Follow Your Conscience
Issue 5, November 2001
The doctrine of conscience lies at the very heart of Catholic moral teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that we have a right to act in conscience and in freedom so as to make moral decisions, and that no-one should be forced to act contrary to his or her conscience. [i]
James DiGiacomo, reflecting on post-Vatican changes in the field of moral theology, comments on the fact that the words follow your conscience were hardly heard in Catholic education classes thirty years ago. [ii] The introduction of these three little words into our everyday moral repertoire started, in DiGiacomo's words, when indoctrination or brainwashing became undesirable in Catholic and other educational circles. We all recognise, even if some lament it, that there has been within the Church, as well as in society as a whole, a move away from a strictly rules based approach to moral decision making. What has replaced this morality by rules has been an insistence that people can formulate for themselves a sense of right and wrong that is based on their own interiorised values and felt needs.
Few would deny that the responsible exercise of conscience is preferable to mindless obedience towards authority. Indeed, in the face of extreme brutalities carried out in the course of war, we as a society have time and again roundly rejected as a valid defense, the excuse that a person was simply following orders. The well publicised Nuremberg and My Lai massacre trials are testament to this. At the same time, I believe that these events, and others, have shaped people to understand conscience in a particular and rather impoverished way. In Dick Westley's words, many tend to think of conscience in terms of the lonely and solitary individual standing nobly and doggedly alone against the forces of compliance no matter what the cost. [iii]
Such an understanding also happens to be in keeping with our current Western predisposition toward individualism and its corresponding (and disproportionate) focus on individual rights. 'Conscience' then becomes code for 'opposition to compliance and authority'; 'community' code for 'what restricts individual freedom'; and 'authority' code for 'the crushing of non-compliance and individual conscientiousness.' [iv] Viewed like this authority and conscience appear falsely in opposition to each other, and the demands of conscience would appear to become somewhat arbitrary. Moral norms are reduced to a person's subjective imperatives, and to have acted with good conscience can mean little more than that a person has acted with sincerity, free from any form of external coercion. To talk, in the same breath about the 'primacy' of conscience suggests, furthermore, that one's personal moral judgement cannot be challenged. The fact that a man or woman makes a choice serves to defend its moral rightness.
Without advocating a coercive or strictly rule based approach to moral decision making, because such approaches fundamentally undermine the dignity of the person, the Catholic-Christian tradition rejects as too narrow the understanding of freedom upon which the above understanding of conscience rests. More particularly, a Catholic-Christian approach to and understanding of conscience works out of an understanding of human flourishing which recognises that while individual fulfillment includes the exercising of personal autonomy, it involves much more than a person simply being free to decide for oneself a particular course of action.
A Catholic vision of the human person is grounded in the idea that we are first and foremost not alone in the universe. Indeed the word 'conscience' contains within itself a view of the human person as being fundamentally defined through and in relationships with others. The meaning of the Latin root word we translate as 'conscience' is literally shared knowledge or knowledge with others. Thus Westley writes: It is in virtue of that dimension of conscience that no matter how individual it may be, it is at the very same time always at bottom a call and a summons to all of humankind. [v] Understood like this, the exercising of conscience is a sign of a shared existence, a solidarity with all of humankind. If this is accepted as the jump-off point for understanding human fulfillment, then it becomes apparent that the demands of a Christian conscience are anything but individualistic and arbitrary. Conscience and community are anything but implacably opposed to each other.
Freedom, from such a perspective, involves choosing those actions that are in keeping with our shared human dignity. This in turn presupposes some fundamental agreement regarding what it is that brings about true human flourishing, and the recognition and identification of shared human values. The key question is whether the values that motivate my/our approach to a particular issue reflect those shared values. A strictly Christian approach will reflect the specific values of the Christian Tradition, namely those personified by Jesus himself. The Catholic Tradition upholds a certain understanding of what does and does not bring about human flourishing based on its own reflection on, and understanding of, God as revealed in the Judaeo-Christian story.
In the words of the Irish Bishops, being aware of how an issue appears to my friends, how other people in my community, past and present, have understood it, helps me to make the best, most informed decision. This is essentially what we are referring to when we talk about the value of our Catholic Tradition. This Tradition holds up before us the wisdom and experiences of past generations of Christians, including those who walked and talked with Jesus himself. As such, properly understood and interpreted, it constitutes an authority that acts as both an anchoring point and as a casting off point in our quest to navigate the tides and currents of moral issues and dilemmas that confront us today. Seen like this, authority and conscience are also anything but implacably opposed to each other.
True conscience, then, is knowing with our whole selves and also knowing in relationship to others and with others. [vi] This very Catholic understanding of conscience rescues us from moral relativism. At the same time it continues to uphold the importance of the dignity of the individual, a dignity that is submerged in any authoritarian or narrowly focussed rules based approach to decision making. It rests on the basic truth that no person is an island, that all decisions affect others in some way, and that good morality is up building of community. Above all we are rescued from the false immunity offered by sincerity. Sincerity offers no guarantees about how we arrive at a particular point of decision making. Neither does it offer us protection from our own biases and prejudices. Again, in the words of the Irish Bishops, sometimes the convictions we like to think are reasonable and balanced are nothing more than the product of our biases and prejudices.
From this it naturally follows that a Catholic-Christian understanding of conscience recognises that the formation of conscience is intimately related to the process of forming community. True Christian conscience will be fostered best in a community that shows and practices the unconditional love that we know characterises the God who has called us and revealed self to us. Conscience brings us face to face with the radical grace-filled invitation we receive to enter into a loving relationship with God through loving our neighbour. [vii] This in itself invites a richer and broader understanding towards the traditional Catholic practice of examining our conscience. It supposes that we must identify and 'examine' the communities of influence we move in and out of and critically examine the implicit and explicit values that sustain these communities.
In the words of John Glaser, the invitation to follow one's conscience involves the recognition of an absolute call to love and thereby to co-create a genuine future. The question of what our future might look like is thus an important question when we come to consider the ethics of particular practices in bioethics. This calls for the creative and sustained use of moral imagination along with the disciplined use of moral reason. Of all our faculties, it is the imagination which teaches us new possibilities of existence. [viii] Moral imagination is surely called for more than ever as we try to 'hold up to the light' issues and dilemmas in bioethics that we know have implications for future generations. The task of following one's conscience thus involves the fostering of moral imagination.
To conclude: That people use the same language - follow your conscience - may belie the fact that they understand conscience in quite different ways. A key question involves discovering what people mean by the phrase follow your conscience. I have suggested that it means different things to different people. To some it may mean doing the right thing whatever the cost. To others, it may mean: Don't listen to anyone: you're on your own. And to some others, it may simply mean: do as you please. I have argued that in a Catholic-Christian approach to conscience, autonomy, freedom, community and authority go hand in hand. In line with this I have offered the view that a responsible exercising of conscience goes beyond sincerity and asks questions about a person's communities of influence and also involves the practice of moral imagination.
[i] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1782.
[ii] DiGiacomo, James. (1993). Morality and Youth: Fostering Christian Identity. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward.
[iii] Westley, D. (1988). A Theology of Presence: The Search for Meaning in the American Catholic Experience. Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications.
[vi] Dunn, E. (1998). What is Theology: Foundational and Moral. Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications.
[viii] Davies, O. (2000, 4 Nov). Feeling Another's Pain. The Tablet.
John Kleinsman teaches Theology at the Catholic Education Centre in Wellington and is also a part time researcher for The Nathaniel Centre