Let’s talk about the conscience! Exciting, right?! Just hear me out. I’ve long been impressed by St John Henry Newman and his thoughts on conscience. And, I’ve recently read what the CCC has to say on the matter. Consider the following:
“His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” -GS 16; CCC 1776
It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn CCC 1777
“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.” -Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (italicized portion quoted in CCC 1778)
“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.” Newman, Letter
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. CCC 1790
So, how far are we to go with the conscience? Is there any sense in which we can go “beyond” the conscience? And is there anything more basic than it in assisting us, especially in determining truth in moral, spiritual or wisdom matters? The conscience seems to function as an internal BS-meter. That is, we can sniff out when certain types of propositions are suspect, if not false. But, this suspicion of falsehood doesn’t come from reasoning it out. It’s something more primal—like that feeling you have when you say, “yeah, I don’t know about that. Doesn’t seem right to me.”
Many non-Catholics have this reaction to various claims of the church, like sexual ethics. Not only is it not obvious to them that various positions of the church are morally right, but the very thing that is forming the barrier to assent (on some level) is their own consciences. Catholic sexual ethics can seem wrong, at the level of the conscience. And, of course, with Catholic participation in sex outside of marriage, contraception, etc, we can’t even say that this seeming wrong instinct of the conscience is confined to non-Catholics.
Many times, we Catholics take the approach of trying to “instruct” others, as if the only problem were a problem of lack of knowledge. But suppose you’ve explained everything you know to another about Catholic sexual ethics so that knowledge is no longer the barrier. You’ve informed her, and she freely explains it back to you at least as well as you could articulate it yourself. And yet, she cannot assent for reasons based, at the most primal level, in her conscience.
Even the preaching of the gospel itself relies on an appeal to the conscience of the hearer, right?
It seems to me that the more we think about conscience, the more primary and basic we must acknowledge it to be–to all humans.
What do you think?