Why the State Must Respect Your Conscience

As the U.S. Catholic Bishops, various Catholic and Christian organizations, media pundit, and members of Congress debate the issues of religious liberty and the HHS mandates, one word is bandied about: conscience. Sometimes its use indicates that the speaker has the wrong idea about conscience. According to a National Catholic Register article, ‘We Are Crossing the Rubicon’: House Tackles HHS Mandate Threat, “one congressman noted that desegregation also violated the personal beliefs of some Americans, and he appeared to imply that the bishops’ demands reflected an equally unacceptable belief.  Bishop Lori “categorically” rejected the attempt to equate Church teaching with racism.”

Sara Perla posted on The Washington Post blog “In Defense of the Catholic Church”  responding to an article by Jon O’Brien (“Did the Bishops Forget about Women?”). She comments on his use of the word conscience: “O’Brien writes that on contraception, as on all matters of morality, “while the church may teach, the individual’s conscience must decide.”  As any student in my class could tell you, the conscience can make mistakes and must be formed correctly. When your own conscience leads you to form a belief contrary to centuries of consistent teaching, it is at least worth a moment of self-doubt, prayer and reflection to examine that clash.”

Blessed John Henry Newman would certainly support Bishop Lori and Sara Perla in their efforts to defend the right understanding of conscience. Writing in 1875 in response to William Gladstone’s reaction to the First Vatican Council’s definition of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, Newman addressed one of the leading Catholic nobles in England publicly in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. William Gladstone had warned that Catholics in England could not be trusted to be true citizens of their country because their loyalties would be split between England and Rome, between their country and their Church. In Section Five of that letter, Blessed John Henry Newman addressed the possibility of conflict between the teachings of the Church and the individual conscience.

Newman begins by defining conscience as “the voice of God”, “a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation” that is an “internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.” He goes on to proclaim conscience “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”.

Newman contrasts this view of conscience that reflects upon the objective truth of God and His laws to the modern notion of conscience as “a creation of man”. This view of conscience Newman calls “the right of self will.” It thinks of conscience as the individual’s “right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” so that everyone is “to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave”. Newman denies this view of conscience: “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.”

There are two more crucial points Blessed John Henry Newman makes about conscience: first, that we must follow our conscience but second, that we must take care to form our conscience: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”. Since conscience reflects not on individual judgment and consistency but on God’s Law, we have to work to understand God’s Law. This is where Newman again addresses the authority of the Church and Christ’s Vicar on Earth, the Pope, who are God’s representatives alluded to above.

Jesus left us the Church and He established the Papacy because “the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.”  Therefore, Newman notes that every Catholic owes the teaching authority of the Church at the very least the benefit of the doubt and further observes that the burden of proof is upon the individual, not the Church. Newman warns us that the individual “must have no willful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases”.

As Sara Perla noted in her post, it takes a moment of humility to recognize that conscience not only represents a higher authority, but that it owes that higher authority attention and obedience. Conscience does not represent us, our desires, our consistency with ourselves—as Newman taught throughout this letter (and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraphs 1776 through 1802), conscience represents God, His desires for our lives, and our consistency with His laws.

Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk addressed contemporary concerns but his discussion of conscience has been timeless: it is quoted in the Catechism in paragraph 1778 and Pope Benedict XVI has reflected upon it. Speaking in December 2010 on the beatification of Newman during his visit to Scotland and England that September, Pope Benedict highlighted it as one of Newman’s great contributions. For Newman, he said, “conscience means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681.

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  • Amanda Lynn

    I am hoping our Bishops, Priests, and well informed Laity keep information like this coming out to us.  Great article!  Hoping for victory on this soon.  

  • Joe DeVet

    It is well to remember the proper definition of conscience as we ponder the very teaching that is at the bottom of the HHS mandate controversy.  For it was the Church’s assertion of it’s millenia-old teaching against contraception, most recently (at the time) in “Humanae Vitae”, that triggered many teachers in the Church to begin presenting a twisted formula for conscience formation.

