Thursday, February 9, 2012

Re-defining and Eliminating the Conscience

When I was growing up and heard the word "conscience," it usually meant that somebody was telling me that I knew what the right thing to do was and that--difficult though it may be--I had to do what my conscience was telling me.  Or, conscience was discussed in terms of whether your "conscience was bothering you."  This means that you had lied or done some other immoral thing and now, deep inside, the conscience was nagging.  That blasted conscience!  It didn't seem to let you get away with anything.  And of course, "conscience" could also be used in the context of a rebuke.  "Don't you even have a conscience?"

We weren't theologians at eight years old, but we knew we had a conscience.  And that conscience didn't make the rules.  It was that annoying voice that made you keep the rules.  It was that nagging pit in your stomach feeling that wouldn't go away until you set things right again.  Conscience when I was eight years old was about doing what was right. 

Somewhere between eight and forty, there seems to have been a seismic shift in the way that people use the word "conscience."  At eight, "conscience" was what kept one from doing evil.  But, gradually it seems that "conscience" has been turned on its head and is used as a "Get out of jail free" card.  Have a difficult moral decision to make?  Just say your conscience told you to do the opposite of what the truth demands and you're all set.  You know adultery is wrong, but tell yourself that in this particular instance "my conscience says it's okay" and you are entirely excused from those marital vows.  Do you find some moral teaching of the Catholic Church difficult to follow at times?  No worries.  Just say that your conscience says, "it's okay for me not to follow the teachings of the Church."  See, wasn't that easy?  And it isn't just about sexual morality where this comes in handy.  The Sunday Mass obligation?  Hey, what obligation?  My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass on Sunday.

Conscience has morphed into the justification for doing evil and avoiding good.  "My conscience says it is fine to use contraception.  My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass, not go to confession, to receive the Eucharist unprepared, and to support abortion.  And, as long as one announces that it is about his conscience, there is an expectation that the Church should just keep quiet on those issues.  In fact, there have been any number of theological advisors to politicians who have given them just this type of advice.  "Yes, you're Catholic and the Church opposes these issues, but as long as you follow your conscience, you're okay."  These advisors will have much for which they shall have to give an account.
But, something new has happened in the way of conscience.  For all of these years, many Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from obedience to the Church because they were "following their consciences."  So, the very institution that Christ gives to us to help us form our consciences was treated as irrelevant to "my conscience."  But now, these very politicians are part of a secularist agenda that opposes much of what the Catholic Church embraces.  And when the Church herself seeks to receive the protection of her conscience, the hellish cries of these very same Catholic politicians are deafening. 

For decades, scores of Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from the moral law by playing the "conscience card."  Now, these very same politicians are in lock step behind President Obama's mandate that Catholic institutions be compelled by force of law to violate their consciences.  See, when it comes to holding yourself excused from the Ten Commandments, the Gospel, and the doctrinal teaching of the Church founded by Jesus Christ (of which these folks say that they are members), the word "conscience" comes in very handy.

But, when people say that the mandates of the secularist agenda of the Obama Administration are a violation of their consciences, these very same Catholic politicians are horrified that anyone would have the audacity to claim that their consciences matter.  Obama has spoken.  Sebelius has spoken.  There is no room for conscience in this matter.  It is fascinating really.  Sebelius--a self-proclaimed Catholic--has no hesitation in acting in total opposition to the Catholic Church and feels quite justified in doing so.  But, when Catholics who oppose her pro-abortion, pro-secularist, anti-Catholic mandates appeal to their consciences, she simply outlaws conscience protection. 

And here is where it seems the whole thing has finally been turned on its head.  The Church in the United States has allowed Catholic politicians to abuse the term "conscience" for decades.  These folks have cynically hidden under a false understanding of "conscience" for a long time and did so with almost no challenge.  Their deficient understanding of conscience received little in the way of public correction.  And now, they have usurped unto themselves what was given by Christ to his Church.  They spent decades ignoring the Magisterium by appealing to their make believe understanding of conscience.  And, in large part, the Church failed to correct them.  Now, they have anointed themselves to be the new magisterium.  Unlike the old Magisterium that looked to Natural Law and to the Divinely revealed in order to teach on matters of Faith and Morals, the new magisterium looks only to itself.  And, they have made clear that there will be no room for people's consciences to disagree.
Funny isn't it?  These folks were allowed to run wild with their fanciful definitions of conscience for decades and few did much in the way of correcting them.  Now, these very same folks are disciplining the Church for appealing to its conscience.  Maybe if these folks had been continually challenged over the years on their re-definition of conscience (they seem to like to re-define things), they wouldn't be stomping on the consciences of others now.

Maybe, the Church in the United States ought to look at the past forty years or so and examine how effective our approach has been.  Has the predominant "hands off " approach been effective?  If not, what would have been more effective?  Have these politicians become more Catholic over time or have they become more defiant?  Has the present model convinced other Catholics of our seriousness on these matters or has it left them thinking that most everything is up for grabs?  Have we been successful in shaping the consciences of our people or have we failed?  Is our chosen method a great success story or is it in need of some tweaking?

Perhaps, we could form a commission to study what we've done right and what we've done wrong.  I even have a title for the final paper: An Examination of Conscience.


  1. The devil has no soul. The human being comes into existence with a body and an immortal soul. The human being's immortal soul has a conscience. The human being's sovereign personhood was eliminated when the sovereign person of God was denied access to the public square. Good, bad, or indifferent, the human conscience is a reality. Religion is man's response to the gift of Faith from God. Religious freedom is man's prerogative (freedom) to exercise his conscience according to the gift of Faith from God. It is the duty of the state to protect and provide for the religious freedom of conscience of the bishops as heads of the Catholic Church. The bishops need to pursue this in a court of law: Not only that the bishops' consciences are being violated, and every citizen's conscience is being violated whether they know it or not, but that the state, in dereliction of duty, has not protected and provided for the bishops' conscience and the chruch's religious freedom. The state has not protected the church's religious freedom. Indemnity and an apology.

  2. Thank you, Father Barnes for bringing the misconceptions of conscience into the public...consciousness. A very conscientious and compassionate piece of writing.

  3. You nailed it Padre! Great post.
    -- Julie

  4. The American, post-modern, progressive left seeks the establishment of an all-powerfull, God like state. That, in their view, is the necessary instrument for them to "immanetize the eschaton." That is something fully evident in the their history all the way back to Hegel and Nietzsche. As Mark Steyn recently put it, "... when government gets big, everything else gets small. And the space for alternative sources of legitimacy in society shrivels." Our president, with his "faculty lounge" view of the world cannot tolerate the moral authority of the Church. When we support government control of healthcare, however charitable and well intentioned we may be, we make these kinds of confrontations inevitable. Making the state the surrogate vehicle for our Christian charity undermines the the very acts of conscience you describe so well in your post. I am not yet in full communion with the Church, but I am not afraid of a little civil disobediance. (I'm a Marine, afterall) Boston Bruin Tim Thomas seems to be setting the bars of courage and conscientious action very high for us all in this matter. He is being savaged by the Boston sports journalists, abandoned by his teamates, and yet he is not backing down!

  5. For a long time now I have wondered why the Church does not publicly recognize when an obviously over the top abortion friendly politician has excommunicated themselves. When was the last time the Church declared someone excommunicated?

    Brian B.