Conscience and Objectivity

Some languages do not have terms equivalent to the English word, “conscience.” The Latin conscientia can mean either “awareness” or “moral sense.” In Latin-derived languages, the situation is similar. The French conscience and the Spanish conciencia have a dual meaning similar to the Latin. In English, there is a clear difference between “consciousness,” which usually has no moral connotation, and “conscience,” which does. In German also, Gewissen is specific for a moral sensibility, while Bewußtsein has a meaning similar to the English, “consciousness.” Thus, in some languages, the context has to indicate whether the word is used with a moral connotation, while in other languages equivocation is not a problem.

The French phenomenologist, Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness and other works, writes much about conscience (Fr.) in the general sense, as “consciousness” or “awareness,” and emphasizes, in contrast to some subjectivist currents of philosophical idealism, that consciousness is always object-related – in other words, it is essentially “consciousness of something.”

We can say the same thing about “conscience” in English. Conscience is not just an inner experience or feeling, but is in essential relation to some object – the “object” in this case being a specific act, an application of some law or rule. If we say that “conscience requires or permits me to do such-and-such,” the relevant question is “what is the law or duty you have in mind, and what is the case you are applying it to?”

Aquinas says in the Summa theologiae (I, Q. 79) that conscience always begins with some practical principle regarding good or evil, and ends with making an application to some particular case. Errors of conscience typically arise in the application that is made. He offers as an example Jesus’ warning (Jn. 16:2) to His Apostles that they would encounter persecutors who would believe that they were offering “worship to God” by killing them. Aquinas explains that the error consists not in the premise, the duty of offering worship to God, but in their false application of divine worship to the murdering of Apostles.

But how does one arrive at making absolutely evil applications of good principles? Could enemies of Christianity sincerely believe they were performing a service to God by murdering Christians? Wouldn’t they at some point experience the “goad” of conscience, which St. Paul experienced (Acts 9:5, 26:14) when persecuting Christians?

As an example from our own day, is it conceivable that Islamist suicide bombers really believe that they are pleasing to God by blowing up “unbelievers” – men, women, and children? As David Garrison reports in his book, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the world to faith in Jesus Christ, the majority of conversions of Muslims at present are motivated by a rejection of the violent militancy of the Islamic religion itself. Perhaps the unnatural hatred impelling jihadists to murder causes painful pricks of consciousness, hopefully leading some to a search for the truth.


The goodness of conscience is ultimately judged by the applications made. In the New Testament, St. Paul tells the Corinthians (1Cor. 10:28) that even though Christians are free to eat food sacrificed to idols, “for conscience’s sake” they should not scandalize certain weak neophytes by so doing; and he admonishes the Romans (Rom. 13:6) that since civil authority is God-given, they should pay the taxes that are levied.

At an October 16 press conference in conjunction with the Synod on the Family in Rome, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, asked about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as gay Catholics, said that conscience is “inviolable,” and their decisions “in good conscience” should be respected.

But if conscience is always related to applying some law or duty or principle, the pertinent question is what law or duty or principle are they applying? If divorced and remarried Catholics claim that their first marriage was invalid, this could be verified by going to the appropriate diocesan tribunal. If the first marriage was non-sacramental, the Pauline Privilege or Petrine Privilege might be invoked. But in sacramental marriages, in view of Jesus’ admonition about “not separating what God has joined,” serious deliberation is required. What rule or law is being applied? Canon laws regarding impotence, consanguinity, forced marriages, etc.? Or just the feeling that “I am comfortable with my decision”?

Similarly, with regard to gays receiving Communion in good conscience, the obvious question is, “on what basis”? Possibly, celibacy. But fidelity to one’s “partner” in “marriage”? Would application of that principle be acceptable even to Archbishop Cupich?

Archbishop Cupich and some of his confreres defending “conscience” may be partly excused if they were just following the pre-Synodal Instrumentum laboris, which citing the example of Humanae vitae and contraception advises:

One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart, which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm, which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.

So, with regard to contraception, we encounter the necessity of “combining” the purely subjective conviction of one’s conscience with an apparently recalcitrant objective norm. And the roseate hope seems to be that some “competent spiritual guide” (the parish priest?) will be able to perform the alchemy of coordinating pure subjectivity and (often adamant) objectivity regarding contraception – and also in cases such as Communion for remarried and gay Catholics.

