or deducible by reason, or are instilled in us by instruction. So I think it is an abuse of the term "conscience" already, to say, "My conscience tells me that the doing of this TYPE of thing is morally permissible." The conscience is instead the inner voice that tells us, "You MUST do this, whether you like it or not," or "You MUST NOT do this, even though you want to."

Second: When the conscience COMMANDS, it must be obeyed. If your friend says, "This is all right," and your conscience says, "You must NOT do that," you must obey the conscience -- God's umpire within us. Note well: an umpire. The umpire calls them as he sees them, in the particular situation; he does NOT make the rules of the game. But if the conscience does NOT command or does NOT forbid, that means nothing. One cannot appeal to the conscience if the conscience is not active -- one cannot say, "My conscience does not say this is forbidden, THEREFORE I am permitted to do it." The conclusion doesn't follow, because you are not obeying your conscience in this case; your conscience is not in play at all. In cases in which the conscience neither commands nor forbids, when something that others believe is of great moral import is at issue, it is wrong NOT to delve farther into the matter, regardless of whether one is Catholic. All that is, is willful ignorance. "I don't see why so many people believe that X is wrong, AND I'M NOT GOING TO EXAMINE THE MATTER MORE CLOSELY, nor am I going to defer to the wisdom of my betters, nor am I going to be directed by my Church."
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 14, 2012

I would respectfully suggest that the use of συνείδησις [Suneidesis] in the NT does not refer to the faculty of moral judgment, but rather to one's knowledge of one's own actions and motives and intentions (as the etymology suggests) - Very close to Horace's "Nil sibi conscius" as in "my conscience is clear.

Tony - I agree with you. Conscience is concerned with concrete practical decisions, not general principles.
written by Ib, October 14, 2012
@michael p-s

Oh, well. I suppose I must point out that I never said that conscience (or suneideisis if you insist on pedantry) was a faculty of any sort. Conscience is an act which applies moral knowledge to a given case. As St Thomas points out it may be broken down into "cum alio scientia", that is acting with moral knowledge in an instance. Perhaps my analogy of the compass was too simple for you: more precisely conscience is analogous to the act of the compass pointing to north as it points to what should be done.

As for arguments based on "my reading of the Bible": Yes, yes, this has all been said before. The reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) all insisted that their greater knowledge of Greek and Hebrew gave them authority over the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. As any one who has done grad work in Scripture knows, arguing over the "real" meaning of this or that Greek word is nearly pointless. As for Greek etymologies, they can be and have been concocted from pretty much thin air in many, many cases. Since you don' t give your Greek etymology we are just left to take you as the final authority on the matter. And even if you were to bristle with scholarly footnotes, you are probably aware that, when it comes to things like this it is possible to construct strong cases for even a weak position. Doing just that has been the stock in trade of most Protestant scripture scholars for the last 250 years.

And at the end we are to take your opinion and overturn the long tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology with it? Does this make sense to anyone? Maybe to a Protestant who can't accept the truth of the genuine Magisterium of Jesus Christ ...

And of course, Tony is right. He was simply making the traditional distinction found in the Roman Catholic moral theological tradition between conscience and synderesis (e.g., ST I.q79.aa12-13). And of course, Tony seals it by saying he needs to be "directed by my [Roman Catholic] Church."
written by WSquared, October 15, 2012
At issue here, as per Pope Benedict, is what we actually allow to form our consciences.

Furthermore, when we talk about biblical exegesis, advanced knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek are doubtless a good thing. But it is a good thing that is a gift that must be oriented correctly: one is still obligated to read Holy Scripture in light of Christ, who, being the Word Made Flesh, is the only true hermeneutic. And Christ, of course, consists of both Head and Body, wherein one cannot be severed from the other. No prizes for guessing what the Body of Christ is, and how Christ Himself actually builds it up.

And of course, we live in a culture that not only largely does not know who Jesus Christ is, but probably doesn't care, because it thinks it knows all it needs to know, and is long practiced in making Christ in its own image. Witness how many times we've heard "forget the Church, follow Jesus," when even the slightest acquaintance with Scripture would reveal that Jesus gives us a Church (that He continues to build unto the end of time). And given how many times we see or hear "in God we trust," one may indeed wonder what anyone even means by "God" at all.

"from fifty-five Catholic Democrats, who proudly proclaimed themselves “part of the living Catholic tradition.”"

Maybe they'd liked to read the part about the vine and branches again: "whoever remains in me will bear much fruit." Christ does not mince words regarding those who are out of Communion with Him, and willingly so: not only does he talk about withering and dying and being cast into the eternal fire (again, this is true of all of us, even in small, but profound ways when we ourselves discern the Body and go to Confession), but "apart from Me, you can do nothing."

So what's this about a "living" tradition, then?

In terms of conscience and Creed, it's kind of at cross purposes to publicly profess all that the Creed teaches to be true-- namely revelation and the Incarnation-- and then put the primacy on "conscience" qua private judgment that essentially undercuts or denies the logical implications of the Incarnation: basically, it says, I want/believe in Jesus, but not that Jesus.

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