In his article Conscience And Truth, Joseph Ratzinger quotes from a famous letter written by the man he recently declared Blessed: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink to the Pope, if you please – still, to the conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
That same article began by questioning whether SS troops could use their conscience to escape blame for their murderous deeds since they thought they were right in slaughtering Jews and other non-Aryans. This seemed so preposterous that the author had to find another explanation in a parable that portrays a tax collector acknowledging the truth that he is a sinner, whereas the Pharisee’s erroneous conscience does not excuse him from guilt.
While I thank Fr Joe Borg for recently bringing to our attention James Keenan’s reference to Thomas Aquinas’ text from an early commentary, justice needs to be done to Aquinas’ fuller understanding of conscience in order to qualify the quasi-anarchic tone of such a citation (that we ought to die excommunicated rather than violate our conscience). Since this is a position which Aquinas seems to have embraced throughout his career we need to inquire about its cogency.
In the classical text of Gaudium Et Spes n.16, “conscience” acts as an umbrella term for a cluster of concepts the scholastics would have otherwise carefully distinguished. Consequently, what the document teaches about the incidence of conscience is quite vague and assumes that the individual has a virtually unmediated perception of God’s will in particular circumstances.
The Council’s understanding of conscience has close affinity to Newman rather than Aquinas. In his university sermons, for instance, Newman only gives a subordinate role to reason in the search for moral or religious discernment, which is led by conscience. Reason is indeed an instrument in the service of spiritual discernment, which is led by conscience. However, its use remains secondary and accidental, useful in its place but not necessary. Indeed, “moral and religious truths… fall under the province of conscience far more than of the intellect”.
As deployed by Vatican II, “conscience” refers at once to awareness of principles of morality, the process of reasoning from principles to conclusions and to the conclusions or moral judgments on choices made or under consideration. By contrast, Aquinas uses a different term for each of these steps and the term “conscience” only for the concluding judgment. These three categories have misleadingly collapsed into a single idea labelled “conscience”. In Aquinas, “conscience” should be reserved exclusively to the final judgment reached given that the first two criteria obtain.
Given this understanding of conscience, it is true by definition that one ought to follow one’s conscience. As one’s best judgment concerning what is right and wrong, a morally mature person has no alternative to following it. “Follow conscience” does not indicate one possible source of moral guidance in contrast to some other possible source or sources.
In Aquinas’s own words: “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience, should perish in excommunication, rather than violate his conscience.”
Given such a view of conscience, Aquinas’s commitment to its integrity and inviolability is not surprising, even in the rare or extreme case when following one’s sure and certain conscience would place oneself formally outside the Church. This supremacy is reiterated fully in Gaudium Et Spes, yet, without acknowledging the crucial background, a story the Catechism seeks to rectify, sure enough.
It is important to note that nowhere in Vatican II does the phrase “freedom of conscience” occur. What, then, of an erring conscience? Is one who conforms to conscience when it is mistaken nevertheless sometimes morally guilty of the wrong choice? The answer is yes. One must follow one’s conscience because it is one’s last and best judgment as to what one should choose. But the error in judgment can be one’s own fault, as Aquinas observes. If this is the case, “one’s choice in accord with an erring conscience is not blameless”.
In short, it is wrong to act contrary to your false conscience but not right to act according to it. Aquinas would agree that if your false judgment about what you ought to do is based on a blameless mistake about the particular facts of the case, then your false judgment about what you ought to do is itself blameless and your action in conformity with it is excused by the fact that you are acting in conformity with a conscience that is mistaken.
The only way out of the circle, however, is available to those who know they need one and it may well take time. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once remarked, the way out is to find out that your conscience is a wrong one.
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