Authority and Conscience in Church and Society

Truth and goodness carry their own authority for men and women who have been gifted by God with insight into the intelligible order and beauty of His creation, and divine revelation extends this insight beyond what we could otherwise discover by ourselves. Our choice for what is good and true may then be itself an act of worship. To act in good conscience is to make well-informed choices for what we believe right. How, though, do we arrive at a good conscience? What is the role in this of the Church's Teaching? And how should a democratic society accommodate people with very different moral consciences?

Richard Finn OP is a Dominican friar based in Oxford, where he currently serves as Regent of Blackfriars Hall. A member of the Theology and Classics Faculties of Oxford University, he is the recent author of Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge University Press, July 2009).


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1. The Christian vocation

To be Christian is to be called to holiness, and to find in such holiness our eternal happiness. The drive for happiness which God has built into our make-up is to be fulfilled ultimately by sharing in the love which unites Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity. This is the life into which are baptised; this is the life which we anticipate in the Eucharist; it is this which strengthens and extends our love of neighbour, not least to forgive and seek forgiveness. So, the life of faith into which we are called is not merely a set of beliefs, but those beliefs inform a common project. For us to succeed in this project of mutual charity requires us to possess the necessary skills or virtues: faith, hope, and charity; but also justice, bravery, self-restraint, and, crucially for our purposes, the wisdom or the skill of reasoning well about what love asks of us in the changing circumstances of our lives. For what love asks of us is what God asks of us.

2. Goodness and truth

How, though, do we discover, what love asks of us? We must be clear about what love is. To love is to enjoy the good in another, and to seek that being's good. I cannot love those whose harm I knowingly and deliberately seek, or those to whose fate I am indifferent, or those of whose good I am wholly ignorant. Putting budgie seed into Polly's bowl cannot be a loving act towards her if you know that she's a cat; that's not what makes Polly flourish; putting the budgie in the bowl is more like it, but that's hardly the act of a bird-lover. The Christian life, like the moral life generally, requires us to grasp what is good and true, what makes for the flourishing of those we love, ourselves included.  

This grasp of what makes for our flourishing informs our sense of what it is right and wrong to do. We see what it is right or wrong to do, when in a given situation we see how the choices that open up before us advance or harm our well-being, and the well-being of others. Gaining this grasp of the good, and discovering the right thing to do in a given set of circumstances, are aspects of wisdom which develop together over time. To a large extent we grow into this wisdom 'from the inside' by being raised within loving families and communities. In these overlapping contexts we are initiated by our elders and betters into forms of friendship and activity that are constitutive of successful and enjoyable living. Thus initiated, we are schooled in the various virtues that facilitate such activities or relationships and make them more enjoyable. This is far more than just learning rules. We imitate others; we are praised or rebuked; we are taught to imagine how others think and feel, to reflect on what our acts mean for them, how our words are heard. We are taught the upshot of our actions: what becomes of us and others as a result of how we behave. It is often only at an advanced stage in this training that we grasp certain moral principles which are implied by the life of virtue. If all goes well, we come to enjoy behaving in ways that are fair, respectful, generous, honest, and co-operative. Of course, we make mistakes; we may be headstrong, wayward, or negligent. But, generally speaking, most of us eventually learn from experience, even if that experience is sometimes bitter and hard-won. We learn the truth that these ways of living, and the virtues attendant on them, are fundamental to our good.

Soon we must look at some of the difficulties that arise in grasping what is good and true, but first I wish to bring out several points about this initial schooling in goodness and right action, our acquisition of prudence or reasoning well about how to act. First, our enjoyment of what is good and right is itself a fundamental element of how we worship God. Recall what the Bible has to say about the praise of God given by the natural world:

"Praise the Lord from the earth, you water-spouts and ocean depths;

  fire and hail, snow and ice,

  gales of wind obeying his voice;" Ps. 148: 7-8.

In what sense can we say that water-spouts give praise to God? In being what they are made to be, they speak of God as their creator. They give praise because their limited perfections derive from and reflect the infinite perfection of God. Now, what's true of fire and hail, gusts of wind, is true of us too. Our flourishing, living out our God-given humanity, is a sacrifice of praise. Of course, for us, being what we were created to be is a more complex, unfinished, and creative business than being a water-spout. But from this perspective, ethics, reasoning well about how to live, is both a gift from God, and something the use of which gives glory to God. 'Doing God' doesn't start at the church door or when I kneel to say my prayers. I worship God by taking seriously the choices open to me, and by relishing the good I choose.  Changing the baby's nappy will still prove a smelly, unpleasant business, but we shall relish the parenting that begins with looking after a young baby.

