The primacy of conscience is central to all moral teaching. The development of a conscience is critical in the building of a just society and in societal discernment of right and wrong. From a religious perspective, a conscience is the glue that holds doctrine together. From a personal perspective a conscience is the very fiber of our moral being that determines who we are as individuals and develops our character; so much so that St. Thomas Aquinas noted that “it is a sin to not abide by one’s conscience”.
The primacy of conscience states that the individual’s informed and “well-developed conscience” should assist him in making moral decisions about controversial contemporary social justice issues like abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and stem cell research in addition to issues of poverty, war, racism and intolerance and environmental problems. Ideally, a well-informed conscience is cultivated by studying the issues, studying Scripture and reading Church teachings in order to arrive at ethical conclusions about these issues. Most importantly, this conscience takes precedence over everything else.
Unfortunately, the average person is distracted by daily life and this compromises an individual’s ability to make time to study scripture and Church teaching, thus some clerics have a tendency to underestimate the faithful’s ability to assess controversial moral issues and recognize that the faithful may fall prey to developing an erroneous conscience. An erroneous conscience is when one thinks he is right when he is actually wrong or acting in an immoral way. It is rationalizing an immoral act in the name of justifying what one thinks he needs.
Nonetheless, “Dr. Brian Lewis, Australia’s most eminent moral theologian”, notes that popes have made this conviction of the primacy of conscience known. From John Paul II to Pope Francis, each has asserted the convictions of its centrality in Church teaching. Writing about Cardinal John Henry Newman, Lewis stated, “Against the prevailing opinions of the time Newman wanted to make no bones about his avowal of the authority of the pope whilst at the same time making it clear that the papacy can only be rightly understood ‘not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience but based on it and guaranteeing it’”.
Lewis goes on to cite “Thomas More who asserted that ‘for whom conscience was not at all an expression of subjective stubbornness or obstinate heroism. He numbered himself, in fact, among those faint-hearted martyrs who only after faltering and much questioning succeed in mustering up obedience to the truth, which must stand higher than any human tribunal or any type of personal taste’”.
Looking back at history, there have been failures on the part of the Church to make this idea understood, but all recent popes recognize its importance in the building of the “Kingdom of God” on earth. It begs the question, how could this happen in the recent past that laity was confused?
Ultimately, we could look at the theology of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas for the answers, but for recent examples, we can look to incidents in WWII. Two treaties between the Holy See and Fascist regimes muddied the waters for followers:
The Lateran Treaty between the Church and the Italian government of Benito Mussolini asserted the Church’s neutrality and allowed the Vatican to define lines of demarcation in which it could function.
On July 20th, 1933, in Germany, the Reicheskonkordant treaty asserted neutrality as well and allowed the Church to function without hindrance from the Third Reich. In return, it vowed that it would be loyal to the Reich and bishops and clerics would not speak out against its leadership. This treaty was signed by then Cardinal Eugena Maria Giuseppi Giovanni Pacelli who would be elected to the papacy after Pope Pius XI’s death and become Pius XII.
Pope Pius XII was careful in his papacy to avoid conflicts that would anger the Nazis and compromise the Church’s position. As a body politic the Vatican had to tread lightly, but as a religious authority, it had an obligation to speak out against the evils of Fascism. Although it attempted to speak out against evil in political situations through a universal declaration that was read by clerics from the pulpit in Germany, this harsh condemnation of the evils of Fascism was met by stern rebuke and heavy-handed measures by the Nazis and would lead to the death of thousands of clerics in Nazi death camps.
Historians have noted that Pope Pius XII worked behind the scenes to address the desperate situations and many clerics and faithful religious saved the lives of countless Jews and prisoners of war. One of the great films that documented acts of bravery on the part of religious faithful was a film called “The Scarlet and the Black” and starred Gregory Peck as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.
To his credit, Pope John XXIII took note of the failures of the Church and attempted to rectify these problems through the initiation of Vatican II and establishing a moral framework from the Church’s perspective. The pope realized that only through an honest assessment of the Church’s failures could it rise to the contemporary challenges and meet the moral needs of the faithful and contemporary moral challenges.
“Gaudium et Spes”, or “The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World”,
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.(10) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.(11) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin”.
In the book “Faith and Politics: Selected writings of Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI”, the then cardinal documented the importance of discernment in addressing political situations. He writes that we cannot be “casual onlookers”, and must engage in the process of suffering and redemption. He notes, “We must engage in and attempt to resolve” these issues through the pursuit of “truth”. In other words, Ratzinger believed we must look to truth as the answer to injustice. We engage in life and look to truth as the answer to injustice.
Ratzinger documents through Scripture the failure of the disciples to support Jesus through informed consciences. He uses the scene where Pilate offers the crowd the choice between Jesus and Barabbas as an example.
The disciples’ failure to speak on Jesus’ behalf or even be there for him stems from their own individual fear expressing itself; furthermore, their inability to rise above this fear and conquer by reaching out to others and allow one another to empower the collective was a second failure. They were outnumbered by the Pharisees in the vote that could’ve won Jesus his freedom, so the individual fear that expressed itself ended up as collective fear that paralyzed the population. It made them utterly impotent against the state.
After Jesus’ death and their witness to the Resurrection, the Apostles take a very strong stand in asserting their consciences. In Luke’s accounts in Acts, we see a group that is more willing to expose themselves to the vulnerabilities that come with maintaining integrity in addressing life and death moral decisions. The apostles are empowered to act as a collective and are even willing to die and be martyred in the name of Jesus. Thus is the beginning of Christianity.
Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of a well-informed collective conscience writing, “An uneducated electorate is a threat to democracy”. Ben Franklin noted, “A good conscience is a continual Christmas”.
Today we are faced with the inevitability of addressing moral circumstances by developing character to root out injustice. We must do this at the cost of suffering and join in solidarity with others. Lincoln understood this in the Civil War. He saw the war as retribution for the sins of slavery and only through actively engaging in the act of suffering to redeem the act of justice would we fully enter into our redemption as a Nation.
Albert Einstein said, “Never do anything against your conscience, even if the state demands it”. The development of an individual’s conscience is critical to our present day world. Without a fully developed conscience of the individual our society faces the perils of uncertainty that come with leaders who place their own personal interests above the collective and leave future generations a world that is rife with problems that may lead to the demise of humanity. The stakes have never been higher.