The trouble with appealing to ‘a well-formed conscience’

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The Church has always taught that moral absolutes are necessary to the formation of conscience

The Maltese bishops’ guidelines, released 11 days ago to near-universal griefscorn, anxiety and derision, have found at least some support. In the Irish Catholic, Greg Daly argues that the bishops’ critics have misunderstood the document’s subtle teaching on conscience.

I don’t want to pick on Greg, and I don’t think the Communion debate ultimately comes down to the question of conscience. But the point he raises is an interesting one – and, to my mind, it reveals yet another major weakness of the Maltese document.

The bishops say that a remarried Catholic should have access to the Eucharist after “a serious process of personal discernment”, if he or she “manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God”.

Greg claims that this is a wholly orthodox statement: 

In no way should this be equated to a merely subjective “feeling”. On the contrary, time and again in recent decades when liberal Catholics have sought to justify disobedience to papal teachings, they have done so on the grounds of “conscience”, only to be rightly rebutted by more orthodox Catholics pointing out that only a properly formed conscience has such authority.

He concludes: “We can’t have this both ways. Either we respect properly formed consciences or we don’t.”

Greg is right to distinguish “conscience” from anything-goes subjectivism. But his version of history seems to me highly contestable. He argues that liberals have argued for “conscience”, whereas the orthodox have argued for “properly formed conscience”.

My reading is quite different. Even leaving aside all the complexities of how we define conscience, it seems to me that – simply as a point of history – liberals have often argued for a “properly formed conscience”, whereas the orthodox have argued for a properly formed conscience enlightened by moral absolutes.

Two examples. In 1930, the Anglican bishops said contraception was permissible in some complex situations. They wrote:

…in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

The bishops said: “Each couple must decide for themselves, as in the sight of God, after the most careful and conscientious thought.” In other words, this was not mere subjectivism: it was an insistence on a well-formed conscience.

The Catholic response, in Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, was not to dispute about the definition of conscience, but to say that “every use whatsoever” of contraception is “intrinsically vicious”. In this, of course, Pius only repeated what the Church has always said and has gone on saying.

A second example is the debate about abortion. Again, pro-choice Catholics have insisted, not just on conscience, but on a well-formed conscience. Here (with my own emphasis) are Jon O’Brien and Sara Morello, of Catholics for Choice:

At the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for an individual’s conscience … Casual disagreement is not sufficient grounds for ignoring moral teachings. Catholics are obliged to know and consider thoughtfully Catholic teaching. Catholics believe that “the Church … is a major resource of … moral direction and leadership. It is the product of centuries of experience, crossing cultural, national, and continental lines” … But in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns.

Again, liberal Catholics did not just propose “conscience”, but stipulated that it must be “well-formed”. And again, the orthodox response was not to quibble about conscience, but to point to a moral absolute. Here is Pope St John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae:

Faced with the progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end, the Church’s Magisterium has spoken out with increasing frequency in defence of the sacredness and inviolability of human life … Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.

As John Paul says, the conscience can miss this. A conscience which accepts a moral absolute – it is always wrong to kill an innocent – is well-formed; without that, it is a weakened conscience.

The dispute here is over whether we believe that any actions are always intrinsically wrong – and that sin is the most terrible thing in the world.

When the Anglican bishops, and the pro-choice Catholics, use the word “conscience”, they do not utter anything obviously untrue. “It is not what they say. It is what they do not say.” They fail to mention that some things are always wrong, always to be dreaded. They fail to mention what the Church has taught about intrinsic evil.

Likewise, the Maltese document avoids any direct mention of the Church’s teaching that adultery is always wrong. Indeed, it says adultery may sometimes be unavoidable.

And when I ask myself whether this is closer to the tradition of Pius XI and John Paul II, or to the tradition of the Anglican bishops and Catholics for Choice… Well, I’m not sure I want to think about it for too long.


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  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “A conscience which accepts a moral absolute – it is always wrong to kill an innocent – is well-formed; without that, it is a weakened conscience.”
    .
    Except that of course, this does not apply to Yahweh-Jesus who kills countless innocents. He kills innocent women and children in Sodom and Gomorrah, he kills innocent Egyptian first born, he kills everyone including perfectly innocent children in a global flood, he kills 70,000 innocents because King Dave took a census, we can go on and on here… Yahweh-Jesus does not give us an example of moral absolutes, unless that lesson is that it’s absolutely moral to kill innocents.

    As we well know, the Catholic Church itself has killed countless innocents during its prosecution of witches and heretics. This organization has no moral standing to tell the rest of us how to live our lives.
    .
    “Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.”
    .
    Wait a minute. Yahweh-Jesus has his own recipe for abortion in Numbers 5. If a woman is pregnant and her husband suspects (but has no proof) that the child is not the result of adultery (if he had proof they would stone her and her unborn child to death), then he can take his wife to the clergy who will take a fee, and then create a concoction of holy water, ink from which the charges against her are written, and dirt or mud from the floor of the Tabernacle. This is the place where the animal sacrifices take place, so this concoction of blood, guts, feces and urine is mixed up with the water, and after some chanting and hand waving, the woman drinks this e-coli laden soup of poison, and if she and her unborn child survive she is innocent. If she aborts or sickens and dies herself, she is guilty, and presumably stoned to death. Of course there is no penalty for the man, either way. Yahweh-Jesus clearly has no concern for her unborn child. This can be illustrated in other places in the bible as well. If a man harms a woman and causes her to miscarry, the crime is not against the woman or the child, but rather against the man, for these are his property. Happy is the Lord when you bash the babies of your enemies against rocks… Please don’t tell us that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral, when this is the very lesson that Yahweh-Jesus, by his example, gives us as a moral absolute.
    .
    Basically what we are being told here by the Catholic Church is that Yahweh-Jesus is “gravely immoral.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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