“Conscience” has a suggestive but also enigmatic etymology. It is “knowledge with”—but with whom? One answer is just: with ourselves. In conscience, we know inwardly, secretly, of wrongs we have done. But another answer is: with others. In conscience, knowledge that we share with others in our moral community, or perhaps with all moral agents, is brought to bear on our actions or prospective actions. A third answer is: with God. In conscience, we know God’s law, or God’s will for us in our circumstances, or, more ominously, God’s judgment of us as sinners. As that answer hints, just what we know in conscience is open to question—a second enigma suggested by its etymology. Maybe what we know in conscience is, more modestly, how an action or prospective action of ours squares with our values. In that case, a bad conscience is merely a personal sanction, rather than a signal of divine judgment.
Whatever our theory of conscience is, it ought to strike us as a peculiar phenomenon. My conscience “speaks” only to me, about what I have done or might do, and the same is true of yours. The relationship is intimate—private, or at least personal. And yet we are passive before conscience: we undergo its judgments; we suffer its rebukes. Though “internal” to us, conscience in some sense stands over us, making us feel guilty or ashamed, or demanding our obedience. It is an interesting fact in this regard that, while as children we learn from our elders just what circumstances ought to make us feel guilty or ashamed, the responses of guilt and shame are not themselves learned; they are innate to us as human beings. Conscience seems to have deep roots in our constitution.
Peter Cajka has written a fascinating book about conscience as it was invoked, interpreted, and contested by Catholics in the United States from the 1930s into the 1970s. Follow Your Conscience draws attention to two surprising findings: first, it was Catholic priests who “became the nation’s prime defenders” of the rights of conscience in the course of the twentieth century; second, “recurrent overlaps of sex and war” propelled conscience out of the manuals of moral theology and the confessional into public discourse. In Cajka’s telling, the prominent role of priests as defenders of conscience “flips on its head the pervasive story line about priest-ridden Catholics,” which endures in the aftermath of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and coverup. Catholic priests “preached the gospel of conscience-following” and thereby helped “change the terms of American freedom.” The convergence of sex and war in the rise of conscience language forms a striking pattern. Opposition to saturation bombing and condom distribution to soldiers in World War II was followed by resistance to conscription during the Vietnam War, opposition to the magisterium’s teaching on contraception in Humanae vitae, and resistance to cooperation in the provision of abortion after Roe v. Wade.
Consider only the opening years of the 1970s. In a coincidence of history, Roe v. Wade, the termination of the draft, and what Cajka calls “the birth of the all-volunteer army” all came in the same year, 1973. Catholic resistance to conscription in the Vietnam War had failed: the Supreme Court rejected selective conscientious objection—objecting to participation in a particular war on the grounds of its injustice—in its 1971 Gillette and Negre decisions, though these decisions effectively became moot with the termination of the draft. By contrast, Catholic resistance to abortion quickly led, in 1973, to the Church Amendment, named after Sen. Frank Church, which prohibited the government from requiring individuals and hospitals to assist in the performance of abortion if doing so would violate religious beliefs or moral convictions. Sen. Church, who was both a Democrat and a practicing Catholic, also was an active opponent of the Vietnam War. Likewise in 1973, the Case-Church Amendment cut off further funding for fighting in Indochina without specific authorization from Congress. The Vietnam War was coming to an end; the culture war over abortion was just beginning.