The Limits of Conscience

“Conscience” is a difficult term; it has an absolutely essential place in our construal of morality, but its place frequently becomes obfuscated by descriptions that are too broad and too narrow, especially when those descriptions are placed in service of social and ecclesiastical power games. Creighton theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler have written an article in NCR on conscience and Amoris Laetitia which recognizes one side of this problem, but then perpetuates the other side. They contrast two ways of construing conscience. The first sees laws as “outside the subjective conscience. The role of the conscience is to know and apply these norms as a deductive syllogism.” This approach is assigned specifically to Archbishop Chaput. The second “sees conscience as having both the objective and subjective dimensions.” Its subjective dimension involves "having inner knowledge of the moral goodness of the Christian” as created in the image of God and living in a constant relationship with God, while its objective role “gathers as much evidence as possible, consciously weighs and understands the evidence and its implications, and finally makes as honest a judgment as possible that this action is to be done and that action is not.” This approach is assigned to Pope Francis, and is interlaced with (selective) quotations from the documents of Vatican II.

There is no doubt that the first way they name is problematic. As Michael Sean Winters aptly comments, this understanding could be carried out by a computer. It seems to suggest the only problem conscience faces is a lack of information. It is, as Winters also indicates, act-centered and legalistic. Salzmann and Lawler, who wrote a similar article a year ago in America, are following a certain trajectory in Catholic moral theology, developing extensive accounts of conscience that aim to make moral agents more thoughtful, mature, and responsible. They also aim to do justice to what is going on when Catholics engage in sincere personal struggles with living out Church teaching. The first way lacks a pastoral sense of these real struggles.

However, I think Salzmann and Lawler are asking far too much from the concept “conscience,” and so their account is misleading, especially insofar as its “either/or” quality suggests that disagreeing with them means endorsing the first view. That view is a bit of a straw man to begin with – the moral theology encyclical Veritatis Splendor has an extensive 10-paragraph treatment of conscience that is not reducible to the description they offer. But I don’t really want to get into an argument about recent texts on conscience. Rather, I want to suggest the Church is badly served by these arguments altogether. I do not think another round of Catholic battles between conscience and authority will do much to address the real substance of the particular issues of Amoris Laetitia or the larger challenges of Catholic morality.

Here are three reasons why:

First, the traditional language of conscience, as used by Aquinas, has a fairly narrow, precise role in a larger, richer account of the moral life. That role simply names “the application of knowledge to action.” Knowledge here is not simply a rule, but rather the whole work of reason that must be specified in various ways when faced with a concrete practical choice. But it would be mistaken to think conscience (as a concept) does such a herculean task “alone,” as it were. This, too, looks all too much like a computer model, in which a complex set of data points is fed into the central processing unit of conscience, and… out pops the answer. The unfortunate illustration chosen to accompany their America piece illustrates this – a chaos of images fly around inside a person’s head, and the outcome is to check a box either next to a dove or a church building. Really?

It is because the CPU in this image is something of a black box that many (including myself) worry that this is really a form of intuitionism. In Aquinas, the role of conscience has a specific place embedded in a much larger account of human action which centers on ultimate purposes and virtues. The moral life is not simply a matter of conscience discretely applying a big pile of knowledge to particular acts. Rather, it is about the development of virtues that lead to and partially constitute the purpose of human life, which conscience itself does not choose, but forms the basis of any sort of free choice in the first place.

In fact, Salzmann and Lawler’s view of the central role of conscience, far from Thomist, bears much more resemblance to the later post-Tridentine manuals of moral theology. These manuals sideline the important ordering role of ultimate happiness and the key task of ongoing virtue development in favor of an endless consideration of cases in relation to laws. Conscience then sometimes comes perilously close to a computer, although the traditional teaching on conscience’s primacy is kept alive by the fact that different manualists often resolved cases differently. Salzmann and Lawler retain the outsized role of conscience from the manuals, but simply flip the script. In fact, “the Catholic way to choose the good” according to Aquinas is mainly about getting clear on our ultimate end and developing the virtues necessary to and partly constitutive of that end. “Conscience” plays a relatively minor role; in Aquinas, it mainly handles cases where reason is in error (whether of authorities or of the agent). In such cases, conscience must bind (otherwise, we would “choose what appeared evil”), but does not necessarily excuse. The “primacy of conscience” occupies a crucial but minor place.

