What does ‘Freedom of Conscience’ really mean?

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.


Response to the Consultation of the Women and Equalities Committee on Northern Ireland and Abortion

An unjustified interference

Abortion is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly which  voted on the issue in February 2016, shortly before it last sat.[1] The NI Assembly rejected a liberalisation of our law on abortion. It is totally inappropriate for MPs from other jurisdictions, in a committee which does not include one NI MP, to instruct or dictate how Northern Ireland should conduct its own affairs. It is an internal matter for Northern Ireland, which requires the input of people from Northern Ireland.


The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland because the democratically elected Members of the Legislative Assembly have not voted in favour of its extension. Indeed the SDLP, which is a sister party of the Labour party still describes itself as a pro-life party and its members continue to state that it has no desire to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.[2] Other political parties including the two with the largest mandate in Northern Ireland  i.e. the DUP and Sinn Fein, have, to date, stood for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament on the basis of being against the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. However since the last Westminster elections, Sinn Fein has officially altered its view on abortion, to supporting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.[3] The pro-abortion policy has not been universally welcomed by many Sinn Fein members. Two Sinn Fein TDs in the Republic of Ireland’s Dail were recently disciplined by Sinn Fein because of their pro-life stance. Both have now resigned from Sinn Fein and one of them, Peadar Toibin TD and other dissenting pro-life Republicans throughout Ireland are in the process of setting up a new pro-life republican party which is already attracting significant interest both North and South of the border. The grass roots group Cherish all the Children Equally has been instrumental in highlighting the rights of the unborn child and its mother in the Republican community. It was set up by Anne Brolly, a former Sinn Fein mayor and her husband a former Sinn Fein MLA along with GP Dr Anne McCloskey who has more than thirty years of experience of delivering positive health care to her community in Derry.

It is disappointing for women in Northern Ireland who support life at every stage, to see the UK  Labour party which does not operate in Northern Ireland and the Conservative party which has an almost negligible level of support, attempting to change our protective laws which value the lives of women and babies and seek to do the best for both. It is arrogant in the extreme for either of these party groupings to presume or predetermine what is “best for Northern Ireland women” or citizens more generally.

Effect of the Abortion Act 1967

Since abortion was legalised in England and Wales, just over 50 years ago,  there have been over 8.8 million abortions – the equivalent of the entire population of  London. This translates to 1 in 5 pregnancies ending in abortion[4] and an abortion every three minutes.[5] Abortion is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, as is evidenced by the fact that 39%(**) of lawful abortions in England and Wales in 2017 were repeat abortions.[6] Surely there must be a better, kinder, way for women, babies and families in crisis than a default assumption that abortion solves the problem.

Repercussions from the Repeal of the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland

This year we in Northern Ireland have watched the repercussions from the repeal of the 8th amendment. Many in Northern Ireland were supportive of that amendment. We were aware that in a jurisdiction where both lives matter, there is a corresponding beneficial effect on the standard of care for both mother and baby. It should be noted that the Republic of Ireland has a much better maternal mortality rate than 86% of countries investigated by WHO.[7] Significantly it outperforms the US and the UK, which each have very permissive abortion regimes. In the UK 1 in 5 pregnancies result in abortion- almost 200 000 annually,[8] 98% of which are under Ground C[9] (specifically, the mental health ground) which permits abortion where the continuation of the pregnancy would pose greater risk to the woman’s mental health than abortion. These are not the exceptional or “difficult” cases which the public are constantly confronted with as grounds for change. Furthermore the exceptional or “difficult” cases all involve a human life which can be cherished by affording proper perinatal hospice care or additional medical and practical assistance to a distressed mother who has been the victim of sexual crime.

