We often hear the word “conscience” bandied about in public discourse, but do we really know what the term means? The Church has consistently taught of the inviolability of the conscience. Most recently, echoing the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches with regards to the conscience that “in all that he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right” (CCC, 1778), and further on that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC, 1800). In this, the Catechism is following the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, teaches “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience,” and further that the human person “is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (DH, 3). Quite often, modern scholars trace the genealogy of this understanding of the conscience back to Thomas Aquinas, who in his Commentary on the Book of Sentences writes that someone ought rather to die excommunicated than violate his or her conscience (IV.38.2,4, exposition). It might simply be said that this is all true. However, the problem that one runs into here is that quite often in interpreting and using these statements a very modern/postmodern individualized understanding of the conscience that amounts to little more than one’s private feeling or opinion on any given issue and then hermeneutically employs it to read these texts. The result is the imposition of a foreign concept upon these texts.
Put simply the difference amounts to this: in contemporary culture the conscience is understood as the intellectual faculty of one’s personal judgment, whereas for the Tradition, the conscience, as St. John Henry Newman wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, “is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” In his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Newman writes that this shared space between God and the human person, if you will, is something all of us very naturally enter into during childhood:
[The child’s] mind reaches forward with a strong presentiment to the thought of a Moral Governor, sovereign over him, mindful, and just. It comes to him like an impulse of nature to entertain it…it involves the impression on his mind of an unseen Being with whom he is in immediate relation, and that relation is so familiar that he can address Him whenever he himself chooses; next, of One whose goodwill towards him he is assured of, and can take for granted—nay, who loves him better, and is nearer to him, than his parents… (St. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 5.1, 103).
In the conscience, Newman says, we encounter the One Who is never too busy for us, Who is constantly concerned with our well being, Who desires nothing less than our full flourishing, the One Who loves without limit. His letter to the Duke of Norfolk demonstrates that Newman was aware of the radical dissimilarity between modernity’s conception of the conscience and that of the Tradition. Thus, he writes to the Duke: “This view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man.” In this, Newman is following two thinkers.
The first is a thinker more contemporary to his own time and someone Newman looked up to as a Christian thinker and followed in many respects, Joseph Butler. In his sermons, Butler had preached a very similar view of the conscience to what has been noted above. In fact, one might go too far astray by saying that, for Butler, the conscience makes up the very core of our nature as human persons. Thus in his sermon on human nature he says: “It is by this faculty [the conscience], natural to man, that he is a moral agent, that he is a law to himself: by this faculty, I say, not to be considered merely as a principle in his heart, which is to have some influence as well as others; but considered as a faculty in kind and in nature supreme over all others, and which bears its own authority of being so” (Sermon II, Upon Human Nature, 3.8). Accordingly, when the conscience assumes its appropriate place within the rightly ordered human person, the entirety of one’s nature speaks within as the “voice of God” for Butler (Sermon VI, Upon Compassion, 7).
For the second thinker influencing Newman’s thought on the conscience we have to travel quite a distance both geographically and chronologically to 4th century North Africa to find the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine. In Sermon 12, Augustine says: “God also speaks in the conscience of good and bad people alike. For none can rightly approve their good actions or disapprove of their sins without that voice of truth either praising or condemning it to the same effect in the silence of the heart” (s. 12.4). This same understanding of the conscience is repeated in his Exposition on Psalm 54. Here we get closer to the more intimate, loving encounter that the human person experiences in the conscience, placed at the very core of their being. Commenting on verse 9 where it is written “Lo, I fled away, and stayed in the desert,” Augustine anticipates the modern notion of the conscience writing “Perhaps the speaker sought refuge in his own soul (in conscientia), as I have already suggested, and there found some measure of solitude where he could rest. Yet charity itself disturbs him there” (en. Ps. 54.10). The disturbance of charity in the solitude of one’s own conscience, for Augustine, is nothing less than the voice of God, Who is Charity Itself (1 Jn. 4:8). Thus, prior to this he rhetorically asks regarding this desert of solitude: “Do you mean, perhaps, the inner place of your own soul (in conscientia), where no other human being gains entry, where no one is with you, where there is only yourself and God?” (en. Ps. 54.9).
We see here a direct anticipation of the teaching on the conscience that will continue throughout the centuries. And it speaks both to the intimacy of God’s presence to the human person, who regardless of place or state in life, hears the voice of God calling to them in the depths of their soul, and it is precisely this relational understanding of the conscience that makes it inviolable, for nothing can separate us from the love that calls us into being and sustains us in existence. This situates for us Aquinas’s teaching on the conscience cited above. What often gets left out of the discussion is that the example Aquinas is using here is the hypothetical example of a man being demanded by the Church to live with a woman who is not his wife (Commentary on the Book of Sentences, IV.38.2,4). To this Aquinas simply responds that the man knows that to acquiesce to this request would be a direct contradiction of the Decalogue, a teaching which the conscience affirms in the core of the man’s being. However, a simple look at the Summa tells us that Aquinas, despite his own unique nuances, is working with much the same general understanding of the conscience as Augustine before him. There he writes that the conscience “is a kind of dictate of reason,” specifically as it relates to concrete action (ST I-II q. 19.5), and for him, human reason, even prior to the action of grace given to the individual in the life of the Church, is a participation in the knowledge of God if it is to be true. Thus, he writes “all things are said to be seen in God and all things are judged in Him, because by the participation of His light we know and judge all things; for the light of natural reason itself is a participation of the divine light; as likewise we are said to see and judge of sensible things in the sun, that is, by the sun’s light” (ST. I q. 12.11 ad. 3).
This shared, participatory understanding of knowledge as specifically worked out by the conscience so as to be applied to concrete action is, then, despite variations, echoed throughout the centuries. It is this relational understanding of conscience we find in Butler, Newman, and in the Second Vatican Council. In Dignitatis Humanae, it cites this as the reason for the inviolability of the conscience, writing that “in all his activity man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life” (DH, 3). That same Council, nearly echoing John Henry Newman verbatim, taught in Gaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, that “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (GS, 16).
Taking everything that has been said before, the conscience might simply be defined as the Voice of Love calling us to Love. Therefore, the dictates of the conscience, if they are to be true will never come from or be directed to self-interest, meaning it will never command set one person over and against another in hatred or violence of any kind against any manifestation of God’s gift of life. Rather the properly formed conscience will be a harmonious echo of the song of love our Creator softly sings in the depths of our souls, the hymn of life by which He called us into existence through the sweetness of His Word and the Weight of His Love. And it is for this reason that the great modern teacher of the conscience, St. John Henry Newman, wrote that our consciences, like every other faculty of the human person, has been gifted to us precisely so as to find the God in whom our ultimate happiness is found (Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 9.1). And therefore, the locus of the formation of the conscience is in the life of the Church, the very Body of Christ in which we experience here and now, His loving presence. Accordingly, to speak of the formation of conscience is to speak of a whole slew of helps God bestows upon His people, from Scripture to doctrine, and most especially in the liturgical celebration of her sacraments, the apex of which is the Eucharist (ibid., 5.1). We might consider these the various intonations of that same voice of love that called us into and sustains us in existence that is ultimately the call of the Creator’s pure love for the created (ibid.), a call meant to entice down the road to the perfection of our nature in the only way possible, by loving him and our neighbor in him in return with every single action we undertake, including those in the voting booth. Therefore, for a Christian the dictates of conscience exercised in the voting booth have little to do with personal opinion and everything to do with Eucharistic love, a love that is self-giving, self-sacrificing, and life-giving.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.