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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Conscience and authority


Conscience and authority: some basic thoughts


SDG here with some thoughts on conscience and authority sparked by the combox from my last post.

Every man is bound absolutely to follow his own conscience. Hopefully, if and when a man finds that his judgments of conscience are contradicted by competent authority, he will take that fact into account in informing and revising his judgments of conscience.

But this doesn't mean blindly following competent authority. Sometimes, competent authority is wrong, and good men can honestly conclude that competent authority is wrong — sometimes when it is, sometimes when it isn't.

So there is still the possibility of contradiction. What happens then is … tricky.

If a man's conscience tells him that something is morally licit, and competent authority tells him otherwise, he will often be well advised to refrain from the activity in question in deference to competent authority.

If, on the other hand, a man's conscience tells him that something is morally obligatory — or morally illicit — and competent authority tells him the opposite, he must not act against his conscience in deference to authority.

If he is in sufficient doubt as to the rightness of his own judgment, and is swayed by the weight of authority, then he may arrive at a new judgment of conscience, putting his faith in authority to guide him. Assuming he is honest in this process, the responsibility for his actions now lies to a significant degree with that authority. If authority has led him astray, there are millstones for such things. If it has led him aright, there are rewards.

Conversely, if he remains confident enough of his own judgments as to reject the guidance of authority, then he himself incurs a new burden of responsibility for his actions. In that case, he had better hope and pray that he is right. Just as following authority can mitigate one's responsibility, flouting authority can aggravate it. That doesn't mean you can never, or should never, do it. It does mean you take your head in your hands.

If one is instructed by one's bishop not to present oneself for communion, there is an obligation to honor that instruction, even if one is privately convinced that the bishop's instruction is unjustified. If the bishop is right, he has saved a sheep from (hopefully unwitting) sacrilege. If he's wrong, a soul has suffered unecessarily, but with merit before God for sumbitting humbly to authority and meekly accepting unjust punishment.

However, even in such a case I don't think the obligation is necessarily absolute. Take the case of a couple — a pair of converts, let's say — whose marriage is not recognized by the Church because of a previous union for which the tribunal could not find evidence of nullity. And let's say the couple has appealed to Rome, attempted every recourse, all to no avail.

And now let's say that the couple knows, with great moral certitude, that even though they weren't able to prove it to the tribunal, the previous marriage was not valid, and so their current marriage is valid. In such a case, it seems to me, they are not morally obliged either to refrain from conjugal union or to refrain from receiving communion.

If they can do so without scandal — if, say, they attend a parish where the circumstances of their marriage are not known and no one has reason to suspect that their marriage isn't recognized by the Church — then I think it is possible for them to continue to live together as man and wife and to receive communion with a clear conscience.

Now, if the tribunal was right and the couple are wrong, their moral culpability is all the greater. When you rely on the internal forum, you accept a greater weight of judgment, just as you do when you presume to instruct or lead another.

Conversely, if a tribunal judges wrongly, and gives a couple a clean bill of marital health when in fact there is no marriage because of an existing impediment, if the couple acts in good faith in following the tribunal, the moral responsibility is the tribunal's, not the couple's. (It's also worth noting that there is an obligation to try to work things out through the external forum, not just settle for the internal forum from the get-go. One might possibly choose, with fear and trembling, to disregard the wrongful verdict of a marriage tribunal, but this doesn't mean that you don't have to bother petitioning for a decree of nullity in the first place.)

Conscience and authority, part 2


SDG here with some follow-up thoughts on conscience, sparked by comments in the last combox. A reader writes:

The proper formation of one's conscience is at the heart of all the hypotheticals. Personally, I don't know if I could count on my own conscience without lining it up with the Church's teachings.

Yes indeed, proper formation of conscience is crucially important. However, the authority of a poorly formed conscience is just as absolute as that of a well-formed conscience. However well or poorly one's conscience may be formed, one is always absolutely bound to follow one's conscience, that is, one's last best judgment of what one ought to do. If a man has a dreadfully formed conscience, he may be led to do dreadful things. But to go against one's one's last best judgment of what one ought to do, to do what one believes is wrong, is the essence, the very form, of sin.

Note what this doesn't mean: It doesn't mean privileging your own sense of a particular issue over the voice of authority, whether the word of God, the Magisterium, or lesser authorities like parents, government leaders or social consensus. It does mean that when you have listened to all relevant authorities and arguments, taking everything into account, whatever you believe in the end you ought to do is what you must do.

If a person holds a moral opinion contrary to Magisterial teaching, it would certainly be well for him if his conscience, however flawed, were at least well-formed enough for him to conclude, "Even though my own sense of the issue is very far from what the Church says, and I really can't see the reasoning behind it, at the same time I do believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and that tells me that I ought to listen to the Church even though I don't understand." In that case, his conscience — his last best judgment of what he ought to do — tells him to listen to the Church, and that is what he ought to do.