This places a burden on individuals, often unprepared for such responsibilities, that only clearer and more realistic teaching from Rome can remove.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Dave Fladlien

    “This places a burden on individuals, … that only clearer and more realistic teaching from Rome can remove.” I disagree: I don’t think Rome, or anyone else, can remove that burden. Ultimately we are each responsible to God, indeed accountable to God, for our choices. We can’t say, as Eve tried to do, that the Devil made me do it, and we can’t say well the Church said this or that, when we knew in our hearts what God’s will was.

    I agree completely that conscience is not just personal opinion, it is as you say a sort of balancing act, which you have described very well, but in the end — after doing that balancing act — each person still has to decide what he or she believes that God wants in a given situation, and he or she must then answer to God for that decision and for living or failing to live it.

    I think one of the biggest losses we’ve suffered in society in recent years is a clear sense of individual accountability.

    • Howard Kainz

      The “burden” here concerns “waffling” about moral issues, e.g. contraception; and the burden could be removed by clear positions on faith and morals.

      • Dave Fladlien

        OK, point well taken, if the “burden” comes from inappropriate lack of clarity at a time when it should have been made clear. But that does not remove the difficulty posed by the fact that “It is not that the Gospel has changed, it is that we have begun to understand it better…” (Pope St. John XXIII). This great saint and Holy Father makes it clear that our understanding — as opposed to the Gospel itself — is not a static thing. Therefore we will have to sort out new ways of understanding, and will have to be open to new understanding, and will have to struggle to get them right.

        I don’t think it is possible to avoid some periods of lack of clarity, even for the Church. I certainly was outspoken in criticizing the Synod in not doing a better job of resolving those issues that they should have dealt with, and I don’t for one moment retract that criticism, but I think we do have to allow the Church as a whole some reasonable time to do this.

    • Oscar Pierce

      Thanks Dave. Clear, succinct… I totally agree. Those who choose to do wrong, are not excused because, “they did not hear a stronger NO,” from Rome, local clergy, others; are still guilty of sin. Sadly, they have won the battle with their conscience.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Curiously, in English, we have no verb precisely corresponding to the Latin conscire, from scire = to know and con- = together – compare spirare = to whisper and con-spirare = to whisper together, to conspire.

    Conscire means to be privy to. When Tacitus says that Sallust was “Agrippinae interficendi conscius” he means he was “in the know” about Agrippina’s murder.

    The Greek word for conscience is συνείδησις from verb συνοράω (which occurs some 30 times in the NT) is similarly formed, again meaning “to know together”

    Now, there is a sense in which we are observers of, privy to, our own motives, intentions and actions. Thus, Horace speaks of the man “nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa” – to know nothing against oneself; not to grow pale with guilt” “συνείδησις ἁμαρτία” – consciousness of sins, in Heb 10:2 means pretty much the same. Dr Johnson was using the word in the same sense, when he says, “I am conscious to myself of many failings” – “to myself” makes this clear.

    This is the only sense in which συνείδησις is used in the NT; it is never used to mean the moral sense, the syderesis of the Scholastics. Incidentally, συντήρησις (= to watch over), from which synderesis is derived, is never used in that sense either in Classical Greek or the Koine of the NT. That, for a Greek, belonged to the practical intellect

    • Howard Kainz

      My Liddell Greek dictionary makes a distinction between the classical meaning of συνείδησις and the New Testament meaning, “conscience.”

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I believe that in every case in the NT συνείδησις can be read (and was intended) to refer to “consciousness of guilt” – Horace’s sense.

        It is fatally easy to read a later meaning back into an earlier text and I fancy that this is what those who translate συνείδησις in the NT as “moral sense” are doing. Equally, it is easy to see how the one sense can develop into the other.

