The Liberal Meaning of Conscience Denies the Existence of Truth

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, supports “selling oral contraceptives over the counter without a prescription.” According to Governor Jindal, Republicans have “been stupid” to allow Democrats to paint them as “somehow against birth control,” when, he suggests, contraception is a “personal issue,” and every adult “who wants contraception should be able to purchase it,” while anyone “who has a religious objection … should not be forced by government health-care edicts to purchase it for others.”  

Furthermore, he suggests, it’s a very “odd situation” when the morning-after pill can be purchased over the counter while oral contraceptives require prescription, a situation caused by “big government” and “big pharmaceutical companies.” Rather than remaining subject to impersonal forces, Mr. Jindal proposes putting “purchasing power back in the hands of consumers”— he hints this would free employers from violations of conscience—which would be good for all citizens, religious or otherwise, while also allowing Republicans to demonstrate as “hogwash” their supposed objection to contraception.

Read charitably, Governor Jindal’s suggestion might be a pragmatic attempt to “take contraception out of the political arena,” and perhaps even to free religion from the unwarranted encroachments of politics—although I note the Archdiocese of New Orleans does not agree with the Governor. But whether he’s found a way to protect conscience or not, his proposal reveals a tension at the core of liberal democracy, namely, the relationship between freedom, truth, and conscience. How do we allow people to be free to follow their conscience—or at least free to not violate their conscience—in a system caught between a reticence to proclaim and define the good while simultaneously making universal claims about the rights and dignity of human beings, including the rights of consent and conscience?

Failure to navigate this tension is obvious in a recent policy statement on emergency contraception issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted in Crisis last month by Kenneth Whitehead. In their statement, the Academy observes the continued high rates of teen births despite easily accessible contraception while bemoaning that “adolescents younger than 17 years must obtain a prescription from a physician to access emergency contraception in most states,” even though “adolescents are more likely to use emergency contraception if it has been prescribed in advance of need.” Consequently, the Academy supports “routine counseling and advance emergency-contraception prescription” for adolescents.

Further, the Academy complains “that personal values of physicians and pharmacists continue to affect emergency-contraception access, particularly for adolescents.” Given their personal views, some “physicians refuse to provide emergency contraception to teenagers, regardless of the circumstance,” with “important adverse consequences for adolescents in their ability to access emergency contraception.” Referencing a previous statement on the “refusal to provide information or treatment on the basis of conscience,” the Academy claims that pediatricians “have a duty to inform their patients,” whatever their personal views, as well as a “moral obligation to refer patients to other physicians who will provide” those same services. Failure to provide such access “violates this duty.”

The earlier statement on conscience claims there “are morally important reasons to protect the individual’s exercise of conscience even if one disagrees with the content of the conscientious belief,” including the “sense of integrity and self-respect,” while avoiding “guilt, remorse, or shame”—harms that “should be avoided.” Further, there “are potential social benefits to protecting individuals’ ability to act according to their consciences,” such as empowering individuals to follow reason rather than force, display tolerance, and encourage moral action.

Note what is never mentioned—conscience ought to be respected because its violation is itself deplorable. To put it another way, if conscience is merely an individual’s judgment, then asking physicians under certain conditions to violate their judgment may be acceptable, even a duty, despite the harm it inflicts on the patient’s self-respect, guilt, and social well-being. Certainly requiring physicians to assist others to attain their desire—such as emergency contraception—could be warranted since one person’s private judgment has no binding force upon another. In this way, the Academy’s statements have a certain internal logic: not only should the conscience of patients be praised and maintained, but also physicians and pharmacists are morally obligated to help these patients obtain services in direct violation of the physician’s conscience, a contradiction which makes sense if conscience is nothing more than private judgment bearing only on the individual’s own sense of integrity and self-respect. But, of course, self-interpretation and sense of self-respect should not be allowed to impinge upon other people’s self-understanding.

However, what if conscience is not merely an individual judgment, not a private choice, but instead, as Saint Bonaventure teaches, quoted by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger”? What if “it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of a king”? In that case, conscience bears witness to human dignity and choice, autonomy and self-respect, but, even more, it is “the witness of God himself.”

