Aconscience clause. A sensible conscience clause. A matter of conscience. With so much talk of conscience in the news these days, it would seem that the discussion is proceeding fully within the province of Christian morality. But ironically, this is one of the fronts on which true morality is most besieged – and the very way “conscience” is now being used is one of the foundational weapons of modern secularism.

Words always lie at the forefront of significant moral battles. Change the vocabulary and you change the conversation: “abortion” becomes “choice,” “sodomy” becomes “homosexuality,” and “conscience” becomes a very problematic and specious notion indeed. This last is the longest standing of the examples, and is rooted in the divorce of the intellect and will in our understanding of human action.

A proper understanding of conscience requires a basic correction of vocabulary. Revisiting the virtue of prudence – auriga virtutum, the “charioteer of the virtues” – is our most pressing need. Prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is “at once true and perfect, rightly counseling, judging and commanding in view of the end and aim of all human life.” He explains elsewhere that conscience is the final act of judgment of the practical intellect in a given act.

In this view, unlike the popular one, conscience is neither a given nor infallible. It can be ill-formed, disordered by the passions, or otherwise influenced. A properly formed conscience operates in accordance with the virtue (habitus) of prudence, taking part in the realization of right action. This is not a simple question of perception or the operation of the human will, for habitus signifies that special and enhancing quality that empowers us more fully to realize our potentiality. The proper definition of both prudence and conscience reestablishes the moral life. This is not merely a question of rules; it is about growth and maturation toward our final end, toward beatitude itself. We are talking about the right and wholesome basis for human action in general and for the proper operation of conscience in particular.

Human acts involve the close interaction of both intellect and will, progressing from consideration of the end of an action to a practical consideration of means, and concluding (when fully played out) with the practical execution of that action. It is a complicated process: Thomists and anti-Thomists alike still debate the steps.

For some time, there has been a tradition of dismissing Aquinas’ integrated approach in favor of a will-centered analysis. The consequences of this are both obvious and dire. If the will is preeminent, then a disembodied voice deemed conscience becomes the moral compass (torn from its proper place in the midst of a holistic conception of the moral life). Conscience is no longer seen as the final act of judgment; it is the only act of judgment, and a half-hearted one at that. When the rest of the moral life is cast off, so-called conscience remains, enthroned as infallible, the voice box of the subjective will.

Moral issues are therefore reduced to a battle of wills – my conscience versus your conscience – rather than a comprehensive code of conduct based on inalterable truths. The moral life becomes a question of mere rules and regulations – How far can I go? – rather than a fruitful life brought about through growth in virtue.

A well-formed conscience led St. Thomas More to the Tower of London. A disordered conscience (or, rather the false prudence that is at the heart of political expediency) prompted the USCCB’s insipid Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, the long-awaited (and, in some quarters, long-desired) defection of Senator Arlen Specter, and the Obama-fest at Notre Dame where a “sensible conscience clause” was highly touted.

This kind of “conscience” has paved the way for the decay of moral understanding, drowning us in a flood of empty rhetoric, and opening more doors to continued outrages against human life. This is not the “moderate” Obama, bringing us to a “sensible” understanding of the role personal moral judgment must play in the public arena. The notion of a “sensible conscience clause” is part and parcel of the long-standing relativist endorsement of this false vocabulary. Just as morality without its proper foundation makes no sense, conscience ripped from its proper place has no lasting weight. We have extracted conscience from its proper place in the framework of the moral life and – like a deranged dentist pulling a tooth and expecting it to chew food properly in isolation – we want this disembodied “conscience” to ward off true moral responsibility.

Thus it is that the dismemberment of the human moral act sets the stage for even more horrific dismemberment.

And all in the name of “conscience.”

Eleanor Bourg Donlon is assistant editor of Dappled Things and the Saint Austin Review (StAR). Read more about and from her at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.