        • Howard Kainz

          If συνείδησις meant “consciousness of guilt” in the NT, passages like the following wouldn’t make sense. ACTS 24:16 And herein do I endeavor to have always a conscience (συνείδησιν) without offense toward God, and towards men.
          Paul could be saying that he has a “consciousness of guilt” without offense toward God! The Liddell Greek dictionary is correct in pinpointing a different NT usage.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            I take the Apostle to be saying precisely the same thing as Horace’s “nil conscire sibi” – he is not “coscious to himself” of any wrongdoing, the reflexive awareness of his own intentions and actions.

  • Manfred

    “This places a burden on individuals, often unprepared for such responsibilities, that only clearer and more realistic teaching from Rome can remove.” Let me start by saying that no serious
    “Catholic” columnist, as I have already remarked to Dr. Royal, refers to those who practice the most heinous sexual sin (see Aquinas) of sodomy as “gay”. That very term gives the sin and its practittioners a pass. How bad can the sin be if those who perform it are gay?
    In terms of the last line in your column, cited above, could Rome be any clearer than it has been? Catechetics has not been taught in the U.S., as our bishops readily admit, in order not to impose the 2,000 year old teachings on the laity that they are “unprepared” to assume. Von Balthasar and his protege Bp, Barron have suggested very strongly that almost no one is in Hell, so what’s the fuss? Follow your conscience. Millions of Catholics will follow their advice.
    Others, the few, will elect to follow the fullness of the Church’s teachings as they have the Faith rather than a mere catholic culture. That is why Christ spoke in parables. Only some were meant to “hear”. Read again the Parable of the Sower.

    • Howard Kainz

      That “last line” was an addition by the editors, probably emphasizing the recent fuzziness. I agree with you that Rome has been quite clear on the issue.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    De Jure you are correct. De Facto not complete in your understanding. You are completely correct in your summation that Rome must be clear to remove the burden of conscientious decision making for the laity et Al. De Facto conscience has a deeper dimension than what is said. For example you ask how persons Islamic radicals and others can murder in the name of God and reply from what principles do these acts proceed. Is it a question of false principle or lack of adherence to what is known or should be known. Conscience in ST 79 13 is first understood as an act. Con [with] scientia [knowledge]. To act with knowledge. Natural law for Aquinas encompasses the natural law within, that which we all know by nature. Accordingly man possesses an intrinsic capacity to apprehend truth. Otherwise reason would lead to justifying intrinsically evil acts. Reason would be the rule of truth instead of the measure. The principle of inviolability of conscience is addressed in respect to false conscience. “One who follows such a conscience and acts according to it acts against the law of God and sins mortally. For there was sin in the error itself, since it happened because of ignorance of what one should have known” (De Veritate 17, 4 Ad 3). We either know what is right or wrong by nature or we learn it. The responsibility for an intrinsically evil act remains in either case.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “Con [with] scientia [knowledge]. To act with knowledge.”

      I do not think your etymology is right, either for Latin conscire or for its Greek equivalent συνοράω, as you will see in my earlier post.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Good for you.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        I took a look Michael. My use of the term does not harken back to classical Latin or Greek. I use the term as Aquinas did. Example: Ia 79 13: “Properly speaking conscience is not a power, but an act. This is evident both from the very name and from those things which in the common way of speaking are attributed to conscience. For conscience, according to the very nature of the word, implies the nature of knowledge to something; for conscience may be resolved into cum alio scientia [that is, knowledge applied to an individual case.]” I hope this clarifies the matter for you Michael.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          I was drawing attention to the NT sense. The Latin sense is important because the translators of the early Italic versions that form the basis of the Vulgate were bilingual and their selection of conscientia to translate συνείδησις shows how the NT was understood in the 2nd century, if not the 1st.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            That’s an important observation. The dynamic between the written word at the time of its composition and the translations that followed will be a continuous study for scripture scholars. My belief Michael is the Holy Spirit per force safeguards the essential meaning even as understood by Aquinas twelve centuries later. For example the medieval comprehension of conscience as a referral of knowledge to a fact or proposed action is always psychologically correct. Your last sentence seems to confirm that.

    • Howard Kainz

      Aquinas’ example of those killing the Apostles because of a good practical principle (zeal for God) does raise questions about the natural law. Wasn’t St. Paul’s “goad” an example of the natural law intervening and causing a possibly false conscience? It seems to me that Islamic suicide bombers would have had such a “goad” at some point but ignored it, thus devolving into “false conscience.”

