This week our guest blogger, Fr Darren Brennan explores the Christian understanding of conscience and free will.
The Catholic understanding of conscience is based on its understanding of the human person as an incarnate spirit open to truth and goodness. Indeed, the human person aspires toward truth and goodness (or ‘true goodness’) as toward an infinite horizon and is fulfilled to the degree in which it does so successfully through the correct use of free will. Some would define free will as the capacity to choose between good and evil. This is false. As creatures essentially ‘wired’ to attain fulfilment through true goodness, free will is our ability to self-determine our course toward this fulfilment by means of the choices, big and small, that define us as moral beings in this world. In other words, the exercise of our free will is always geared toward the good or, at least, what we perceive to be good. This is an important distinction, because ‘what I perceive’ to be a good choice may not, in fact, be truly good; it may actually be objectively evil. Nevertheless, because I cannot choose to say, do or even think something unless I perceive some goodness in it, my mind will bring me to focus on the aspects of the choice which appeal to me, which I perceive as good. This, of course, is the essence of temptation. I’m lying in bed and the alarm goes off. I know I should get up, but I really don’t want to…. So Immediately I begin to think of all the reasons why it’s alright for me to sleep on for another ten minutes or so… There are countless examples of how our intellect and our will scheme together in this way in order to ‘justify’ a choice which is neither objectively good nor true.
This is where conscience comes in. Almost as a fail-safe to counteract this wayward tendency of our obscured intellects and weak wills,
…each one of us as a human person is endowed with a moral conscience, an inner sense of the objective goodness, or lack thereof, of our choices. In paragraph 1777 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church the moral conscience is described as: ‘A judgement of reason whereby the human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.’ Here the obligatory nature of the conscience’s demands is underlined. This absolute and almost intransigent command of the conscience was described by Immanuel Kant as a ‘categorical imperative’. In other words, as an absolute command. We do not experience the demands of conscience as mere suggestions i.e., ‘It might be good if you do this, you might want to avoid that’, but as commands i.e., ‘You must do good and avoid evil’. This is why the moral conscience has often been described as the voice of God within our hearts. Cfr Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1776: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…
…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (CCC 1777, 47)
Moral conscience “present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777, 48-49)
Forming our conscience
The catechism goes on to insist on the paramount importance of forming our consciences. This is because, through bad examples, negative childhood experiences and, above all, attachment to forms of behaviour that are objectively evil, our consciences can become deformed, lax, numbed, dormant… they no longer seem to put up a fight or resist the evil of our actions.
From a moral point of view this is an extremely dire state of affairs as the individual becomes like a rudderless ship, moved here and there by his or her passions of the moment, or by the whims of social conformity and political correctness.
On the contrary, the person who endeavours to form their conscience by adhering to the commandments and forming virtue i.e., habits of good, honest and upright behaviour that define a person as morally good, will be blessed with a healthy, delicate conscience which will offer continual guidance, clarity and correction when necessary. Lastly, it goes without saying that each individual member of the human race, just as he/she is compelled to form their conscience according to the objective standard of the natural law and the revealed law (the Ten Commandments), is equally compelled to obey the dictates of their conscience whenever it insists on a particular choice and course of action in such a way that non-compliance would be experienced as a serious moral evil.
Primacy of conscience
This is what is sometimes referred to as the ‘primacy of conscience’ and forms the philosophical base for the fundamental human right of conscientious objection. Certainly, this should not be understood as the subjectification of the moral law, as though each individual’s conscience were to be considered above and beyond the objective law, but rather that, once the conscience has been properly informed, the individual is morally compelled to obey its dictates, because we must do what is right and we must avoid what is evil. Any government, state or company etc. that denies the reasonable right to conscientious objection becomes, by definition, a draconian oppressor of humanity.
Fr Darren Brennan is a priest in the Diocese of Down and Connor.