Appeals to 'conscience' weakened by rise of relativism
September 13, 2011
When Church leaders appeal for government to recognize the rights of the individual conscience, Hadley Arkes remarks, they risk creating confusion, because the contemporary world does not recognize the proper meaning of the term:
The understanding of “conscience” has been deflated in our current law, along with the understanding of “religion.” John Paul II reminded us forcefully that “conscience” involves an appeal to an objective set of moral norms outside ourselves. The trend in the law, however, has been to accept as claims of conscience any beliefs personally and intensely held.
At one time the government recognized the link between conscience and faith, so that a “conscientious objector” was required to demonstrate a religious reason for refusing military service. But now any personal belief receives the same treatment, and individuals claim that they are obligated “in conscience” to perform acts (such as abortion) that others regard as profoundly immoral.
Arkes concludes: “We are flying an important banner when we unfurl the cause of “conscience,” but we are flying that banner in a culture that no longer understands us as we understand ourselves.”
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