In the late 1980s, a friend who was working with Cardinal Law introduced me to him in Boston. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I do remember that the cardinal encouraged me to write my dissertation on the subject of conscience. He was really insistent, though he never fully explained why he thought it such an important topic. I chose rather to write on the primary end of marriage, but I never forgot his vehemence about the need to examine the true meaning of conscience.
I now often think it’s the critical issue that undermined the Church in the post-Conciliar years in a devastating way. The devastation is clear for anyone with eyes to see: the tremendous decline in the number of practicing Catholics; the moral dissent that has corrupted our institutions of higher learning; the abandonment of the sacrament of Confession by most Catholics; and now the abandonment of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony by a growing number of young Catholics.
The list could go on, but it’s all too depressing. What interests me is what I now see as the key to all this: the false notion of conscience that has taken hold not only in the world around us but within the Catholic populace – the notion of absolute conscience.
When the bishop of my birth diocese returned from Rome following the Second Vatican Council and his participation on the Birth Control Commission, he was a changed man. And he had every intention of changing the diocese according to his vision of the Council and his agreement with the Birth Control Commission’s report. He had joined the majority in dissenting from the Church’s constant tradition on the immorality of artificial contraception, and he was clearly intent on liberating his people from the shackles of the Church’s condemnation.
But after the publication of Humanae Vitae, he had to find a way around Pope Paul VI’s reiteration of the teaching – a “pastoral solution” that would allow people to dissent from Church teaching on this particular matter in good conscience.
The bishop had also brought from Europe the solution to this problem, which turned out to be a kind of virus that would infect much of Church life, while supposedly solving the pastoral problem. It was like the Europeans who brought smallpox with them to the New World. But this was a spiritual virus and even more deadly. He wasn’t the only the bishop who brought this virus home. In fact, it was already here under another form: radical existentialism. But now it was taking root where it would have been thought impossible not long before, in the Catholic conscience, reinterpreted supposedly at Vatican II.
The notion that conscience is absolute is a great anthropological and theological lie. Nothing is absolute but God. And conscience, which is an act of the intellect, declares itself absolute only if it simultaneously declares God is not God. The conscience, like the intellect itself, is subject to God and not an independent entity in competition with God. Every man must follow his conscience in order not to sin, but that is only a partial truth. Because, while man sins if he does not follow his conscience, this doesn’t mean that he does not sin if he follows his conscience.
Indeed, where conscience deliberately refuses to be subject to the law of God, it becomes an agent of sin. When conscience becomes malformed due to the subject’s negligence or bad will, the act the proceeds from that false conscience is sinful. That and much more reflects the Catholic understanding of conscience and its role in salvation.
Now the notion of absolute conscience was not consciously adopted by the Protestant Reformers, but it is implicit in their notion of private conscience. The Reformers saw conscience not as absolute but as subject to the Word of God, precisely as that Word is transmitted in the Bible. But their sola scriptura principle could not sustain this subjection forever. Scripture is not self-interpreting. When the Church is removed as the final authority to interpret Scripture, what remains is simply the private individual. Given the philosophical developments that followed the Reformation up to our own time, the notion of absolute conscience became inevitable. It now trumps even the Scriptures and God himself.
In other words, the notion of conscience that has taken hold in the Catholic Church in the last half-century is even far more radical than the notion of conscience in the Protestant Reformation. The Church always understood that conscience operates at the deepest core of the person’s soul. That is why it is determinative of character and moral standing. But where conscience declares itself absolute, the final arbiter of good and evil, then conscience has displaced God at the core of our being. That is what modern atheistic existentialism really does, and unfortunately the confused notion of conscience that has been perpetuated in the Church post-Vatican II often has more to do with this kind of existentialism, than with the more balanced understanding in the Catholic tradition, repeated in the Council itself.
Conscience truly does stand at the core of man’s personal being, in the deepest recesses of the soul, in the “heart” as the Bible describes it. But it stands there in subjection to God and to his Church, to whom Christ said, “he who listens to you listens to me.” Proverbs (23:26) says, “My son, surrender your heart to me.” It’s the same thing that Christ says to us, but He mediates that surrender through the Church, with which He is mystically one.
Where conscience becomes absolute, the Church is relativized, and that means Christ is also displaced from the core of our being. There will be no renewal until this virus is eliminated. This demon must be cast out.