Understood this way, violations of conscience are all-together different from how the Academy articulates them, and risk violating the reasonable and obligatory command of God. Yes, as John Paul II states, he who contradicts his own judgment “stands condemned by his own conscience,” but this is only a proximate norm, a norm with authority only because of “the truth about moral good and evil … the divine law.” Conscience is normative because of divine truth, not merely because of self-interpretation, self-respect, or social benefits.

Consequently, a fundamental divide exists between the Church and organizations such as American Academy of Pediatrics for whom conscience is not true in a way accessible and binding on all, and in that divide we observe the confusions and thrashings of contemporary liberalism as it attempts to claim both universal and normative rights—including the right to abortifacients—while simultaneously denying the normative governance of binding and universal natural law.

Rights without truth: how bizarre, how destructive, and how increasingly tyrannical. And in the face of such oddity, how easily Catholics can be swept into the incoherence, even the confused situation where advocating easier access to contraception might appear the way to protect the conscience of Catholics, as in Mr. Jindal’s suggestion. Faced with such oddity, including the incoherence in which violations of conscience are viewed as moral obligations, we can anticipate liberalism’s increased hostility towards the Church and expanded attempts to run roughshod over conscience—but perhaps liberalism cannot do otherwise given its own internal logic.

The question, then, becomes whether Catholics will be able to stand, whether they will follow the internal logic of the Faith—a logic given both by reason and by divine instruction—and bear witness to the truth of things, or whether we will capitulate to an alien and unintelligible form of life.

Well, let us be not afraid.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

  • Alecto

    Clearly, the fine contributors at Crisis are far better people than I am. In their attempts to view every interference with basic rights and freedoms as some kind of intellectual mistake, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, I see unbridled power grabs by nefarious people. Chalk it up to cynicism borne of years of experience. It makes no difference to me whether you call them Democrat or Republican. What most cannot accept, but must if we are ever to counter this evil, is the notion that our government is now wholly corrupt and evil. These people understand quite well that what they propose is wrong and immoral. They understand it is a violation of your conscience. They don’t care. Subjugation is their goal.

    • MarkRutledge

      As Christians, we should fight any tendency towards cynicism, as if often leads to paranoia. More importantly, it destroys the theological virtue of Hope.

      Alecto, most of our opponents sincerely believe they are doing good things. But those with no fealty to natural law, those poisoned by the relativistic philosophy of our contemporary culture, have a dormant internal compass or, alas, none at all.

      • Ford Oxaal

        The way I see it, philosophy has to be re-wound to Descartes — it went down the wrong fork in the road with Hume. Christianity went down the wrong fork in the road with Calvin. And we went down the wrong fork with the social contract being understood as between individuals rather than families. Yes, I have all the world’s woes figured out :). A new golden age is ready to be ushered in before the final apocalypse. Now if I can just figure out to e-publish a pdf file…

        • Theorist

          Rewind it back to Aquinas, and then we can discuss where to go from there.

      • crakpot

        Of course most believe they’re the good guys, because they are measuring their actions by a conscience they’ve counterfeited, to put it in Cardinal Newman’s terms. The whole point of this article is that conscience is not personal judgement, it is the voice of God.

      • Adam Baum

        “Alecto, most of our opponents sincerely believe they are doing good things. ”

        On what basis do you assert this? Apart from a few new staffers and interns, anybody who remains in politics, does so of a desire. The ones that get to the highest place have two skills, persuasion and stamina. The longer they stay in politics and the higher the office they attain, the more they are likely to be worthy of skepticism about their motives and desires. Lord Acton’s observation about power tending to corrupt is a useful premise to disabuse one of the notion that our opponents “sincerely” believe they are doing good.

        It is not cynicism to realize that there are people for whom the acquisition, maintenance and enhancement of power is the sine qua non of their existence. This has always been so, and always will be so, because of original sin. We no longer face violent marauders, but people who seek to subdue us with laws, regulations and judicial writs.