The second point is that in being drawn to what is good and true we are already being drawn towards God who is the fullness of Truth and Goodness. Our delight in the good and the true disposes us to act in ways which conform our will to that of God, and in this way unite us more nearly with God.  Furthermore, once we see the truth about what is good and right for us to do, that truth commands our assent. I don't mean that we are unable to dissent; I mean that seeing the truth about what is genuinely the good thing for me to do, the right thing, bears within itself the imperative that I should act accordingly. Our in-built drive towards happiness means that once we see something as integral to arriving at that goal, that course of action is incumbent on us; once we see that something is destructive of our goal, it is incumbent on us to reject it. When I recognize the harm my words would inflict, I may be sorely tempted to lash out, but I know that I must not. The famous gap between 'is' and 'ought' discussed by the philosophers does not exist within the fundamental structure of human desire, understanding, and action.

In this context we can reflect on God's authority over us. When we say as Catholics that God is the ultimate authority, we do not mean that an arbitrary set of rules has descended from heaven. Nor do we mean that God as Commander-in-Chief has appointed subalterns in their various ranks - kings, popes, and the various ministers of the cloth or crown - who must be obeyed regardless of what they in turn command. We mean first that God as author or creator of our specific nature gifts us with a common life that will only flourish in certain intelligible ways. The goodness we then enjoy and the truth we recognize about our flourishing bear their own godly imperative. They do so, as they vitally engage us as moral agents to choose intelligently, and so to enter freely with God into the business of fashioning our own lives. This is also the context in which we can begin to reflect on conscience. When we understand what love asks of us and recognize its godly imperative, we cannot 'in good conscience' do other than act upon our understanding. God's authority and human conscience are not here rival sources of moral knowledge. Prudence is the virtue which discloses God's will for us. If we then fail to follow our conscience, act against what we know to be right, we sin, and we experience the consequent guilt and 'bad conscience' which should prompt repentance.

Now, however, we must consider the difficulties that arise. The best of us often find it hard to decide the right thing to do upon a given occasion. Just how much should I give to the Jesuits? I should be generous, obviously, because they do valuable work, but how am I to settle on a sum that does justice to the other demands on my resources, like the even greater needs of the English Dominicans, who have all those hungry young friars to feed and train for the Gospel? Or, is this the person whom I should marry, and, if so, is now the time to propose? Much more rarely, we are unsure or disagree about whether something is ever right. We might think of the commission called by Pope Paul VI to advise him on the morality of artificial means of birth control. Individuals chosen for their probity and their grasp of moral principles, could not reach a unanimous verdict. So, even for those who excel in moral reasoning, some decisions about how to act, whether on occasion or in general, can prove very difficult.

Sometimes, in such difficult cases, we wisely postpone a decision. But that option isn't always open to us. We must form a conviction, despite the difficulties, about the right course of action to adopt now. The ship has struck the rocks in a storm; water has entered the hold, causing the ship to list; as captain, with responsibility for the safety of ship, cargo, and crew, do I give the call to abandon ship? When we arrive at a judgement in such difficult cases, we experience within ourselves the same obligation to act that I already have described in unproblematic cases. To the extent that we understand something to be good, true, and right, we cannot 'in good conscience' act otherwise than as our understanding directs us. Yet our judgement may well happen to be wrong. We may have mis-understood. In such a case we do the wrong thing. The conscience is not an infallible inner guide to right action. But where a person skilled in moral reasoning acts on their mistaken understanding in this way, their wrong-doing is not culpable; they have not sinned.

