The Tragedy of the Malformed Conscience

The recent release of those ghoulish Planned Parenthood videos, in which doctors and other officials openly hawk fetal body parts, has some people asking what happened to the consciences of the people engaged in such barbarity. The easy answer is that their consciences have been dulled by willing participation in the evil of abortion. And that’s true as far as it goes. But it raises further questions: If they sincerely don’t believe that abortion is evil, how can they be held culpable for participating in it? After all, they’re just following their consciences; aren’t we all supposed to follow our conscience?

Of course we are, says the Church. Lest we forget it, we have even Nancy Pelosi to remind us. Citing the primacy of conscience is the educated Catholic’s favorite way of exonerating herself and being proud of it. But the Church also reminds us of the duty to form our consciences well. That means, among other things, that we must acknowledge the objective force of the divine and natural law. The precepts and norms of that law bind us morally not because we invent them, or acknowledge them, or choose to bind ourselves by them. They bind us because they prescribe the forms and limits of rational behavior, given the kind of creature we are and irrespective of our actual choices, so that we ought to see ourselves as bound by them. A well-formed conscience is the product of sincere effort to learn those norms and precepts and a free decision to live by them.

Admittedly, most of us fail at that in some-or-other respect. We fail through ignorance, confusion, sloth, or willful rationalization. That sometimes generates a paradox: When a person’s conscience is malformed, it can easily happen that their doing one thing which is morally obligatory—following their conscience—consists in doing something else which, objectively speaking, is morally forbidden even though they don’t know it. Thus and at one level, the tragedy of the malformed conscience is that it’s so easy to do a wrong thing by doing a right thing—like the millions of Germans who accommodated, even fostered, the barbarities of Nazism because they were honestly striving, in conscience, to be “good Germans.” Or today, like Pelosi and all those other Catholics in public life who have no problem with supporting abortion as a conscientious “choice” for women in difficulty. And if you’re not absolutely opposed to killing children about to be born, of course you’re not going to have a problem with using the cadavers to benefit medical research.

But there’s an even deeper level to the tragedy of the malformed conscience. By putting its subject in the position of doing wrong by doing right, a malformed conscience makes it impossible for that person to right himself. If my conscience sincerely tells me to do A, when A is in fact an objectively grave evil, then if I refrain from doing A, as I ought, I violate my conscience. That would also be an objectively (and subjectively) grave evil. Such a dilemma is impossible for such a person to avoid on his own. And to the extent he is enmeshed by it in practice, he becomes still more corrupt, because acting according to such a conscience readily becomes habitual. The only way out of such a tragic dilemma is the divine grace that prompts some sinners to a radical metanoia or conversion of heart.

A grand-scale example is what happened to the leading Nazis when Germany lost the war. The regime’s three main leaders—Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels—all committed suicide. They knew there was no other way to escape the alternatives of living like hunted animals, on the one hand, or imprisonment and execution on the other; and their pride would permit them neither alternative. At Nuremberg soon thereafter, the Allies tried other leading Nazis in an international court for war crimes. The evidence of those crimes was clear enough; what’s important here is the principle by which the perpetrators were judged culpable. They were judged not by any national or even international statute, but by a “higher law” (sometimes called “the natural law”) by which merely human enactments, such as those of Hitler’s regime, must themselves be judged. Enactments and mandates which violate that law are illegitimate; as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, a human law which violates the divine and natural law is “no law at all.” At the dawn of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s, Martin Luther King appealed to the same insight. But that wasn’t the only reason the Nazis being tried were convicted.

Some have thought that trying the Nazis under such a law was itself unjust. Those men were, after all and as they said, “only following orders,” and those orders had been given by a popularly elected government. If that’s the only sort of law by which one sees oneself bound in conscience, then it seems unjust to hold one culpable for following it. How can it be just to blame people for following their conscience? Moreover, this whole “natural-law” business—especially if it’s called the “divine” as well as the natural law—was philosophically controversial even in America and Britain, where the alternative jurisprudence of “legal positivism” had developed a foothold that seems almost unshakeable today. Isn’t it arbitrary to judge people according to a moral and legal theory that is by no means universally accepted?

The proper response to that objection is this: The applicable precepts of the natural law are ones that, in the phrase of Catholic philosopher J. Budzisewski, we can’t not know. Taking the example at hand, we can’t not know that genocide is profoundly immoral, even if many can’t articulate exactly why. I don’t think that’s terribly controversial; to pretend otherwise is corrupt. But if there are moral norms we can’t not know, then we are culpable for choosing to act as though we don’t know they bind us. That’s the conviction which animated the best among those who prosecuted the Nazis at Nuremberg. They rejected the defense: “We were only following orders” because those following the orders were culpable for not knowing those orders were wrong and ought to be disobeyed.

On a slightly lesser scale, that’s the deeper tragedy of the malformed conscience among those Americans who have a hard time seeing what the fuss about abortion and Planned Parenthood is about. At this point we can’t not know that a late-term “fetus” is an innocent human being, and we can’t not know that the direct, intentional killing of an innocent human being is gravely immoral if anything is. Instead, many pretend that such a fetus is an innocent human being only if her/his mother chooses so to regard it. That is absurd. Others argue that, even granted such creatures are innocent human beings, sometimes their lives must be deliberately sacrificed so as to spare the mother the difficulties that would otherwise ensue. Haven’t we supposedly evolved beyond human sacrifice? But there are many who, for reasons of their own, have managed to suppress that knowledge, so that they are genuinely unaware they possess it.

I would also argue that on other, less gruesome topics, this is a major problem among American Catholics today. As Catholics we can’t not know that persons are to be loved, not used, but much of our behavior in sexual and/or economic matters seems to consist of using people in apparently good conscience rather than loving them. That is culpable malformation of conscience. And it presents what I believe is the major pastoral problem for the Church throughout the world today.

Well-formed Catholics know that, according to Church teaching, “[f]or a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” {CCC §1857}. Obviously, if one freely does something whose object is grave matter, but one never knew it’s grave matter, one lacks “full knowledge” and thus is not guilty of mortal sin. But what if one’s lack of full knowledge is itself culpable, and thus fails to exonerate one of mortal sin? If one has already chosen, for whatever reason, to suppress one’s knowledge of what one can’t not know, that is by no means a far-fetched possibility. In fact, I am certain it is sometimes the case.

I believe that pastors and confessors at every level of the Church need to take account of that. So far I see little evidence that they do. And we are reaping the fruits. Many tragedies of malformed consciences go unrecognized and therefore uncorrected by the grace available through the Church.

image: Renata Sedmakova /

Michael Liccione


Freelance writer Michael Liccione earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught philosophy at a dozen Catholic and secular institutions and has served on the editorial staff of First Things.

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  • BXVI

    I have always struggled with the concept of the “primacy of the conscience”. It seems to me that this concept has led more souls away from the Church since Vatican II than anything other than the standing of “No Salvation Outside the Church” on its head.
    Primacy of the individual conscience seems an essentially Protestant concept to me. As a Catholic, should I not subordinate my conscience the the teaching of Holy Mother Church whenever the two diverge?
    “I am not my own authority.” Is this statement not the essence of what it means to be Catholic?