        If one needs to be vigilant against cynicism, one needs to be more vigilant against the naivete. Churchill was right-Democracy’s principal virtue is that it’s the best of the worst. An election is affirmation, not sanctification.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    It is not just the liberal sexual side. Truth is equally unpopular on the conservative fiscal side of American culture where usury and attacks on Charity are as popular and widespread as Contraception and attacks on Chasitity are on the left.

    But what exactly did we expect from a country founded upon rebellion?

    • Adam Baum

      Well Theodore, feel free to leave, and as my late grandmother used to say, “don’t let the door hit you on the backside”. Now of course, you’ll be headed back to be a subject of Her Majesty, whose country has been dedicated to rebellion for the better part of five centuries, and where Henry’s rebellion against the Pope resulted in a Church is now blessing homosexual unions, in it pursuit of oblivion.

      And, for the record the promotion of usury is a tool of the left, not the right-they were the ones pushing people into homes they could not afford. Additionally, to the extent that we can use “red” and “blue” states as proxies for conservative and liberal states, inquiries consistently find that charitable giving is higher in red states. You see Theodore, advocating for government spending, especially when the record is that such spending is counterproductive, doesn’t count as “charity”.

      • tedseeber

        I won’t get into whose family has been here longer, suffice it to say a portion of mine sees all white men as violent invaders. That said- I’d be happy with a rewind to the economics and morality of the First Millennium.
        It has been the right that has expounded living on investment instead of living on labor; the latest round both sides are guilty. Once again, I advocate a return to the guilds, rather than to “red” and “blue” states. And a return to monarchy where the King is appointed by the Pope.

        I have no problem with government spending when it is noblesse oblige, the obligation of the wealthy to take care of the poor. Charity is a DUTY, not an option.

        And I hold NO love for the atheists on either side of the fence who revel in fiscal or sexual libertineism.

  • lifeknight

    Gov. Jindal is a professed Roman Catholic who is publicly denying a moral teaching of the Faith. He must have missed the RCIA talk on mortal sin—Contraception is a grave sin against God that is mortal if the sinner understands and gives consent. One is banned (supposedly) from Holy Communion until repenting and Confession. ALSO remember the teaching that if you die in mortal sin you go to he–? Again, abortion is a symptom of the contraceptive mentality. They are one in the same issue, especially when most oral contraceptive agents cause a fertilized egg to die at least 20% of the time. (See the research of Chris Kalenborn, MD).

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  • Jeff

    It would be more accurate to say that “the conservative meaning of truth denies the existence of conscience.” Conscience most emphatically does NOT mean that one has to agree with everything another person insists is true. Or even what the Church believes is true. It means that we all need to do what we strongly believe is right. It’s contradictory to claim that a Catholic can only follow his/her conscience if that conscience is 100% in agreement with Catholic doctrine. Conscience transcends dogma. Governor Jindal also has a responsibility to represent the citizens of Louisiana, not all of whom are Catholic, and, of those who are Catholic, not all disapprove of using contraception.

    • KT

      “It would be more accurate to say that ‘the conservative meaning of truth denies the existence of conscience.'” (Jeff)

      You could not have said it better, Jeff! For many people, a correctly formed conscience arrogantly means “formed just like my conscience”. For some, this means, “You must form your conscience to believe the Church is wrong on issues of social justice, just war, and the death sentence, but goshdarnit you HAVE to believe the teachings of the Church regarding contraception, and if you don’t you’re a HERETIC!!!” No. That’s not what conscience means. I doubt there is one person here who has formed his or her conscience in complete accordance with the Catholic Catechism. And I note there are some who are quite anxious to misrepresent certain Catholic teachings, like, oh, say, social justice and the categorical imperative of conscience.

      • Adam Baum

        “You must form your conscience to believe the Church is wrong on issues of social justice, just war..

        “Social Justice” as the Church teaches it or as it’s taught by the apostate American Academy?

        • tedseeber

          As it was taught by every Pope in the last 125 years. Or we could start with that anyway.

  • Facile1

    ‘Conscience’ is a word and like all human language, a human invention. The TRUTH is NOT.

