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The Darkening of Conscience
Steve Meyer, S.T.D. 27 March 2019
Recently the organization Catholics for Choice, who publish a journal titled Conscience, defended the Governor of New York as no puppet to the Catholic Bishops. Acting in ‘good conscience’ he signed the Reproductive Healthcare Act.[i] The Act allows for abortion in extended circumstances including up to the moment of birth. Examples such as this are legion in the United States since Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae vitae. The rights and freedom of conscience are championed but the connection of these rights and freedom to natural and Divine law as articulated by the magisterium is seemingly disregarded, minimized, or explained away. This is nothing new. Literally. The whole issue of acting in good conscience while disregarding, minimizing or explaining away God goes back to Adam and Eve in the garden. Here personal autonomy, which God wishes humanity to have, clashes with His Divine commands which he also wishes humanity to have in order to protect and assist humanity. Human autonomy sundered from God results in what John Paul II calls a culture of death. More specifically he says that an eclipse of the sense of God[ii] leads to a darkening of conscience.[iii] What does John Paul II mean by a darkening of conscience? He describes it as the human condition marked by sin that results in ‘evil being good and good being evil’ (cf. Is 5:20) leading to moral blindness.[iv]
Theologically speaking, conscience is objective to human nature. As ‘the law of God written in the human heart’ (cf. Rom 2:15) it calls us to do good and avoid evil. Implicit as the “heart” of a person in the Old Testament (cf. Wisdom 17:11), St. Paul teaches that what pagans know by instinct is confirmed in God’s revealed law.[v] As such, Paul says, a person must act on their conscience for conscience is how God judges them.[vi] As something subjective, conscience relies on the limitations of personal human knowledge and abilities for action. Personal freedom in conscience is understood as it being a type of light which can be darkened by sin. As the council puts it in regards to human nature it is, “…a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, …a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (GS 16)
St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully distinguishes between synderesis,[vii] the scholastic understanding of the innate objective law of God, with conscientia or the subjective acting on these inherently known truths under the terms habitual and actual conscience respectively.[viii] The innate light of the law of God in our heart can be improperly understood by the intellect. It can also be properly understood and misapplied by the will in action. For these reasons, St. Thomas suggests we should develop the cardinal virtue of prudence to assist conscience. Prudence commands the other moral virtues by intellectually recognizing proper moral dictates and strengthens the will to act on them. Prudence itself needs assistance such as teachers and other sources of wisdom and truth which are provided by the grace of God through the supernatural assistance of the Holy Spirit. Personal sins against God, neighbor, and self can diminish or extinguish certain graces in the intellect and darken the light of supernatural assistance. The development of knowing and acting in conscience can be, I think, found in a petition for wisdom that pleads, “take from me the double darkness of sin and ignorance.”
Conscience certainly needs defense as the seat of personal freedom, which the modern world so champions. This is bound up and aptly defended throughout Christian tradition. As a work of free will, an act of conscience “is never freedom ‘from’” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, namely the truth of Christ.[ix] A question concerns us at this point: Can one be free without reference to God? For John Paul II the answer is no. Much of what he writes about a culture of life can be seen as an attempt to reverse a great modern error: to live ‘as if God does not exist.’ Henri de Lubac, an important source in John Paul II, identifies the results of just such a way of living. In The Drama of Atheistic Humanism De Lubac writes, “Spirit, reason, liberty, truth, brotherhood, justice: these great things, without which there is no true humanity, which ancient paganism had half perceived and Christianity had instituted, quickly become unreal when no longer seen as a radiation from God, when faith in the living God no longer provides their vital substance.”[x] Legislation to provide more opportunities for abortion, embryonic destruction, or euthanasia are understood by John Paul II as movements along a path toward unreality; toward personal unfreedom. For John Paul II, legislation to commit murders in the name of human rights can result in structures of sin that further erode the light of conscience for individuals. Conscience when understood as personal and reasonable action done for humanitarian good will and with good intentions BUT apart from an explicit Divine Law confirming or condemning these acts, is deficient.
Conscience confirms what the heart already knows when it discovers the Divine law. John Paul II puts it like this, “…the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess.”[xi] In concluding I would like to mention the work John Cardinal Henry Newman who when asked if Catholics were merely puppets in their actions for the pope, responded with his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (about 150 pages!).[xii] While championing human freedom, Newman wished to stress the need for reference to Divine Revelation as articulated by the magisterium against a growing secular notion that following one’s conscience meant doing as one pleased. “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century 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.”[xiii] In his Providence, God supplies a teaching authority to his Church to assist the mind which is darkened from original sin and sinful habits. Newman puts it thusly,
“…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.”[xiv]
To promote a culture of life we must be free from sin ourselves. We must realize that only God can judge the heart of personal acting. We must pray for the Holy Spirit to enlighten the world. We must not flee from the world or the championing of human rights and human freedom. We must take part in reversing structures of sin where they appear. We must conform ourselves to God’s Word. We must educate others in the truth of God’s loving and providential plan for humanity. We must boldly proclaim that the Gospel gives life and it gives light to the heart of which moderns call conscience.
[i] See this Letter to the Editor of the Albany Times Union. https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Letter-Cuomo-followed-his-conscience-on-RHA
[ii] See my article “The Eclipse of God and the Culture of Death” 12 December 2018 Society of St. Sebastian Sebastian’s Point https://www.societyofstsebastian.org/copy-of-sebastian-s-point-21
[iii] See Evangelium vitae article 4.
[iv] Cf. EV 24.
[v] See Romans 2:14-16 which is embedded into Gaudium et spes article 16. Gaudium et spes can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html
In many ways, John Paul II gives further articulation to the teaching of this document and his remarks on conscience are inseparable from it.
[vi] See Romans 14:23 which is embedded in into Gaudium et spes article 16.
[vii] Synderesis signifies a kind of self-awareness in terms of moral actions. It can be found in the works of Socrates, Seneca, and others but it is St. Paul who speaks of it in the light of Christ. Synderesis can be taken as a principle of interiority where truth is found; it can be understood as the natural moral law innate to us; it can be understood as possessing the principles of good and evil within us and therefore having some responsibility for our actions as self-reflective beings.
[viii] For a clear and helpful overview of St. Thomas on habitual and actual conscience supported by Prudence, the Holy Spirit, and connatural knowing, see Robert J. Smith, Conscience and Catholicism: The Nature and Function of Conscience in Contemporary Roman Catholic Moral Theology (Lanham, New York, Oxford: University of America Press, 1998) pp. 5-39.
Smith then gives analysis of conscience and church teachings comparing Germain Grisez and Bernard Haring concluding with a synthesis of their two approaches.
[ix] John Paul II,Veritatis splendor article 64.
[x] H. de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p. 70.
[xi] John Paul II, Veritatis splendor article 64.
[xii] For an online copy of the treatise, see the Newman Reader here: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/gladstone/index.html
St. Thomas writes much more about prudence than about conscience. Newman highlights conscience as a per se or independent element within the complexity of human knowing and acting and is influential in this regard for modern thought. See W. Dupré, et al. "Conscience." New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2003, pp. 139-147 at p. 140. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3407702713/GVRL?u=txshracd2596&sid=GVRL&xid=8a58526b. Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.
[xiii] Newman The Theologian: A Reader edited by Ian Ker (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) p. 234.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 235
Steve Meyer, S.T.D., currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary.