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Conscience: Its Strengths and Limits

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 21, 2011

When Father Hermann Geissler of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called attention to Blessed John Henry Newman’s teaching on conscience, he was making an important point. This is the kind of story which we put at the very bottom of the day’s headlines, because it does not amount to a great deal as news. But as apologetics, well, that’s another story, for in our culture, conscience is most often seriously misunderstood.

I have already written more than once on Newman’s famous argument from conscience, which he develops in his brilliant but difficult Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. (That column, The Argument from Conscience, is also available in the second volume of my collected apologetics essays.) Newman argues that the conscience gives every person the nagging sense that his actions are being judged as either right or wrong, that there is some sort of law built in to human affairs, and that this provides an intuition of the existence of both a Lawgiver and a Judge.

Fr. Geissler’s point is a different one, which I have not yet mentioned in my own writings: Newman correctly regarded conscience as completely without authority in truths which depend solely on Revelation. What this means is that conscience is a natural faculty, an interior perception of the structure and meaning of the natural world, that is, of the natural law. In this realm, conscience makes strong claims which every person is bound to heed. But the faculty of conscience is not the recipient of Revelation; it has no direct knowledge of supernatural truths, and no authority to judge their veracity on supernatural grounds.

This does not mean that conscience plays no role in our spiritual development, or in our assent to Revelation. The moral promptings of conscience certainly moves us to presume the existence of God, to understand that a God who cares how we act must wish to reveal Himself, and to look for that revelation. Conscience also rightly makes us suspicious if a revelatory claimant (i.e., a claim about what has been revealed) appears to conflict with what we know naturally to be good or evil. But conscience is a moral compass, not an intellectual one. It has nothing to say about whether Mary was conceived without Original Sin—or whether Christ rose from the dead.

Fr. Geissler does not state the matter with absolute precision for all persons when he says that “to refer to Newman’s words [on the importance of conscience] with the intention of pitting the authority of conscience against the authority of the Pope is incorrect.” That is certainly true among believing Catholics, however, with the word “believing” indicating the acceptance of the truth that the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, is infallible on matters pertaining to our salvation, that is, on faith and morals. For example, if a believing Catholic reads Humanae Vitae, in which contraception within marriage is defined to be intrinsically evil, he recognizes at once that any contrary intuitions of his own conscience in discerning the natural law are not as strong an indicator of moral truth as the certain teaching of the Catholic Church on faith or morals.

But someone who is not yet Catholic, if his own imperfect grasp of the natural law tells him that contraception is good, would rightly be suspicious of a revelatory claim which offends his own native moral sense. Although the person in question would be wrong, this is a legitimate obstacle to conversion, and it will remain so until the competing claims are resolved. On the other hand, for anyone to claim to be Catholic while rejecting some teaching of the Church in the name of “conscience” is nonsensical, because conscience is a potentially-erroneous natural faculty depending on sources outside itself, while the Magisterium of the Church is a supernatural faculty which is never wrong. For a Catholic to make a claim of conscience against the Magisterium merely proves that he does not really accept the Faith; this painful fact imposes a duty to decide whether he is, in the last analysis, really in or out of the Church.

For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, however, Fr. Geissler is exactly right in insisting that conscience has nothing whatsoever to teach us about those matters which can be known only through Revelation. For this reason, when someone says, “I can’t accept the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence” or “I’m sorry, but my conscience tells me that the Church’s teaching on Mary as Mediatrix of all graces is simply wrong”, that person is really using the idea of conscience as a defense for preferring his own private opinion to the official teachings of the Church. As a natural faculty, conscience has no independent access to information that can be known only supernaturally.

Knowing that we must receive supernatural knowledge from a supernatural authority through our intellects is very important, because it removes the temptation to think that everything we feel an interior urge to accept or reject must come from conscience. The idea of “following our conscience” has become a powerful mantra in our day, not because we feel an enormous responsibility to truth or moral rectitude, but because it is our standard excuse for thinking and doing whatever we please. Even when something is a question of morality, it can be hard to distinguish a dull, unexercised conscience from the messages sent by our own passions. The careful use of the intellect is needed to sort these things out and, indeed, the intellect can and ought to be used to form conscience in the first place.

At its best, then, conscience can take us only so far. Its purpose is to point us toward God and Revelation, and to keep us from going astray morally when situations (and temptations) arise to challenge our virtue. It draws its standards instinctively from the intellect’s fundamental apprehension of the natural law; it creates moral benchmarks from this apprehension and from whatever else we learn intellectually about goodness over time. When we fail to heed what we really know is right, conscience accuses us. But left unattended, it deteriorates, and fed on falsehood, it deceives. Therefore, while following conscience is an obligation, it is an obligation which presupposes a serious responsibility. Conscience works better and better as it is progressively informed and perfected by what we discover of the truth in other ways. Ultimately, it is a springboard to something deeper and more certain than itself.

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