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Rehabilitating Conscience

Throughout the debate over the HHS mandate, the difference between the way the Catholic Church looks at the world and the way the ambient culture looks at the world keeps popping up in ways that often have frustrated the debate, but which point to some of the most fascinating fault lines in our twenty-first century American culture. This difference has been most obvious when the conversation has turned to a word that has been at the heart of the controversy: conscience.

Conscience is not whim. According to my dictionary, conscience is “a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle.” Conscience is rooted, then, in the ethical truth of things and it includes the idea that one is compelled to follow it. Conscience dictates, it does not choose. Conscience is not rigid, because we live with many “previously recognized ethical principles” and sometimes those principles conflict, but it is insistent. Conscience is a voice within us, but it must be rooted in truth which we all know is no one’s private property.

For Catholics, conscience is nothing less than the voice of God speaking to our hearts as we face moral choices. It is the divine law within us. I have called attention before to this passage from Bl. John Henry Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” that best illustrates, in Newman’s inimitable prose style, what we Catholics mean by conscience and why it is such a precious pearl we must guard with all our moral fiber:

The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

But, in our day, we have something other than the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” We have pollsters. I find polls fascinating, especially those which, like the ones conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, examine people’s attitudes towards religious issues. But, last week they released a poll that obscured more than it revealed. The headline on their press release read: “Survey: Majority of Catholics Think Employers Should Be Required to provide Health Care Plans that Cover Birth Control at No Cost.” And, indeed, the poll indicated that Catholics not only support that proposition but that 52% indicated they wanted their religious institutions to provide such coverage. But, when you go to PRRI’s topline questionnaire, you find that the order in which the questions were asked might have tilted the outcome. First, they ask about Muslims and sharia law. Then, they ask about the availability of contraception to teenagers without parental consent. Then, they ask about whether employers should have to provide health care that covers contraception. Finally, they ask about whether or not religious institutions should be exempt, which was the core issue in the debate. See what’s missing? I suspect if the immediately preceding question had been about the First Amendment, rather than about contraception, the final answers to the final question might have been different. I do not say this to suggest that PRRI was rigging the game. If you inserted the First Amendment question, you would similarly tilt the result, but there has to be some preceding question. Especially in the debate over the HHS mandate, though, one side saw the central issue as being access to contraception and the other side saw it as being religious liberty. By placing a contraception question before, the pollsters set the parameters of the discussion. This is unavoidable, but it demonstrates the limit to which polls add to our knowledge. In politics, you never know exactly how a debate will play out. An event may intervene that changes the way issues are framed. A candidate may make a verbal gaffe. Economic data may confound a political narrative. To take an obvious example, whatever one’s thoughts about end-of-life care, the exploitation of Terri Schiavo for political purposes was so unseemly, it turned many people away from a thoughtful consideration of the issues because they were just disgusted that the poor family’s privacy was invaded so thoroughly.

But, my real problem with polling is that it cannot tell the difference between the voice of conscience and a whim. On the phone, talking to a stranger, is different from going into a voting booth. Maybe it is just me, but I think voting is a very solemn thing. Growing up, I lived with friends in Greece on summer, and the dictatorship was having a referendum on a new constitution. The ballots to approve the constitution we emblazoned “Nai” or “yes” in bright blue, the Greek national color. The “no” vote or “Oxi” was in dull, battleship grey. The envelopes into which you placed your ballots were translucent and if you voted “Oxi” your name went on a list. Most shocking to the sensitivities of someone who grew up in a small New England town which, to this day, vests all legislative and executive authority in our annual town meeting, the day before the voting, two truckloads of armed guards took up their positions at the school across the street which served as the neighborhood’s polling place. That childhood memory is seared into my mind and so when I go to my local polling place now, I feel the stunning blessing that comes from voting in private with no guards at the entrance.

On the other hand, when a pollster calls, I always try to mess with them. I voice the most extreme sentiments permitted, and alternate between the most extreme left and the most extreme right, just to confuse the data. I do not like being put into other people’s categories. I remember a debate with one of the faculty members at my seminary when they wanted to discuss how I rated on the Meyers-Briggs personality test and I said, “Please don’t put me into a box until I am dead.” Pollsters seek to put people into boxes. That is their task, to turn people’s attitudes into statistics. I do not fault them for this and, as I say, I rely upon their work. But, the fact that politicians – of all ideological stripes – rely so heavily on the statistics pollsters yield has made our politicians more dull than they need be and more complacent and cautious than these momentous times demand.

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I fear, however, that the lazy sense in which the word conscience was thrown around in the past few months indicates a difficulty that is at the heart of modernity. It is what Pope Benedict means when he speaks of the dictatorship of relativism. And, it did not begin with pollsters, nor with the rise of the modern interest-group based political parties. It was already among the acids of modernity at work in Newman’s time. Let’s finish with these words from his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and then ask ourselves what we have done to rehabilitate the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” in our own lives and in our politics:

Words such as these are idle empty verbiage to the great world of philosophy now. All through my day there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. Literature and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in Universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition. Public writers, day after day, have indoctrinated the minds of innumerable readers with theories subversive of its claims. As in Roman times, and in the middle age, its supremacy was assailed by the arm of physical force, so now the intellect is put in operation to sap the foundations of a power which the sword could not destroy. We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational, for how can there possibly be freedom of will, how can there be consequent responsibility, in that infinite eternal network of cause and effect, in which we helplessly lie? and what retribution have we to fear, when we have had no real choice to do good or evil?

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does "conscience" retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman's prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

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