Conscience – Brainstorming

Conscience – Brainstorming

The “Brainstorm” category is a pre-write of a major article I’m working on, which will be published exclusively to my Substack. These are intended to be a teaser for you, an opportunity for me to shape my thoughts a bit, and they also provide some points of thought and references for the reader. Subscribe to my Substack to be directly notified when the article is published.

As with any “brainstorming” this won’t be an elegant piece of writing. I won’t make bulletproof points and some of my ideas may appear random. But please roll with me. It’s not the meal, it’s just an appetizer.

The subject of conscience, the authority of conscience, and free will often come up in my interactions with others—Moreso in the past year or two than ever in my many years of experience in evangelization and apologetics. The Pope has talked about it a few times, and America Magazine, prompted by the Pope’s comments, ran with it, as did some individual infamous Jesuit commentators. I think that’s why the “authority of conscience” has seeped into the ideas and vocabularies of most ordinary people. 

(HEADS UP! I’ve started a special Chat thread over at my Substack where you can exchange thoughts and ideas related to this subject, and this article pre-write. Subscribers only)

But what frustrates me, and what makes evangelization a little more complicated, is that the Holy Father and others seem to give only half of the argument when talking about conscience. Often what is said about it seems to imply, “Do whatever you feel is right, and that’ll be good enough for God.” How can someone evangelize others when they are convinced that they don’t need to be evangelized, that what they feel is right, wrong, correct, or incorrect is whatever they feel?

Conscience doesn’t rule over reality. Right? But looking at the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find that the Holy Father’s seemingly freewheeling statements regarding conscience are actually be established, authentic teaching.

Catechism Paragraph 1776: “Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment.”

This seems to give a certain authority to one’s own conscience. “If I genuinely think it’s right, then it’s right.” The conscience is not like an advisory committee but is more like a king—a lone ruler. That gives the conscience an awful lot of power! But what people miss is that the conscience isn’t an intuition or an emotional response, or emotional feedback regarding an act. “If it feels good, it must be good.” is an untrue and incorrect statement. Conscience must be informed, because it proceeds from human reason not emotion.

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform…”

The image we have of conscience as like an angel on our shoulder, countering the prompts of a devil on the other shoulder, is incorrect. The conscience is not the decider between two voices, each with equal value. As a “judgment of reason,” the conscience is a faculty of the mind. By reason—not emotion—, the person “recognizes the moral quality” of an act. The word “recognize” is important. To recognize a thing is to identify what it is in its nature. It is not to identify what it seems to be, or what it’s like, or how we feel about it, but what it is, as it is.  That means that an immoral act act is still immoral if a person’s conscience, failing to recognize it for what it is, leads them to do it, with belief that the act is moral.

Here’s a statement from the Catechism that can be really unsettling and hard to reconcile with what we know about justice and mercy:

1782: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in religious matters.’”

Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori’s writings inform this statement. The Church teaches that acting in conscience and freedom is a right. No one can be forced to act contrary to their conscience. Is that true, even when the person’s conscience is telling them to do something wrong? Does a person have a right to act against Church teaching? Look at this from, then, Joseph Ratzinger:

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority….”

In some circumstances these statements form the Catechism, especially when cherry-picked, as well as Ratzinger’s own statement cause a lot of trouble because it does appear that the Church is saying that the right of conscience trumps the teaching of the Church. But the Church teaches what God teaches. So is the Church saying that conscience trumps God’s will? How on earth is that possible or even reasonable? Well, that’s a tricky one to address and a complicated knot of misunderstanding to untie. I’ll address it in the article. It needs careful research. I don’t want to mislead anyone.

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