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, 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.