How many of us, though, could claim to be wholly virtuous?  Most of us lack something of the excellence required to think well about various moral questions. The problem is usually one of over-attachment. I like something so much that it not only threatens my ability to resist temptation and so follow my conscience; it also skews my judgement. We become partial, and so imprudent. Let's take an example. Texting is a good: I let you know my train is running late. But compulsive texting can be bad for you. The student who texts during a lecture may miss information crucial for their course. Their behaviour is negligent, and they have only themselves to blame if they fail the exam. What about the idiot who texts while driving?  The person may simply have fallen prey to temptation: Charles does wrong knowingly, and will have a 'bad conscience' about this; he knows that he has not done what love of neighbour demands of him. If he repents swiftly, the act will probably be an aberration, a one-off. Anne, however, loves texting so much that she may have failed to think properly about what she was doing. She did not consider adequately the risk she was running to herself and others. She thinks she is doing the right thing, though in fact she is not. Her conduct may well become a habitual vice, because she is blithely untroubled by her conscience. She hasn't taken the trouble to inform her conscience in this matter. Andrew texts obsessively, to the extent that he has stopped thinking at all about the consequences of his behaviour. He is in the grip of a vicious addiction. In all three cases, the person not only acts wrongly, they have also sinned, although they do not commit the same sins, nor sin at the same time. Charles sinned when he texted by acting against his conscience. Anne sinned both at the time in failing to use her God-given reason when she could have done so, but also earlier by not informing her conscience in this matter.  Andrew sinned much earlier by surrendering over time his capacity for moral reasoning and the freedom to choose the good which such reasoning identifies.  

It's easy to spot some forms of over-attachment: the compulsive gambler, the alcoholic, the glutton, and the serial womaniser are socially recognized types. We know what to think about their patterns of behaviour. They stand out as deviant, and blameworthy, because their harm is plain to see. People should know better than to fall into these destructive habits. But other forms of over-attachment may be much harder to identify and evaluate. They may be widely shared within communities or societies, so that arriving at a right judgement on some matter involving them becomes correspondingly harder. I would argue that within our own society, we are overly attached to the value of personal autonomy, to individual freedom. Such over-attachment to a limited good makes it more difficult for people to reason well, for example, about the morality of abortion and euthanasia: the mantra of 'a right to choose' or the 'right to die' obscures fundamental duties not to harm others or oneself.

Over-attachment isn't the only thing that can impair moral reasoning. We may fail to derive adequate moral principles from uncontested aspects of our common life which would assist in the evaluation of difficult cases. We often fail to give due weight to suffering which is hidden from our senses. Our evolutionary history means that we usually respond with some alacrity and sensitivity to pain behaviour. We experience revulsion, repugnance, when we witness violence, blood, and gore. These physical responses are normally helpful aids to moral reasoning; but they are usually absent when people consider the killing of an unborn child. The language in which abortion is described can further hide the reality involved, as when it is euphemistically described as the termination of pregnancy. What is done has been hidden behind a more abstract description of what results from that action. Abortion is a stark measure of how easily and how gravely moral reasoning can go wrong. Something the immorality of which was once widely recognized has become something that a great many people in the world now consider morally right. In other cases, the moral blindness lies behind us: who now would argue for slavery? Who would think it right to deny votes in a democracy to citizens on grounds of gender or skin colour? As a result of the Fall, moral reasoning is prone to fail in significant ways.   

Spirited and spiritual

God in His mercy does not, however, abandon us in this plight. I have already said that God does not issue arbitrary rules. However, in the Ten Commandments, God gives principles for right action which make sense given our nature and where our flourishing is to be found. The commandments assist our moral education, remind us of fundamental goods. Far more significantly, the Holy Spirit has been sent to inspire us, to strengthen our appetite for the good and the true, to uphold God's justice, and fit us for God's own life of holiness. The Spirit is already active in the Old Testament prophets. Where the commandments assert fundamental principles, the prophets condemn specific failures to live by those laws, and point towards the Messiah as the one to whom we should look for salvation. For, Christ, the greatest of the prophets, is the Divine wisdom made flesh. As such he offers us a model of virtue by his life and death, and teachings. To contemplate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is to be struck with awe, moved to compunction, drawn into virtuous discipleship. His Spirit is at work in the Church whose members share in the prophetic ministry of Jesus.  The Spirit imparts diverse gifts to diverse people who together are inspired to form a distinctive Christian community, the virtuous practices of which enhance rather than degrade our moral reasoning. Invited to join the Legion of Mary, a CAFOD group, or to serve the sick on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, we find ourselves changed, growing more attached to values and beliefs that enhance our clarity of moral thought and freedom of action. In periodic fasting, in abstinence, in the discipline of weekly assembly for Mass, in going to confession, or perhaps by sharing in the 'live simply' projects, we are schooled by the Church in detachment from the goods which may skew our judgement. But among these various spirited activities, we receive from the Holy Spirit the particular gift of 'counsel', a quickening of thought, a direction of our thoughts, enabling us to make right judgements. Christians don't claim to argue about right and wrong along different lines to other people, with special criteria. We lay to claim a Church within which we hope to reason and discern well by grace along the same lines as anyone else. My fellow Dominican, Richard Conrad, writes in his CTS pamphlet on the 'Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit' that we are tuned to God's 'wavelength', given a certain know how.