The second reason to be concerned about Salzmann and Lawler’s account is, in its indebtedness to the legalistic manuals, it turns substantive moral disagreements into matters of jurisdiction. This is an obvious result of the legalistic approach. In essence, the argument for the primacy of conscience is a jurisdictional claim about the limits of ecclesiastical authority (one selectively attractive to members of liberal political orders who want to resist government authority, too). This is just the flip side of those whose theory of “properly-formed” consciences gives de facto jurisdictional precedence to ecclesiastical authority. The debate is endless and divisive. The question we need to be asking is not “who has jurisdiction?” but rather “who is right?” And of course, formal appeals to conscience cannot resolve the latter question – they can only be resolved by attention to substantive ends and virtues.

Thirdly, Salzmann and Lawler insist that their approach is not merely “subjective.” But this argument ignores cultural context. In a context dominated by overly-emotional appeals and libertarian approaches to virtually everything, the proximate challenge is demonstrating how moral arguments are not merely subjective preferences. Again, this can involve heteronomous appeals to sheer authority (problematic!), but more obviously they will involve appeals to happiness and virtue, to “the truth about the good.” Claims about the primacy of conscience, by contrast, are apt to be as undisciplined as the notorious appeals to “prudential judgment” that threaten to subjectivize the content of Catholic social teaching. In short, by hiding the actual logic of moral arguments behind the cover-all term “conscience,” Salzmann and Lawler are in fact authorizing the kind of libertarianism that constitutes such a massive problem in our current society.

The alternative to these arguments over the term “conscience” is… facing the substance of the issues at hand. Here are the issues: simply descriptively, there are many Catholics across America who go on receiving communion whether they are remarried or living together or in a same-sex relationship or using contraception. (This is true about other ways people act contrary to other church teachings, too. For example, Laudato Si’ and Caritas in Veritate have a whole series of relatively clear directions that are almost entirely ignored by many Catholics and by many Catholic institutions.) Appeals to conscience are ways of avoiding arguments of substance. The above description suggests a conflict over the Church’s overall teaching about the meanings of marriage and human sexuality and a conflict over the Church’s discipline about the reception of the Eucharist. Let’s talk about those things directly.

I personally would like to read Pope Francis’s teaching in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia as about a Church that practices Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, even in very difficult and conflicted situations. Given the detailed conditions and extraordinary requirements of pastoral accompaniment described in the document for couples struggling with so-called “irregular” situations, the last thing we need is an appeal to private personal judgment. The pope rightly is pushing for a community that is serious and deep in its encounter with Christ and His call to the Kingdom, but does not confuse that “holiness” with a kind of individual athleticism and perfection. This universal call to holiness could be said to be Vatican II’s way of articulating the happiness and virtue so central in Aquinas’s moral theology. It is not about jurisdictional arguments. To the contrary, the universal call to holiness is supposed to liberate us from a legalistic account of the morality of the Catholic laity that hinged on applying and authorizing various rules and exceptions. It does so not by ignoring or pretending away difficulties under the guise of personal autonomy, but by pushing us more deeply into ecclesial community so that we can face them together, honestly. Appeals to discernment make this much clearer than the language of conscience, because the practice of discernment of spirits (right back to the New Testament) requires involvement of the community and (as importantly) charitable regard for the upbuilding of the whole community, not merely one's own prerogatives. That’s an attractive church, to my mind. But it’s one that should leave the language of “conscience” to the more modest place it had in moral thinking prior to moral theologies of legalism. 

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David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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