However, suppose his conscience is so poorly formed that he thinks, "I'd really like to be able to trust the Church here, but I just can't. I think the Church is wrong, and I can't do what the Church wants me to without violating my conscience." That is certainly a disastrous conclusion — but, having reached that conclusion, as long as he remains in that faulty opinion, for him to follow the Church anyway (say, out of timidity, social pressure or for some other reason) would be to go against his conscience, and thus to formal sin. Given his faulty reasoning, he must obey the voice of his conscience, even though this means disobeying the Church and committing material sin.

Of course it would be better for him to correct his faulty reasoning at least enough to conclude that it probably makes more sense to trust the Church than his own sense of the issue. Better still, he should correct his conscience enough to understand and assent to the Church's teaching on the basis of its own intelligibility. Obviously, a better informed conscience will lead you more reliably and safely than a poorly formed one. Doing what you believe is right is no shield against the bad consequences of sinful and destructive actions. But doing what you believe is wrong, pitting the will itself against the good, puts one as far from beatitude as it is possible to be.

Thus, when the reader writes, "I don't know if I could count on my own conscience without lining it up with the Church's teachings," it sounds as if the reader's conscience tells her that the Church's teachings must inform her last best judgment of what she ought to do — and if she were to find herself at odds with the Church, she would conclude that she hadn't yet reached a last best judgment. That's as it should be.

In other words, if one's thinking is, "My own sense of the issue is to do X, but the Church tells me to do Y, and in the end I trust the Church more than my own sense of the issue, so I think I should do Y," then one is not trusting the Church instead of one's conscience. Rather, one's conscience tells one to do Y, not X, in keeping with the Church's teaching.

Lots of people don't understand this point.

Conscience and authority, part 3


In the combox for part 2, a reader writes:

But where might the concept of natural law come in — that is, the idea that certain moral laws are written on all people's hearts, such that they cannot authentically claim that they didn't recognize the wrongness of a certain action?

It would seem to me that such persons would have to actively "bury" the natural law in order to not recognize the wrongness of such actions — and it is that choice to "bury" the law that is sinful and extends sin to the actions that follow.

Natural law is assumed throughout my comments on conscience and authority. If there were no natural law, we would have no basis for arriving at judgments of right and wrong — we could only have blind intuitions, authoritative declarations or some combination of the two. Morality would seem totally random to us; we could have no insight into why something was right or wrong.

The possibility of "burying" or suppressing innate knowledge of right and wrong is of course always an ever-present factor to be contended with. To the extent that one is culpable for the false conclusions one arrives at, one has deliberately avoided reaching, or has at least sabotaged, one's "last best" judgment about the right thing to do.

To that extent, one is culpable for misforming one's conscience and therefore to that extent for the false judgments one arrives at — what is called "vincible" ignorance — and the sinful acts one commits in that state.

However, the disfiguring effects of original sin upon the faculties — what Catholic theology calls concupiscence — are also an important factor impeding us from coming to a knowledge of the truth, even the truth written on our hearts. Because of this, it can be difficult or even impossible for us to ascertain the extent to which our own acts of suppression, as opposed to the innate brokenness of our fallen condition, are responsible for our flawed knowledge of moral truth.

So, while it's true that the moral law is written on our hearts so that we have knowledge of the truth, it's also true that our intellects have been darkened by original sin, and this darkened condition is part of the concupiscent weakness that, even after original sin is washed away by baptism and we are reborn in Christ, makes it hard for us to attain, understand and retain spiritual truth in the fulness of its beauty and integrity.

This is why we need proper formation, as well as the illumination of regeneration, to help compensate for, correct and transcend the limitations of our broken ability to interpret correctly the truths written on our hearts. Ignorance of this sort, for which one is not culpable, is called "invicible" ignorance.

Thus, for example, we can't necessarily say with confidence that a Protestant raised in a culture where acceptance of contraception is unanimous, or a Muslim raised with acceptance of polygamy, etc., is personally culpable for suppressing his conscience on these points — i.e., that his ignorance is vincible rather than invincible. Unanimous cultural consensus carries significant moral authority, and in the absence of adequate formation the truths written on our hearts may not come across with sufficient clarity to the darkened intellect to empower the individual to challenge his culture.

Or again they may, by God's grace, for a particular person. But it's for God alone to judge that in a particular case a person is necessarily culpable for burying the witness of his conscience. Even when it comes to more disturbing practices or institutions (female genital mutilation or male castration, for instance, or even human sacrifice), ascertaining the moral culpability of individuals is not for use to judge.

I'm not denying that individuals in such cultures, or some individuals, may know somewhere deep down that these things are wrong, and may be culpable for suppressing such knowledge of the truth as they may find written on their hearts. I'm saying that concupiscence complicates things, and only God can can ascertain the vincibility or invicibility of particular errors, the culpability or inculpability of a particular person's failure to discern truths written on our hearts.

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