First in a series on an essential, often misunderstood element of the moral life.
TRUE OR FALSE: “Let your conscience be your guide." In school we were taught that if asked a true-or-false question, if the answer was not 100% true, then one must say that the answer is false. By that standard, “Let your conscience be your guide" must be judged to be false.
But wait! Hasn’t the Church always championed the “primacy of the individual conscience?" (Answer: Not quite.)
Haven’t “prisoners of conscience" been celebrated in history and the arts? (Answer: Sometimes.)
Aren’t Catholic prelates, doctors and politicians (at least in America) talking about the urgency of “conscience protection"? (Answer: Yes—but with little effect, and perhaps with even less wisdom—we’ll talk about that later in the series.)
Unless we take some simple steps to attain clarity about conscience, we’re likely to repeat mistakes that are as regrettable as they’re common nowadays. Many people, from every walk of life and from every point of view, it seems, speak of the primacy of conscience and the right to follow one’s conscience. What they’re arguing for, more often than not, isn’t conscience as understood in the natural law tradition or in the authentic, perennial teaching of the Church, but in terms of a noble-sounding excuse for moral relativism. On this view, once a person invokes the word “conscience," we’re all supposed to fall silent, and neither criticize nor question a person’s moral actions (or inactions). This trope is a sophisticated spin on the old “Don’t judge me!" rallying cry of moral relativism. In other words, “I’m following my conscience, so therefore you have nothing to say." This is an impoverished view of conscience, likely to be found attractive by those who are seeking excuses for dubious behavior. And it’s a view of conscience to be rejected by those who really should know better.
The problem with this view of conscience is that it reduces morality to my subjective stance, to my particular take or personal feelings about this or that moral action or issue. It ignores the objective dimension of morality, including the absolute obligation to do good and avoid evil, and our ability to know with certainty that some actions are intrinsically (that is to say, by the their very nature) good or evil.
Perhaps this parable will help: A sportscaster asks three baseball umpires how they know which pitches are balls and which are strikes.
FIRST UMPIRE: “Well, somes are balls and somes are strikes—and I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em!"
SECOND UMPIRE: “Well, somes are balls and somes are strikes—and I calls ‘em as they is!"
THIRD UMPIRE: “Well, somes are balls and somes are strikes—and they ain’t nuthin till I calls ‘em!"
For our purposes, the first umpire represents (at the surface level) the work of conscience, judging actions to be good or evil. The third umpire represents the prevalent, distorted view of conscience (rooted in moral relativism), claiming that actions don’t have true moral qualities, but are only good or evil when I name them to be good or evil. But that’s not the proper work of conscience—that’s a claim that guts morality of its meaning and its binding character. The second umpire represents the true work of conscience, which is to recognize and name the truly good as good and the truly evil as evil. The process of coming to moral maturity is to start as the first umpire (judging actions as good or evil) and end up as the second umpire (properly recognizing good as good and evil as evil).
We can see then, that the approach of “I’m following my conscience—so shut up!" as the basis of morality, is really no morality. The appeal to conscience, and the insistence on following one’s conscience, only make sense if we can know with assurance the true moral qualities of actions and can live our obligation to do what we know is good and to avoid what we know is evil. And, yes, it’s true that not every moral issue is black-or-white. There are legitimately gray moral areas about which honorable people may disagree. But the inclination to reduce morality to all gray helps no one and harms everyone. An important element in moral education and formation is to teach people to navigate the legitimately moral gray by steering by the fixed compass points of good and evil.
For now, let’s remember that we can only meaningfully assert the right to follow one’s conscience if we equally insist upon the duty to have a well-formed conscience. At a minimum, that duty will include informing ourselves about ethical norms, incorporating that knowledge into our daily lives, acting according to that knowledge, and taking responsibility for those actions.
When I write next, I will continue our discussion of conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics. He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and is a member of the National Ethics Committee of the Catholic Medical Association. His book on preaching, “I Have Someone to Tell You: A Jesuit Heralds the Gospel" is now available at Amazon in both paperback and electronic form.