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The Moral Conscience In Ethics and the Contemporary Crisis of Authority

by Bishop Anthony Fisher

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  • Description:
    Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, delivered this text at the conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and held in the Vatican in February 2007. The theme of the conference was "The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life." Bishop Fisher traces the interpretation of "conscience" throughout Church history, with particular emphasis on the modern problem of conscience vs. magisterium that followed Vatican II. He explains, "The magisterium is not some external force with which private conscience must grapple: It informs conscience much like a soul informs a body, giving it shape and direction from within."
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, March 3, 2007

1. The voice of conscience
1.1 What conscience is not

It might scandalize you to hear that I keep a lady in my car to instruct me on which way to go in life. "In three kilometers turn left," she commands. "Turn around," she pleads. "Coming up, on your right, you have arrived," she advises. She is, of course, a global positioning satellite navigator and I would be lost without her calm voice telling me where to go. She can be wrong at times, due to mechanical faults or wrong information. Sometimes I ignore her or switch her off. But usually I obey her; and if I don't I am usually sorry later.

In lots of ways conscience might seem to function like my satellite navigator and so we might call her Conscientia. Though I will argue that conscience is not like a satellite navigator, many people think it is a sort of angelic voice distinct from our own reasoning which comes, as it were, from outside us, even if we hear it in our heart; it is generally trustworthy, but we must decide to obey it or not. There is more than a hint of this at several points in our theological tradition. But whatever these texts mean, they clearly do not mean a divine or diabolical voice intrudes into our ordinary reasoning processes, commanding or complaining, a rival with our own moral thinking. If we experience such voices we should probably see a doctor or an exorcist! Were conscience really a voice from outside our reasoning it would play no part in philosophy and there might be some kind of double truth in the moral sphere.

Late scholastic voluntarism and post-scholastic legalism took moral theology down just such a blind alley. Magisterium became the satellite navigator and the role of conscience was to hear, interpret and obey. Many contemporary theologians and pastors are heirs to this. For some the solution to the crisis of moral authority is to keep calling for submission to the navigator. Moral tax lawyers, on the other hand, try to find ways around the moral law, or ways to "sail as close to the wind as possible" without actually breaking the moral law. Can you do a little bit of abortion or embryo experimentation or euthanasia without breaking the moral law? Can we reclassify some of it as something else and thereby avoid the law? What both approaches have in common with the late schoolmen is a view of the magisterium as a voice external to conscience which commands things to which conscience is not naturally disposed.

In my written paper I trace what became of conscience in liberal modernity. By the 1960s it meant something like strong feeling, intuition or sincere opinion. To appeal to conscience was to foreclose all further discussion and to claim immunity to reasoned argument or the moral law. "Follow your conscience" came to be code for pursuing personal preferences over and against Church teaching, especially in sexuality, bioethics, remarriage and communion. Conscience was now the highest court of appeal: it had "primacy" or infallibility. Sophisticated consciences yielded judgments in accord with the New York Times rather than L'Osservatore Romano. Conscience became, as the then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it, "a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to … hide from reality."

1.2 What conscience is: a little history

In my written paper I trace the origins of the Christian conception of conscience in the universal experience of agency and the Old and New Testaments, especially in Pauline literature, and thereafter in the Fathers and the scholastics. While the concept of conscience played only a minor role in Aquinas' moral theory, in the early modern period it was "hoisted to new heights" and a whole, lengthy tract devoted to it in the manuals, with practical reason and prudence accordingly diminished. Soon "all roads, in the moral world, led to conscience."

Conscience featured especially often in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council declared that:

1.3 Three acts of conscience

The Catechism distinguishes three acts or dimensions of conscience: the perception of the principles of morality; their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally, judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. These require a little unpacking.

The first act of the conscience identified in the Catechism with synderesis is what I call Conscience-1. In my written paper I identify texts from Paul, Aquinas, Newman and Vatican II which propose a very high — even romanticized — doctrine of Conscience-1 as a voice or vicar or sanctuary of God. These authors presume a long tradition of reflection on "the first principles of the natural law": basic principles of practical reason accessible to all people of good will and right reason. Because of their "givenness" these principles provide us with bases both for self-criticism and for social criticism. Far from being a cause for the subjectivism of those who think conscience means "doing my own thing" or the relativism of those who think it means "doing what the group does," Conscience-1 is actually the beginning of an antidote to these.