Frequently those supporting relaxation of the law on abortion and in particular the repeal of the 8th amendment suggested that only a small change is proposed. Even  Lord Steele who introduced the Abortion Bill in 1967 did not anticipate the level of abortion that would result in his change in the law.[10] During the campaign for the repeal of the 8th amendment in the Republic of Ireland emphasis was laid on allowing abortion in cases where the baby was diagnosed with a life limiting condition (cruelly described as “fatal foetal abnormality”) or had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. The bill which has just been debated and passed by the Dail is much more far-reaching than this. It allows abortion for any reason in the first trimester and up until birth for disability or emergency situations.[11] It is fair to claim that this was not what the general populace who voted Yes to repeal anticipated.[12]

Abortion and mental health

Women from organisations such as Women Hurt by Abortion speak eloquently of the devastating long-term effect of abortion on the mental health of women. What research has been done in this area to avoid a legacy of mental health problems among an ever-increasing number of women? Why do so many women in Great Britain in the age group 16-24 have significant mental health concerns?[13] If the Women and Equalities Commission were truly interested in finding out how to improve the lives of women they would seek to examine the effect of abortion on the lives of generations of UK women who now resort to abortion as  the first solution to an unwanted pregnancy as is evidenced by the 39%(**) repeat abortions last year.


Ideas have consequences, and liberalising our abortion law will inevitably result in unintended consequences with irreversible and damaging social repercussions. Why should very ill or disabled babies in utero, or those whose father is a rapist  have a lesser chance at life than any other unborn baby? Surely this is discrimination against the most vulnerable?

Many women and mothers in Northern Ireland have worked tirelessly to support the right to life of the most vulnerable from womb to tomb. These women believe that mothers’ lives matter too. We know that it is the natural instinct of mothers to want nothing but the best for their children, born and unborn. Mothers need support and assistance during pregnancy, not abortion as the first solution in a crisis. The consciences of many in Great Britain have been dulled and inured to abortion. Listen to those who still value life at every stage. Maybe you will come to realise that we are offering a more progressive solution than what is currently offered in Great Britain. Our voices deserve to be heard too and we are grateful to be able to contribute to this consultation.

(**) This figure was correct at the time of submission (10 December 2018). The following day 11th December 2018, the UK Government revised the figure downwards when it released Abortion Statistics for England and Wales 2017 (June 2018 (revised December 2018), page 4. See:





[4] 190406 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2016 as reported in  Of these , 185 596 were on residents of England and Wales. There were 696271 live births in England and Wales in 2016 see

[5] As reported by Lord David Alton in a speech given at St Bride’s Hall, Belfast on January 25th 2018

[6], p4



[9] paras  2.13-2.17

[10] “…he never anticipated “anything like” the current number of terminations when leading the campaign for reform.”





The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Monday 10th December this year marks the 70 anniversary of the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights by the UN general assembly. The declaration of human rights was heavily influenced by several intellectuals at the time who were followers of the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, notably Charles Malik and Jacques Maritain. This blog has previously looked at the intellectual backdrop to the UDHR, but what I would like to focus on here is the position of the UDHR in human society and its importance.

The date of the adoption of the UDHR, 1948, is significant. The second world war had just ended, the world was coming to terms with what had happened, and the horrors of the holocaust were becoming more and more apparent. Historically Germany was a nation with many great philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, artists etc. Many of its mighty dead helped to educate humanity and bring enlightenment to the world; yet as is clear from the history of the 20th Century, that was no guarantee against the rise of Nazism.

The myth of the enlightenment was that with greater intellectual development and knowledge, there would be greater progress. But no matter how intelligent and understanding we are, the responsibility for acting in a morally worthy manner does not necessarily go with it. Indeed, it is an ever greater tragedy when a great mind falls into moral turpitude since such a great mind should have known better. And the same can be said for any nation with an illustrious past. What the second world war and indeed the 20th Century in general taught us is that the myth of enlightenment is precisely that – a myth. No matter how intelligent and advanced humanity becomes, we still have the propensity for great evil; indeed more so, because the more advanced we become, the more efficient our means for perpetrating evil becomes.

This realisation was one of the driving factors behind the UDHR – enlightenment is not enough to curtail the possible descent into chaos for humanity. With that in mind, it is prudent to devise a set of human rights as a standard by which human dignity is recognised and states are regulated in their treatment of their members: ‘…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…’. Effectively, should a state sign up to the UDHR it would be making the statement to the international community that it sees its members as having dignity and will undertake to protect the dignity of its members, or else be held accountable to the international community and not be blight on the conscience of mankind.

