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

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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.

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