The Eloquent Voice of Conscience: Notes from a Conference

Michael McCabe
Issue 21, April 2007

"A voice was raised and the desert receded."

In February 2007 the Pontifical Academia Pro Vita Congress was held at the Synod Hall in Vatican City Rome. The Congress theme was "The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life". A variety of international theologians presented papers on the centrality of conscience and, in particular, its vital role for bioethical issues.

In his keynote address Cardinal Lorenzo Barragan explored the links between conscience and culture amid the current canonisation of moral relativism and subjectivism. Ironically, rather than freeing the individual, moral relativism and subjectivism enslave when they reduce conscience to a (false sense of) security that has no other reference point than the individual's own self knowledge and awareness. Among other things, subjectivity can tend to either forget the past or rewrite it in a more favourable light.

Growth in conscience will inevitably take us beyond unreflective subjectivity. The first step in the growth of conscience is overcoming indifference, a sure symptom of relativism and subjectivism. As we mature in conscience we discover new relations and more compelling links in our relationships with God, with self, and with others.

Through the light of the Holy Spirit we not only become aware of the voids in our thinking we are also encouraged to become more transparent to our deepest self so that this deepest or truest self can grow strong. Cardinal Barragan argued that the constitutive element of conscience is essentially paradoxical because conscience can only mature fully through the paradox of the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Australian Bishop Anthony Fisher noted that many people think of conscience as a source of morality that is independent of, and external to, the person, operating in a very similar way to a GPS finder. Quoting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and developing the theme set by Cardinal Barragan, he argued that for some people conscience is nothing more than "a cloak that is thrown over human subjectivity allowing men and women to hide from objectivity". In such cases conscience isolates persons from the truth rather than leading to freedom in the truth.

Professor Brian Johnstone also noted the common misunderstanding of conscience as a voice external to the person. To regard conscience as a zone that is separate from the person implies a split in the individual. Through dialogue, prayer, and mutual critique we journey towards the truth. However this only happens to the degree that the process of conscience formation excludes any form of domination, not least because the central role of all authority is to foster the giving of gifts. A genuine tradition must be continually open to conversion through the promotion and cultivation of the virtues just as individuals must also be open to growth in integrity. Professor Johnstone argued that conversion ultimately requires the abandonment of the deep seated desire to supplant the role of God as the giver of all gifts.

Professor Robert George reminded the conference that legislators are servants of the greater good. Pro life principles are not dogmas of the Catholic Church. Rather, they are fundamental norms of human life and, as such, can be understood and promoted outside of a faith dimension.

Monsignor Jean Lafitte, Under Secretary for the Pontifical Academy for Life, explored the history of conscientious objection and compared it with current notions of the concept of tolerance. He argued that the concept of tolerance thrives because of ambiguity, but paradoxically, can also contain some frightening seeds of totalitarianism and exclusion. In other words, "a tolerant society can in fact be quite intolerant".

How can we reawaken society's moral sense? It can be achieved by conscientious objection (and martyrdom) which can "engage society at a very profound level". Evangelium Vitae speaks of the irreplaceable role that Christianity has to engage society at all levels – this is the evangelical inspiration of Evangelium Vitae.

A particular highlight of the conference was the address given by Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. He spoke of the role of the Christian conscience in the promotion of life in developing countries. Donor countries had a particular duty to help with integral development. He outlined three principles to promote integral development and nurture the gift of life:

  1. Charity without pretext is the hallmark of the community of believers. It has a primacy in the thinking and in the actions of the Christ's disciples as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us so profoundly in 'Deus Caritas Est' n. 32 ['God is Love'] Not only does charity make the love of God visible it also makes the prophetic mission of the church credible. Prophecy without works of charity is sterile whereas works of charity make prophecy much more credible, particularly when such works are combined with openness of heart. 
    Cardinal Dias said that while we need to respond to emergencies and social needs we are also called to help remove any obstacles to integral development. With its exploration of the fundamental relationship between justice and charity 'Deus Caritas Est' – [nn. 26-29] provides invaluable insights to such integral development.
  2. The formation of conscience –that is the journey towards wisdom and insight that opens us to relationship to others and to God. Cardinal Dias said that while the formation of conscience is "a less visible path" in the promotion of life issues, it is nevertheless an essential task, principally because of the relational nature of the person. A sense of responsibility is borne out of relationship. Awareness of the need for a fully informed conscience is particularly vital today in the face of globalization which can subtly reduce local cultures to "stage parts" or very minor roles. Somewhat ironically globalization has seen people become much more disconnected from the needs of others.
  3. The promotion of life – Cardinal Dias defined the nurturing and promotion of life as a call to stewardship, the stewardship of the Gospel. He reminded the conference participants that the mission of Jesus began with the poorest and the least and that it is only through our love to the poorest and the least that we help to regenerate those already born while simultaneously giving hope to the unborn.

The impetus and stimulation for our works of charity and justice is "the expectation of a new heaven and earth" (Gaudium et Spes n. 39) that is born in and from our stewardship of the Gospel. The expectation of a new heaven and a new earth means that individuals "cannot crush the hope" others have for "a better future" and still remain "vigilant" in awaiting the Lord's return!

In his address to the Congress Pope Benedict XVI emphasised the need for the Christian to be ever alert and to "nourish and strengthen" his or her conscience "with the multiple and profound motivations that work in favour of the right to life." He noted the call by some for individual conscience to free itself from references to tradition and those based on human reason in order to be unbiased. When this happens, "the conscience, which as an act of reason aims at the truth of things, ceases to be [a] light and becomes a simple screen upon which the society of the media projects the most contradictory images and impulses."

Growth in conscience is lifelong and multi-faceted. Consequently, the desire for the authentic truth requires more than a "fleeting contact with the principal truths of faith in infancy". Such a process of growth necessarily requires a "programme of accompaniment ... along the various stages of life, opening the mind and the heart to welcome the fundamental duties upon which the existence of the individual and the community rest."

Pope Benedict XVI stressed that when growth in conscience is either absent or impoverished then "the capacity for judgement of the problems posed by biomedicine in the areas of sexuality, new-born life, procreation, and also in the way to treat and care for patients and the weaker sectors of society, becomes even more problematic."


Rev Michael McCabe PhD
The Nathaniel Centre

© The Nathaniel Report - Issue Twenty-One - April 2007