Conscience-2 is the application of principles to given circumstances "by practical discernment of reasons and goods." This requires certain habits of mind and will, especially prudence in deliberation. In the process of deliberation the mind often faces temptations, dilemmas, confusion and apparent conflicts with the teachings of the magisterium. Conscience must therefore be both well-formed and well-informed.

Conscience-3 is our best judgment of what to do or refrain from doing in the here and now (or in the past). St. Thomas mostly used the word in this sense. Conscience-3 is only worthy of respect when it can bite, that is when it can tell us to do what we might otherwise be disinclined to do, or vice versa, or give us cause for remorse. Once again, there is plenty of ground for error here. Thus while insisting that we must follow our last, best judgment of conscience as the proximate norm of action, St. Thomas wrote a great deal about how we might ensure such a judgment is reliable. He would, I think, have been bewildered by contemporary talk of the 'primacy' of conscience or of any intellective operation. Just as the value of memory is in remembering accurately, so the value of conscience, for Thomas, is in yielding the right choice. Truth always had primacy for him.

The Catholic view of conscience presupposes an optimistic view of human capacities to discern the good, even after the Fall. But if conscience is reduced from objective principles to subjective sincerity or from shared principles to private ones, it is hard to see why we would take people's consciences so seriously. Too often in recent years those desperate for moral education or advice have been fobbed off with "follow your conscience" or indulged with "do what you think is best." Too often human rights documents have become weapons against the rights of some people. Without shared objective principles, "conscientious" belief becomes window-dressing for raw preference or power and we have no way of knowing whether our conscience is well-formed or not, well-functioning or not, accurate or disastrously off-course.

1.4 The authority of conscience

Thus when Vatican II uses the term conscience 52 times and its Catechism also, both texts presume a long history and complex content not necessarily shared by users of the word conscience or spokesmen for the Council's "spirit." Nor does the phrase "primacy of conscience" appear anywhere in the Council's texts. On the contrary, the word conscience is always qualified with adjectives such as "right," "upright," "correct," "well-formed," or "Christian" — allowing, by implication, that not a few consciences are confused, deformed or otherwise misleading. So some other standard (by which conscience is judged) has "primacy.' The Council pointed out that conscience often goes wrong, sometimes "invincibly" (i.e. by no fault of the agent and so without losing its dignity), but at other times "voluntarily" (i.e. due to negligence or vice, in which case conscience is degraded). Conscience, like any intellectual ability, can err because the human mind can be more or less mature, experienced, trained, healthy, sophisticated, imaginative, prudent, integrated with passion, etc. Conscience is only right conscience when it accurately mediates and applies that natural law which participates in the divine law; it is erroneous when it does not. Thus, as I suggested earlier, it may be more helpful to think of conscience as a verb (a doing word), describing the human mind thinking practically towards good or godly choices, rather than reifying it as a noun, a faculty or voice with divine qualities.

Despite the tendency of conscience to error, the Church maintains its high view of the dignity of conscience. From this several things follow:

Such reverence for persons and their consciences is perfectly consistent with denying that conscience is infallible or has "primacy" over truth or faith or the teachings of Christ and his Church. As we will see, the magisterium seeks to enable conscience to achieve a more reliable mediation and application of moral truth: It is always objective moral truth that has primacy and only this which can be infallibly true.

2. The voice of the magisterium
2.1 What is "magisterium"?

The teaching authority of the Church, restating or unfolding the implications of Christ's teaching is called "magisterium." In my written paper I trace some of the history of and theological warrant for this idea. Interestingly Jesus' departing promise to be with his Church to the end of time was attached to a charge not to teach the nations Christology or Soteriology or even Fundamental Moral Theology, but to teach them his commandments! By the time of Vatican II the Church could assert that Christ's faithful ought to give the unconditional obedience of faith (obsequium fidei) to all that it proposes as certainly true and could express several ways in which this magisterium is operationalized infallibly.

Of course to say that the Church is infallible in certain situations is not to say that it is omniscient or inerrant in everything it says and does. In addition to infallible magisterial teaching there are the much more common pronouncements of various Church bodies or leaders proposed with a lesser degree of authority or more tentatively. Such teachings must be taken very seriously by believers out of respect for the Church as an inspired teacher; but they do not command the unconditional "obedience of faith," only some degree of "religious assent." What degree depends upon who teaches and when and how. When a person's own reasons against a particular non-infallible teaching are so convincing to him that he cannot give an honest interior assent to the teaching, he nonetheless remains a Catholic. On the other hand, it must be recognized that some teachings not yet infallibly defined do in fact belong to the core of our tradition and may well in the future be the object of an infallible determination. If unsure of their own conclusions, believers will therefore be inclined to follow even a non-definitive teaching until such time as they can clarify their own best judgment of what faith and reason require.

