Conscience, MSNBC & Commonweal

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

18 November, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

Polling data notwithstanding, and whatever Catholics in the pews think of contraception, enacting a broad religious exemption to mandated coverage of contraception does not coerce anyone to do or not do anything. But, as I have noted before, some “liberals” gave up on liberalism, if liberalism has anything to do with protecting the rights of conscience, and stopped reading their Locke, some time ago.

If anyone has doubts that the Church has enemies, last night’s appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), chair of the pro-choice caucus on Capitol Hill, should have dispelled them. Congresswoman DeGette thinks it is outrageous that Catholic institutions should seek an exemption from an interim rule requiring all health insurance plans to cover contraception, sterilization and some drugs that are abortifacients. To make her case, she cited polling data that indicates many, if not most, Catholics do not agree with the hierarchy about such matters. Needless to say, Maddow piled on as well: She called such an exemption for Catholic organizations a “scaling back” of the mandated care, failing to recognize that it is the pro-choicers who are trying to change the rules of the game and coerce Catholics hospitals and universities to provide coverage for procedures those institutions find morally objectionable.

You would think such committed “liberals” would be a least a little bit more shy about rushing over the “wall of separation” to tell the Catholic Church what it should do (adopt the ambient culture’s sexual mores) and how (hey, check the polling data), but DeGette is not shy and, as for Maddow, of course it is hard to be shy and also a cable news show host. You would think, too, that “liberals” would be more attuned to the danger of coercing the consciences of others. Polling data notwithstanding, and whatever Catholics in the pews think of contraception, enacting a broad religious exemption to mandated coverage of contraception does not coerce anyone to do or not do anything. But, as I have noted before, some “liberals” gave up on liberalism, if liberalism has anything to do with protecting the rights of conscience, and stopped reading their Locke, some time ago.

These pro-choice fundamentalists have also, apparently, abandoned another one of liberalism’s virtues, a high regard for diversity. Must all colleges and universities be like all other colleges and universities? Yes, we want all of them to provide a good education and to meet certain minimum standards towards that end, but must they all abide by the same mores and methods as the rest? Is it really an assault on others’ rights to permit Catholic colleges, or hospitals, or social service agencies, to be distinctly Catholic? It is almost comic to see liberals championing the Dalai Lama, whose cause is a theocratic one, however humane it may be, while demeaning the Catholic hierarchy as a threat to liberalism. Is it the saffron robes?

Sadly, similar confusion has seeped into Catholic circles too. I warned about this last week, predicting that certain liberal Catholics would chide the bishops for raising the cause of conscience rights while, it is charged, failing to extend the rights of conscience within the Church. And, here comes Paul Moses, whose essays I usually enjoy, at Commonweal, writing, “In the public arena, certain bishops would cease trying to limit the freedom of individual Catholics to make decisions in conscience when it comes to voting. A comment newly added to the Faithful Citizenship guidelines for voting reflects the influence of this rather large number of bishops. It says the document ‘applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to “conscience” to ignore fundamental moral claims.’”

I will grant that some bishops have over-stated the case, but can Moses really doubt that there have been misguided appeals to a false sense of conscience to justify political stances at odds with Catholic teaching? Can he not see that such misguided appeals are found on both left and right? I can find Mr. Moses plenty of Catholics who would not have found DeGette and Maddow’s exchange shallow and wrong-headed as well as many Catholics who blithely ignore the whole tenor and tone and content of Catholic social teaching in their rush to embrace the anti-Christian doctrines of Hayek and von Mises.

Conscience may mean many different things to many different people, but there is really no excuse for an American Catholic to be loose in speaking of conscience when the greatest Christian mind in the English-speaking world has written so clearly and precisely on the subject. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, John Henry Newman recalls the teaching of Augustine and Aquinas and the magnificent dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council (“Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.”), before stating his high view of conscience:

The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

I can scarcely think of a more exalted view of conscience than this – “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” But, Newman understood, too, that the Catholic notion of conscience as the voice of God within the human soul, was not the notion of conscience gaining ground in elite intellectual or popular circles. He continues:

Words such as these are idle empty verbiage to the great world of philosophy now. All through my day there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. Literature and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science and too profound for literature. Chairs in Universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition. Public writers, day after day, have indoctrinated the minds of innumerable readers with theories subversive of its claims. As in Roman times, and in the middle age, its supremacy was assailed by the arm of physical force, so now the intellect is put in operation to sap the foundations of a power which the sword could not destroy. We are told that conscience is but a twist in primitive and untutored man; that its dictate is an imagination; that the very notion of guiltiness, which that dictate enforces, is simply irrational, for how can there possibly be freedom of will, how can there be consequent responsibility, in that infinite eternal network of cause and effect, in which we helplessly lie? and what retribution have we to fear, when we have had no real choice to do good or evil?

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

Too many Catholic intellectuals breezily quote the celebrated words with which Newman concludes his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, “I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” But, they seem not to bother with all that preceded this admittedly delicious closing line. As I said last week, in the spiritual life, at least in this sinner’s spiritual life, the voice of conscience is most often encountered as a call to conversion of heart, a call to turn away from sin and cling to the truth, not an open invitation to exercise our private judgment whenever and however we might wish.

Private judgment, or self-will, instead of conscience, may suit the tastes of the gentlelady from Colorado, and the host and producers at MSNBC. Private judgment may be the first, and last, ecclesiological principle of Protestantism. It may even find itself confused with conscience in the pages of Commonweal. But, for a Catholic, conscience means something different from private judgment and it is intellectual laziness not to note the difference.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.