Conscience is one of those subjects about which numerous Catholics today are, alas, sadly misinformed. Despite great Catholic minds such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman discoursing at length on the question, some Catholics speak of it in ways that have little in common with the Church’s understanding of conscience.
The latest Catholic to be embroiled in controversy about conscience is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago. While recently discussing the question of whether those who have (1) not repented of sin, and/or (2) not resolved to go and sin no more may receive communion, Archbishop Cupich stated: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.” Referring specifically to people with same-sex attraction, he noted that “my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point.”
This isn’t the first time that Archbishop Cupich has raised eyebrows. Many will recall what some regard as the effective equivalence he made between Planned Parenthood’s selling of body-parts and problems like homelessness and hunger.
Then there was his more recent speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor. Alongside a defense of religious liberty, most of the Archbishop’s address simply reiterated Catholic social teaching about unions. Perhaps it wasn’t the occasion to say such things, but absent from Archbishop Cupich’s remarks was any reference to the numerous caveats stated by popes—such as those detailed by Blessed Paul VI (who no-one would describe as a gung-ho anti-union capitalist) in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (no.14) and Saint John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (no.20)—concerning the very real limits upon what unions may do. Unfortunately, modern America is awash with examples of what happens when unions (in collusion with business executives who go along to get along) ignore those limits, as broken cities such as Detroit know all too well.
Aspects of Archbishop Cupich’s comments about conscience, however, will remind some of arguments made by various theologians in the 1970s and ’80s as part of their effort to legitimize dissent from Catholic moral teaching. Certainly, Archbishop Cupich stressed the importance of priests conveying the Church’s objective moral teaching to people who consider themselves marginalized by that teaching (presumably because it does not and cannot affirm some of their free choices). But a significant omission in the archbishop’s statements concerned why conscience is inviolable. As Vatican II stated in Gaudium et Spes, conscience draws its inviolability from its “obedience” to the truth, or what the Council called the “law written by God” (GS 16).
So where is this truth and law to be found? On one level, we discover it in the natural law. Saint Paul famously stated (Rm 2: 14-16) that this is knowable by everyone who possesses reason, including those who don’t know the Word of God revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For people, however, who also believe in Christ and accept that the fullest account of Christ’s life and teaching is to be found in the witness of the Catholic Church, the very same truths about morality are also expressed, confirmed, and enriched by that same Church’s moral teaching.
These simple points lead to profound conclusions. One is that conscience doesn’t create its own truth. Nor is it above truth. The oft-used phrase “primacy of conscience” makes no sense in Catholicism unless we accept that conscience’s authority is derived from every person’s responsibility to know and live in the truth encapsulated in the divine and natural law. In Newman’s words, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”
It follows that conscience cannot be construed as a mandate for us to depart from the truth whenever it clashes with our desires. Catholicism has never held that conscience is somehow superior to the divine and natural law. To claim, therefore, that our conscience somehow authorizes us to act in ways that we know contradict what Christ’s Church teaches to be the truth about good and evil is, at a minimum, illogical from the Catholic standpoint.
As noted in the Catechism, “A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith” (CCC 1794). And by faith, the Church doesn’t mean a subjective faith: one that locates the standard of belief in my feelings or personal experiences. Rather, it means faith in Christ and trust in those who witnessed Christ’s life, words, death, and resurrection and who testified to these truths: i.e., the deposit of faith that’s been transmitted and fleshed out through history by the Church, led by the Apostles and their successors.
Some Catholics today, however, believe that their sense of faith is true because they feel that it’s communicated by the Holy Spirit. But as John Finnis observed in a short 1989 essay about Thomas More, (1) we cannot know about the Holy Spirit, save from Christ’s teachings; (2) we cannot know these teachings, save from Scripture; and (3) we cannot rationally judge Scripture to be trustworthy, except by relying upon the judgment made centuries ago by the Church that the claims expressed in these texts were and are true, while countless other purported testimonies about Christ were and are false or misleading. As Finnis goes on to state:
And the same Church which made that definitive judgment on the canon of Scripture offers its equally definitive judgment on the meaning of those Scriptures and on matters (such as abortion) on which the Scriptures say nothing explicit but about which the Church’s tradition had spoken from times even before the New Testament writings were half completed.
Here we see the contradiction underlying the position of those Catholics who implicitly accept the Church’s definitive judgment about what is Scripture and tradition, while disagreeing that the Church can ever teach anything definitively on, say, moral questions, or who freely choose to set aside the whole common consensus of Christian faith when it doesn’t coincide with their own conclusions about a given matter.
This was all well-understood by that powerful witness to conscience: Saint Thomas More. When asked by Abbott William Benson of Westminster to gauge the weight of his conscience against that of the opinion of most (intimidated and/or bribed) English clergy and (intimidated and/or bribed) Parliament concerning More’s refusal to swear the Oath of Succession, More stated that he could claim in his support “the general counsail of Christendome.”
As More knew, the very derivation of conscience suggests “knowledge with others.” For More, “the others” were the communion of the faithful living and the faithful dead. Conscience wasn’t therefore an individual matter. More didn’t exalt conscience at the expense of the Revelation safeguarded and proclaimed by the Church. More’s appeal to conscience was itself grounded upon an appeal to the law of God consistently taught and defended by the Church, and which More’s reason and Catholic faith told him were more important than the opinions of backsliding clerics such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. To appeal to conscience against the Catholic Church’s constantly articulated teachings concerning the truth about marriage and papal authority was, for More, an absurdity.
More’s position underscores another truth that no bishop can forget, no matter how far they seek to go to what Pope Francis calls the peripheries. More’s martyrdom and that of another heroic saint-scholar, Bishop John Fisher, should remind all of the Apostles’ successors that, as Cardinal George Pell stated in his 2015 Synod address, “our first episcopal task as teaching bishops is not to be theologians, but to teach, explain, and defend the apostolic tradition of faith and morals.”
All Catholics are called to journey with those whose lives are disfigured by sin. After all, the latter includes every single one of us. But without prioritizing of the continued teaching, clear explanation, and articulate defense of the apostolic tradition on faith and morals and its implications for our consciences by those charged with that responsibility, there’s a serious risk that any accompanying vagueness will degenerate into effective affirmation of that which cannot be affirmed and an exaltation of subjectivity over truth.
And that is of no service to anyone, especially the least among us.
(Photo credit: Lifesitenews / John-Henry Westen)