2.2 Examples of moral magisterium

In my written paper I argue for several examples of infallible magisterial teaching on moral matters. Given the academy in which we are meeting, it might suffice to recall the three moral "dogmas" to be found in John Paul II's encyclical on bioethics, "Evangelium vitæ." Here he was careful to cite the texts from Vatican II regarding the papal and episcopal magisterium in moral matters, and to use the language of Petrine authority. The clearest exercise of the highest level of papal magisterium was with respect to direct killing of the innocent. John Paul then applied this teaching to abortion and euthanasia, both of which he confirmed were grave moral disorders. Though there are some differences, in each case he claimed the authority of the natural law, the Scriptures and the Tradition, the ordinary and universal magisterium, the disciplinary tradition of the Church, the unanimous agreement of the bishops — and, now, "the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors".

2.3 Conscience versus the magisterium after Vatican II

Around the time of Vatican II, Karl Rahner wrote that conscience is the proximate source of moral obligation, and so must be followed even if mistaken; but that we must form our conscience rightly and avoid confusing it with subjective inclination or personal preference. A Catholic must be prepared to accept moral instruction from the Church and never appeal to conscience to make an exception for himself. If we realized that we may very well have to sacrifice everything or lose our soul, then we would not look for exceptions to be made for us from God's law and our confessors would not use evasions like "follow your conscience" when some hard if sensitive teaching were needed. If in our sinful world God's law seems unrealistic, the trouble is not with God's law but with the world!

The early Rahner wrote on the verge of a new age in which Christian ethics faced challenges from many quarters, not least from within the Church. Vatican II sought to restate and update Catholic moral teaching. Though aware of the growing individualism and relativism, the Council seemed optimistic to the point of naïveté about how their words would be received. Many people took up the Council's views on the dignity and liberty of conscience with greater enthusiasm than they did its teaching on the duty to inform conscience and exercise that liberty in accord with moral absolutes known to right reason and proclaimed by the magisterium.

The "crisis of '68" was a crisis at least in part over the meaning of conscience, its implications for decision-making and its relationship to the magisterium. In the 1970s a number of theologians proceeded to deny that the Scriptures, the Tradition and the hierarchy have any "strong" magisterium in moral matters. The "situationists" echoed the contemporary exaltation of human freedom and rejection of appeals to nature, reason, authority or any static, universal or objectivist standards; what mattered, in the end, was whether the person's "heart was in the right place." The "proportionalists" asserted that the role of conscience was to identify and balance upsides and downsides of options and that the Church could propose some "rules of thumb" for this balancing act, but no moral absolutes. Some argued that it was impossible for the Church to teach infallibly in morals; others said that while it could in principle, it never had done so; and both agreed that the ordinary teaching of the Church is "susceptible to error and therefore fallible."

We are all well aware of how thoroughly the 1970s-'80s style of moral thinking filtered down through many of our societies, even if it was rarely dressed up in the highfalutin language of "ontic evils" and "authenticity." In a slightly more sophisticated form it was taught to a generation of priests and lay theology students. It will take some time to recover a more Catholic sense of the role and content of conscience and the magisterium.

3. Conscience in post-modernity
3.1 Rome responds

John Paul II took the opportunity of the 25th anniversary of "Humanæ vitæ" to publish his groundbreaking encyclical "Veritatis splendor." Here he reasserted the teaching of Vatican II that Christ and the Church can, have and do teach definitively in moral matters, and that a well-formed Christian conscience will be informed by such authoritative teaching. Here one ought to proceed with obedience of faith, submitting one's experience, insights and wishes to the judgment of the Gospel, prepared to reform oneself according to the mind of Christ authentically transmitted by the Church. Conscience is indeed the proximate norm of personal morality, but its dignity and authority "derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express." Sincerity cannot establish the truth of a judgment of conscience and freedom is never freedom from the truth but always and only freedom in the truth. The magisterium does not bring to the conscience truths which are extraneous to it, but serves the Christian conscience by highlighting and clarifying those truths which a well-formed conscience ought already to possess.