It is in this context of a spirited virtuous community enabling successful moral reasoning that we should place the Church's moral teaching. Critics often claim that Catholics are somehow benighted by the existence of Church teaching, robbed of our ability to think for ourselves. This is a travesty of Catholicism. Church teaching is first of all an activity by which pastors and others contribute to the education of Christians, assisting them in the acquisition of prudence, the formation of a lively and sensitive conscience. Our pastors help us to hear the voice of Christ speaking to His Church and are themselves means by which that voice is conveyed to us. This is done through preaching, catechesis and the catechism, through pastoral letters by bishops, papal encyclicals, and conciliar documents. Like any form of teaching, it depends on the active co-operation between those who seek to teach and those whom they wish to teach. The would-be teacher must find the right words that will convey the truth; those who would be taught must attend to what is said; they must think it through, seek to make sense of it. Teaching, strictly speaking, takes place only when those who would be taught accept by grace the truth of what has thus been put forward.

From this perspective we may observe, for example, the success of an early Church text from the 2nd century, the Shepherd of Hermas, in teaching the importance of Christian aid to the destitute. Likewise, the works of a 16th century Dominican, Bartolomé de Las Casas, convinced kings and theologians that the indigenous peoples of the New World had civic and religious rights which could not be abrogated on the pretext of missionary endeavour. The papal encyclical, Rerum novarum succeeded in shaping the attitude of Catholics in the 20th century to social justice in the long aftermath of the industrial revolution. From this perspective we can also witness failed attempts at teaching. In the fifteenth century we may observe the collapse within the Church of a once common belief that it was always wrong to lend money at interest.

From this perspective Catholic moral education turns out to be an extremely broad-ranging activity, undertaken by a great many different people in different ways. But the Church requires that special attention be given some of these people and some of the means they employ to teach. This is because Christ as head of the Church sent apostles to continue his teaching ministry, appointed Peter as first among the apostles, and in the evolution of the Church the authority exercised by the apostles has passed to the bishops, while that of Peter in particular has passed to the Popes. Catholics thus have a serious duty to attend to the different means that bishops and popes use in seeking to teach them, to assist them in the formation of a lively conscience. Though not everything in such documents may be infallibly pronounced, and the truths which they contain are not necessarily perspicuous, Catholics should approach encyclicals and pastoral letters predisposed to find within them precious help in moral reasoning. Those whose role within the Church is to assist these pastors must not teach in the Church's name, or claim the Church's authority, for ideas and beliefs contrary to what is said in those documents. Furthermore, acceptance of what the Church has infallibly taught, the Church's dogma, is an essential element of being Catholic.

The Church's teaching thus does not supplant conscience, but is designed to strengthen and inform it. Of course, if, on sustained reflection, a person cannot find true the arguments presented to her, cannot think it right to act in the way set out, that person is bound by conscience to do what they themselves think right. But a Catholic in this situation has grounds for concern lest their conscience has failed them, a fear that they may lack the full virtue of prudence. That concern will prompt them to prayer and future reflection. They will also wish to engage further with their pastors, discuss what it is they cannot make sense of.   

To conclude, my conscience is not an infallible inner voice. I cannot simply justify my actions by appeal to conscience. For, I may have been negligent in educating my conscience. The Church offers us a graced community, the practices of which are generally conducive to such education, and one such set of practices constitute what may be termed the moral teaching of the Church. These practices make use of different instruments, mainly letters or documents, to which Catholics owe attention and a thoughtful hearing in the expectation of finding within them moral truth. Catholics owe specific and sustained attention to the episcopal and papal  magisterium, even though not every expression of that magisterium is infallible. Catholics, like anybody else, they are bound in the last resort to act as their conscience directs them. But, whether they do well when they so act depends on how just good their conscience is, the prudence or imprudence they possess. May the grace of God, through the Church and its teaching, strengthen all us to perceive and delight in doing His will.

Faith Matters Series