    For people of FAITH, ‘conscience’ is the ‘voice of God’. For people like Governor Jindal, ‘conscience’ is the ‘voice of reason’, not wholly distinguishable from his own voice and subject to the same poor choice of words, error and manipulation as any human speech.

    As a Catholic, I believe one can only know the TRUTH by knowing GOD. TRUTH does not exist outside of GOD. When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape GOD.

    Therefore, to deny the existence of TRUTH is to deny the existence of GOD.

    And so, how does one get to ‘know’ GOD?

    St. Thomas Aquinas said “Love follows knowledge.”

    I disagree.

    I say, “We cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST.”

    Knowledge follows LOVE.

    Love GOD FIRST.

    It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one’s love for anything else in its proper place — whether it is the love for animals and/or things (paganism), the love for humans (humanism), or the love for self (narcissism).

    • Casey

      I agree, but can we properly love God without understanding Who He is? (Not speaking of in His Essence, of course.) Just something I wonder about. To what extent must understanding come in order for us to love the true God?

      • Facile1

        Dear Casey,

        To LOVE anyone (much less God) requires NO understanding at all.

        As humans we WILL love first anyway. As I said in my earlier post, we cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST. It is our God-given nature. But it is only when we love GOD FIRST that we come to know the TRUTH and arrive at FAITH.

        It’s like living a life in the pursuit of science, when one gathers evidence by the scientific method. The mere act of gathering evidence does NOT prove that our knowledge of material phenomenon is certain. BUT it strengthens our resolve in the design of the next experiment.

        A life in FAITH is no different. When one lives a life of FAITH, it strengthens our resolve to know GOD when at last we meet HIM face to face. In science, one will approach (but can NEVER arrive at) certainty. In GOD, one can be certain.

        Knowledge follows LOVE.

        Love GOD FIRST.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We should all remember Cardinal Newman’s words, “I have already quoted the words which Cardinal Gousset has adduced from the Fourth Lateran; that “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.” This dictum is brought out with singular fulness and force in the moral treatises of theologians. The celebrated school, known as the Salmanticenses, or Carmelites of Salamanca, lays down the broad proposition, that conscience is ever to be obeyed whether it tells truly or erroneously, and that, whether the error is the fault of the person thus erring or not . They say that this opinion is certain, and refer, as agreeing with them, to St. Thomas, St. Bonaventura, Caietan, Vasquez, Durandus, Navarrus, Corduba, Layman, Escobar, and fourteen others. Two of them even say this opinion is de fide. Of course, if a man is culpable in being in error, which he might have escaped, had he been more in earnest, for that error he is answerable to God, but still he must act according to that error, while he is in it, because he in full sincerity thinks the error to be truth.”

  • Prof_Override

    Why are all these discussions 2 dimensional – conservative vs. liberal? I consider myself to be a moderate libertarian with bones to pick with both of these “sides”.

    Deconstruct this, “denying the normative governance of binding and universal natural law.” Excuse me, placing a Traditionalist belief, front and center as unassailable fact puts the author in the same post modern booby hatch he is railing against.

    “Rights without truth: how bizarre, how destructive, and how increasingly tyrannical”. What truth, whose truth? Truth as defined in/as some abstract sequentialist tome that millions of experts over the ages have can’t agree on basic meaning, content or even authenticity. So it’s tyrannical to not believe the author’s truth – please look in the mirror to see the real tyrant here.

    “the incoherence in which violations of conscience are viewed as moral obligations, we can anticipate liberalism’s increased hostility towards the Church and expanded attempts to run roughshod over conscience” What “Church”?! People are real, “the Church” is just an intellectual construct, it has no measurable dimensions and has no meaning outside that which real live people give it (I believe the operative term is – relative).

    Cut the demagoguery dude, your diatribe is just more inflammatory hackery aimed at generating fear and hatred, not remotely attempting to create a unified whole.

  • Robert

    All these Republicans are tied in with large corporations which manufacture these products. Of course they will not go against them just because of moral qualms which they no longer believe in.