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        I fully agree Howard. It is consistent with Thomas’ Natural Law doctrine.

    • Dave Fladlien

      Fr. Morello: Didn’t St. Thomas also say that there are many factors which reduce subjective culpability, things like prejudice, habit, passion, fear, etc.?

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Saint Thomas Aquinas on morality is shown in many places throughout his works but primarily in the Summa Theologiae and his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Prejudice and habitual practice do not mitigate culpability regarding serious moral matters but can be culpable dispositions in themselves. Fear, stress, extreme pressure affect the freedom of an act and may even remove culpability. Examples are secretly taking what belongs to someone else in an emergency. If a person is starving they can take from the excess of another while avoiding harm such as a person picking fruit from someone’s orchard. That is not stealing on the principle of the common use of the earth for everyone’s needs. During 9 11 the people who jumped out of windows to avoid being burned to death were not committing suicide. Much in morality is common sense but surprisingly many Catholics find it hard to believe that we are permitted to take another’s property during an emergency and not be guilty of stealing. Again on habit Julius Cesar noted that some German tribes believed stealing was acceptable. Aquinas refers to that in the context of natural law and its abrogation. While there seems a degree of mitigation of responsibility in such instances he does not say it removed responsibility entirely. The moral person is expected to temper passion. Thus temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Let me add Howard you touch on what I said in your reference to the Apostle and the “goad.” Also understand this is payback for your demolishing my theory about the Jerusalem Temple.

  • augury

    The truth of the Church’s teaching on fertitlity is borne out by the epidemic of abortion and the extraordinary assault on the family which have occured since beong propshesized in Humanae Vitae. That a spiritual counselor, or Cardinal Cupich, or even the Pope, could discover a loophole in that teaching brings to mind Guido Montefeltro ( Dante’s Inferno Canto 27 ) who relied on the Pope’s absolution from his sin, rather than his own repentence of his sin, all the way to the 8th circle of hell. “Don’t play lawyer with God,” Dante says. Seems like good advice to me.

  • grump

    “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”

    — H.L. Mencken

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Sounds more like a criminal’s fear of being caught than conscience. If that is what Mencken actually believed he was amoral.

      • TomD

        From the H.L. Mencken Wikipedia entry:

        “As an admirer of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he was a detractor of religion, populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superior. Mencken was a supporter of scientific progress, skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic and chiropractic medicine . . . His diary indicates that he harbored strong racist and anti-semitic attitudes, and was sympathetic to the Social Darwinism practiced by the Nazis.”

        • grump

          Wikipedia is hardly a credible source, Tom. If you’ve read a lot of Mencken, as I have, you know that he wrote much of the time with his tongue firmly planted in cheek. His “Treatise on the Gods” was a much better argument for agnosticism, which Mencken identified with, than anything Chris Hitchens ever wrote.

          Mencken co-edited magazines and literary works with George Jean Nathan, a close Jewish friend, and could hardly be called anti-semitic despite some barbs against Jews. His targets also included Christians of every stripe, as well as Southerners and virtually all politicians.

          His pride in all things German, including beer and Beethoven, were well documented. Mencken was the best reporter of his time but in these politically correct times he wouldn’t last a day at any newspaper or media outlet in America.

          • kathleen

            Jesus is the best reporter of His time, and all time. Let us read the Gospels over and over again, and the Letters of the Apostles, Peter and Paul and John.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Here is a good one to ponder. In the Republic Gyges discovers a magic ring [probably where Tolkien derived his idea] that makes him disappear. He then kills the king and takes his wife. Taking it from there Glaucon and Adimantes argue the question with Socrates that if someone were completely free from any retribution whatsoever from man or the gods to commit any evil and do whatever they wish whether they would act morally. It speaks to the essence of conscience. If Mencken defines conscience as grump says he would align himself with Adimantes and Glaucon who say it would be foolish to act morally if there were no retribution. Socrates responds that only the moral life makes man happy. Plato distinguished pleasure from happiness which distinction is also accepted by Aristotle and Aquinas. Does that distinction indicate the nature of the human soul and the essence of conscience?