A Matter of Conscience
… having a good conscience… (1 Peter 3:16).
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
Humpty Dumpty is alive and well today. I know because I recently found him—or at least people who sound very much like him—on the Catholics for Choice website. The title of the teaching was “What do we mean by conscience?” You can find the entire video at https://vimeo.com/51526982. Here are a few excerpts:
Dan Macguire, Theologian: “What you have an obligation to do before acting on your conscience is to consult the best insights available in your religious tradition and the philosophical traditions of the society and the culture of the society and only then act on your conscience.”
Shiela Briggs, Theologian: “Even if your conscience should lead you to hell, you are to follow it . . . It is your duty and obligation to act on your conscience, whatever it tells you.”
Kate Ott, Ethicist: “If one’s conscience brings them to a different understanding of the church teachings than the hierarchy has right now, you need to follow your conscience. It is our conscience that is the final arbiter of what we believe to be right or wrong for ourselves in moral decision-making. Therefore the church—no one, your parents, doesn’t matter who they are, grandma—does not have the right to suggest that your conscience is wrong, or that your conscience makes you a bad Catholic.”
The above quotations are rather remarkable, in that these teachers demonstrate that they really don’t understand what a conscience is. Because they don’t define conscience, we are left to inferences. From what I gather, conscience is a free-floating inner feeling that may be influenced by the church, but maybe not. What we don’t get from any of them is the notion that conscience is the God-given faculty that helps us discern right from wrong. Yes, we can be mistaken. The conscience can be deceived or deadened. But the notion that the conscience is meant to get its bearings from God, and function in a way consistent with His word and the teaching of the Church, is absent. How this is any different from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, determining for themselves what was right and wrong and subsequently eating the fruit, is unclear. On the understanding I get from these teachers, Adam and Eve were simply obeying their consciences.
It is remarkable that Catholics for Choice would offer a teaching titled “What do we mean by conscience?” and neglect (refuse?) to answer the question. I suppose we are left with the notion that conscience means what I say it means. Which is convenient, for such ambiguity serves as a comfortable-sounding cloak we can use to justify doing what we want to do.
Humpty Dumpty is no dummy. Neither are the Catholics for Choice. Both know what needs to happen in order to become master.
It seems to me that we Baby Boomers have led our culture towards the prevailing Western religion of the autonomous self and the sanity of choice. No wonder that conscience, like our sexuality, is seen as a function of the unalterable standard of what has coalesced within me. Unfortunately, such a view has no respect for our fallenness that skews our conscience full reliability requiring us to look outside ourselves to revelation for truth. Or as the adage says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
As you rightly infer, our conscious is as a governor device on a school bus designed hedge us into right behavior. But such a device is not perfect. It can be modified, damaged through choices, disabled through neglect.