    Thus, the sincere question, “What does the Church teach about contraception?” was often answered by the statement “The Church teaches that each of us must follow his own conscience.”  Already the implication was that the question could go either way, according to circumstances.  This was often followed by description of an involved process of, effectively, forming a judgment whether the Church’s teachings on morality were right or wrong.  The true function of conscience was subtly covered over by, in effect, instruction on how to form an erroneous conscience.  Often, the original question was not answered.  Or it was answered by something like, “The ‘official’ teaching is [such and such], but…”

    This instruction obscured the fact that contraception is known to be an ‘intrisic evil.’  This means that it is wrong in all circumstances.  The implication, or direct instruction, that people were given was that contraception may be morally OK in your circumstances, if it serves a “greater good.”  This goes directly against the actual teaching, stated in “Humanae Vitae” and reaffirmed in “Veritatis Splendor”, that it is always wrong to do that which is morally wrong (example used was contraception) in order to try to achieve some perceived good.

    People will inevitably make mistakes of conscience, that is true.  It is also true that we must all follow our consicences.  However, it is not the function of Church teachers to encourage the formation of faulty consciences.  The time has come for our leaders (I don’t mean just the bishops or priests, but catechists, theologians, parents, and others of authority) to correct this error which popped up in the late 1960’s and still prevails.

  • Pingback: Author Cites Blessed Cardinal Newman in Argument for Conscience « Campus Notes()

  • Pat

    Just experimenting with the Constitution … as it is written … with a few adaptations … if he can do this, so can I, right ?

    I know this doesn’t necessarily fit in this blog spot … but then …

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. — The history of the present Leader of the government of these United States is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent. (the tax of OBama-care, usurping our freedoms of Life and of Religious Practice and Belief).

    For redefining the rights to Life and Religion … as to not include the unborn or those with whom he disagrees.

    He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good … doing whatever he darn well pleases in this regard.

    He has obstructed Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

    He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation (this one is around the corner when he subjects us to the authority – and perhaps the occupation on our soil – of the one world government rules and regulations and perhaps troops, whether we agree or not — you don’t think so ? … just wait and see).

    For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our Governments (which he is currently doing, but will speed this up dramatically if he wins the next election).

    For suspending our own Legislature, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. (which he is legislating from the bench of activist judges who ‘re-interpret’ the law to say what they want rather than to say what it was meant to say when legislated and by his executive orders and appointments thereby short-circuiting the legislative process and ruling by appointment instead of by legislature.)

    He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign and domestic Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. (well … not yet … not yet … as far as true soldiers … not this obvious as yet — But his armies of perfidy, thus far, being those doctors who having already murdered the unborn in their mother’s wombs by the 10’s of millions in this country and by the 100’s of millions throughout the world).

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us … (playing the race card whenever he can and playing every divisive card and while proposing ‘unnecessary’ and unfair legislations proposing one institution against another which should not be in opposition to one another for the sole purpose of breaking down institutions of Marriage and Family and Life).

    In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    Nor have we been wanting in attention to our Liberal brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the Liberal’s unjust laws and enforcements, and that all political connection between them and the State of OBama’s land, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States and citizens, we/they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

    (Well, we at least have the right and necessity to at least try to ‘un-elect’ them from office — though I don’t think they will go quietly or peacefully … those blamers and accusers of our Government’s freedoms for so many years now, they having once gotten into the seats of power, will not easily be dislodged from that perch even should we be able to un-elect them at the ballot box.)

    And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
    We’ve gone full circle and are now finding ourselves to be back at the beginning conditions of our country … so to speak.
    The freedom that our forefathers spoke of in the Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights was GOD-given Freedom and they re-iterated and established the Right to Life, for all, even and especially for the unborn. But the bogus and self-centered and selfish ‘rights’ that our current government is striving for is in direct opposition to these GOD-given rights … and our current government is more than willing to do away with our Freedom of Religion and conscience in order to ‘establish’ by law these false and bogus freedoms and rights … what right ? … the right to murder our babies in their mother’s womb being at the foundation of these bogus ‘rights’ our government seeks to establish and coerce and to force upon us .. sinful rights which lead to death of bodies and souls of mother’s and babies.

    Patrick Kelly McCarthy … sinner, citizen, patriot, Believer in our GOD and HIS SON, JESUS the Christ and in the HOLY SPIRIT of Love and Life. GOD Bless us all.