In subsequent documents the CDF taught that the magisterium has the task of "discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those acts which, on the contrary, are incompatible with such demands because intrinsically evil." In "Ad tuendam fidem," John Paul II identified three categories of doctrines which I have treated more fully in my written paper. An example of the highest degree of authoritative teaching — requiring the assent of theological faith by all the faithful — is "the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being." Examples of the second category of doctrines — teachings which are "necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith" to which the faithful must give "firm and definitive assent" lest they fall out of full communion with the Church — are teachings on the illicitness of euthanasia, prostitution, fornication and presumably abortion. The third class are those teachings on faith and morals presented as true or at least sure, but not solemnly defined or definitively proposed by the magisterium, to which "religious submission of will and intellect" are required. Church teaching on IVF falls at least into this class.

3.2 Continuing division over moral conscience and authority

Cardinal Ratzinger opened his 1991 lecture on "Conscience and Truth" by observing that conscience is the core issue in contemporary moral theology. As the bulwark of freedom it supposedly confers on the agent a kind of private infallibility vis-à-vis any other authority. But to say conscience is infallible is contradictory, since any two persons' consciences may differ on a particular point. The "traumatic aversion" some have to faith-as-encumbrance affects their whole understanding of conscience and magisterium. For them conscience is an escape hatch from a demanding religion — a religion they are very loath to preach or counsel.

When a fellow academic posited that the Nazis were saints because they followed their conscience, Ratzinger was convinced "that there is something wrong with the theory of the justifying power of the subjective conscience." His exploration of ancient Scripture and modern psychology, Socrates and Newman, confirmed that the notion needed to be thoroughly purified. Why does the Psalmist beg pardon for hidden or unknown faults? Because "the loss of the ability to see one's guilt, the falling silent of conscience in so many areas, is a more dangerous illness of the soul than guilt that is recognized." Thus Ratzinger argued that the reduction of conscience to subjective certainty does not liberate but enslaves or abandons us, making us totally dependent on personal taste or prevailing opinion. Though a person's last, best judgment binds him at the moment of acting, this cannot mean "a canonization of subjectivity." While it is never wrong to follow such a judgment, "guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions."

The Catholic Church is far from alone today in facing polarization over the meaning and roles of conscience and authority. At one pole are those who hold that if only we attended more carefully to the magisterium instead of the zeitgeist, all would be well. The faithful should be willing to obey and their leaders to lead. Real conscience is the driver obeying the ecclesial satellite navigator, Magisterium, who tells us to turn left or right in the next 500 meters to go to the only destination that matters. At the opposite pole are those who argue that conscience must have "primacy." Vatican II opened up a new space for Catholics to follow their own lights rather than rely too heavily on their pastors. A renewed appreciation of personal experience and interpretation, of individual goals pursued freely without undue interference, is required. Conscience, then, is the ability to switch off the ecclesial satellite navigator and make decisions for oneself.

It is interesting just how much these "opposite" poles have in common. Both are convinced that the other has betrayed Vatican II and is endangering the Church's future. Both view the magisterium as an authority external and often rival to personal conscience. In the last part of my paper I want to examine whether the best of contemporary philosophy might offer any ways forward.

3.3 A communitarian rapprochement between conscience and magisterium

The first comes from a major move in contemporary ethical theory known as communitarianism. The very word conscientia might point us in this direction: For it means, literally, to think "with," and the "with" might refer to some community or tradition of fellow seekers after truth. The autonomous ethics of modernity often fail to take seriously the extent to which these shape people's identity and values. Even our most private life-plans are inevitably interrelated with those of others. More fundamentally, our sense of who we are and what matters to us largely comes with our ties to family, workplace, party, nation, culture and, of course, church. Some of these ties are chosen, others simply "received." Pre-existing models — models (such as Christ and the saints) and social practices (such as how we worship God and respect and care for others) are relied upon in our moral thinking or emulated in our acting, and a great deal depends on what kinds of moral communities we belong to.

While the modern emphasis upon autonomy has helpfully encouraged individuality, initiative and respect, it has also had very real costs in terms of emotional distress, normative ambivalence and political paralysis. In such situations communities like the Church can call people back into relationships, traditions and practices which help to knit them together and give them a sense of identity and destiny. The common good requires a shared vision and lifestyle, handed down within the community and protected by certain authoritative figures or mechanisms.

Are our beliefs and practices therefore purely arbitrary? Or can there be some more rational standard by which to judge our ecclesial baggage? In the next section I suggest some objective standards. But we must also allow that some of it can be put down to these more "cultural," shifting, particular aspects of the Church's life-history. Thus from among the range of reasonable options even self-consciously "pluralistic" communities do not choose randomly or value-neutrally: They stand for and against certain things, and they do this by their prayer and worship, their scriptures and creeds, and, of course, their moral codes and common projects.

Thus the faith and morals of the Church are normative for the individual who wishes to belong to it. Once a person has chosen (and been chosen) to belong, certain practices "come with the package," so to speak. If you are pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia and pro-cloning the Catholic Church is not for you; or — better — since the Catholic Church is for you, you should convert to being anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-cloning and pro-life and love, pro-the sick and disabled, and pro-the theology of the body. Documents such as the Catechism thus function as an authoritative articulation of "the Catholic story." To be part of the Church is to believe certain things but also to live in accord with that tradition and like other members of that community. Orthopraxis expresses orthodoxy.

3.4 A practical reason rapprochement between conscience and Magisterium

The communitarian reading of magisterium might be thought to reduce magisterium to culture and conscience to a social construct. Recent approaches to "practical reason" are therefore a useful complement. The very word conscientia again provides a hint: For it means to reason (morally) with knowledge and not merely on the basis of opinions or fashions. The "basic human goods" that provide the reasons for all human actions can be specified as the series of underived basic principles found in "Veritatis splendor": transmit and preserve life, refine and develop the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good, contemplate beauty, serve God, honor parents. This requires openness to all human goods, even those not directly pursued, and never choosing directly against participation by anyone in any of them. With further reflection a series of intermediate principles and more specific norms can be derived. This is the "natural" law known even to the pagans and Christian faith recalls and confirms it. Because revelation affects the whole way we understand God, each other, the world and ourselves, it inevitably colors the application of these "natural" principles and brings some new norms. The Church comes in such a context as teacher-counselor, helping us reach maturity.

Morality, then, is no imposition of an external authority, but an internal pattern of life which challenges us to be more reasonable, mature, flourishing. The magisterium is not some external force with which private conscience must grapple: It informs conscience much like a soul informs a body, giving it shape and direction from within. Any apparent conflict between conscience and magisterium is therefore either a conflict between what I am convinced is right and some other view, in which case, generally speaking, I must favor the first; or, more likely, it is a conflict within my conscience between some received magisterial norm and some other part(s) of my moral reasoning (including other received norms). If what is at stake is taught with a high degree of authority and certainty, the believer in that authority will follow it or be confused. When he does not know for sure whether or not what is taught is a matter of faith, he properly gives that proposition his conditional or religious assent because it might very well be.

Of course, when the Church teaches non-definitively, this may represent a first stage in the development, deeper articulation or authoritative application of the faith and morals of the Church; or it may represent a false start. Here the believer must assent to the Church's non-infallible pronouncements as to all else he knows and do his best to reason and discern. His goal will not be to argue himself out of following some Church-given norm or limit the "moral tax" payable to God, but rather to try to embrace the moral vision proposed by Christ and the Church and to seek to resolve any uncertainties before making an important decision.

4. Where to from here?

The Church post-"Veritatis splendor" is still struggling to recover a Catholic sense of conscience and authority. The task is essentially an evangelical and catechetical one, and one especially urgent in the West where misconceptions about conscience have been commonplace, leading to many disastrous personal decisions. That there could still be Catholic institutions in some places performing or collaborating in abortion, IVF, sterilization or euthanasia beggars belief. That there are still Catholic theologians and pastors supporting these or similar practices means we are yet to recover a sense of the ecclesial vocations of theologian and pastor. That there are still Catholic politicians and voters willing to cooperate in those evils means there are faulty connections between conscience, truth and authority whether ecclesial or civil. Wrong views of conscience have also been pastorally ruinous, resulting in diffidence about evangelization and catechesis, a decline of the practice of Confession and the abuse of Holy Communion.

Without an accurate understanding of Christian conscience it can never be reliably at the service of the culture of life and love or of the growth of individuals in holiness. But even when we get this right, there will still be much to do in properly forming and informing our own and others' consciences and in drawing conclusions in the face of the complex contemporary dilemmas — in bioethics as elsewhere. Further, thoroughgoing philosophical and theological analysis is required, for instance, on questions such as biolawmaking, cooperation in evil and conscientious objection — questions to which our present conference will now turn.

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