It is easy to go through the UDHR and see how the rights it lists are derived (see Human Rights and Human Dignity) but there is one article of the UDHR that is often overlooked, and that is article 30, the final article. This article is not  a significantly meaty article which lays down a fundamental right such as the right to life, freedom, marriage etc, rather it is as follows:

‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’.

It is understandable that the casual reader would gloss over this article. Having just nailed down the fundamental rights that all humans possess in virtue of being human,  the casual reader may believe this article to be an afterthought suitable only to the legal mind. But if we consider this article, it is supremely important. This is because what it declares is that one cannot take some right in the UDHR and wield it to deny some other right to another person. If one is human, then one has these rights; to deny somebody some of these rights is to deny that they are fully human, and so hold that only some and not all of the rights apply. But this was not the vision of the UDHR: ‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Human beings are not a mixture of full and partial humans – they are either human or not. Hence one cannot say ‘because I have a right to X you do not have a right to Y’; this bears upon contemporary issues pertinent to the right to life.

It is undeniable that the unborn are just as human as the fully mature; the process of being born does not magically change one’s ontological status from non-human to human. Hence the unborn child has just as much a right to life as any other human being. Accordingly, the simple protection of the unborn in law does not conflict with the UDHR, in which case one who wants the law to provide for abortion cannot claim that one is entitled to it as a human right, or that one’s human rights are being undermined through lack of access to abortion. Consistent with article 30 then, one cannot deny the unborn its right to life by invoking some other right listed in the UDHR. And so it follows that all attempts to introduce abortion will be attempts that are inconsistent with the UDHR and inconsistent with human rights in general, the most fundamental of which is the right to life. Genuine human rights apply to all humans, and the moment one starts saying that such rights only apply to these humans and not to those ones one denies ‘the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’.

Dr Gaven Kerr


St Nicholas and the Divinity of Christ

Today marks the traditional date of the death of St Nicholas. We are all familiar with St Nicholas and how this kindly old bishop of the early Church brought gifts to the poor and needy. Indeed, part of the Santa Claus mystique is rooted in the generosity of St Nicholas. But perhaps not too many of us know that St Nicholas was a fierce defender of the divinity of Christ, an opponent of Arius, and a supporter of the creed of Nicaea.

Arius was a member of the early Church who held some weird theological views. He defended the view that whilst Christ is to be revered, he was not God. Hence, Christ came into existence at some point and is not eternal like God. One typical formula of the Arians, condemned at the Council of Nicaea, was that there was a time when he (Christ) was not, thereby indicating that he came into being.

Arius was opposed by a number of people on this issue, principally by Athanasius of Alexandria. There were several reasons why Arianism had to be rejected. Some of these reasons were because the statement that Christ was merely a creature and not God conflicts with many passages of scripture, chiefly the Prologue to John’s Gospel which not only affirms that the Word is God and with God in the beginning, but that all creatures were made through him, in which case Christ cannot be any of the things that were created.

Not only does Arianism conflict with scripture, it also conflicts with some important claims about Christ and his role in salvation history. This role is such that in becoming incarnate Christ saves human beings from the original sin that besets their nature. Now only God can save man from sin, in which case it was in becoming incarnate that God, i.e. the Word, the second person of the Trinity, saved man from sin. Hence, Christ must have been divine otherwise he could not have effected salvation.

The Arian controversy led to the Council of Nicaea at which it was affirmed that the Son is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. This formula safeguarded the divinity of Christ and in turn permitted the condemnation of the Arian outlook.

St Nicholas was known as a fierce defender of this orthodoxy. Along with the gift giving characteristic of St Nicholas it is right and just that at Christmas we also reflect on the reality that urged St Nicholas in his generosity, that is, the birth of him who is both human and divine.

Dr Gaven Kerr



Women only need apply

The announcement by the Republic’s higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create women only positions in universities has received responses varying from derision to praise. The idea is to create professorships only available to women so as to even out the imbalance against women in higher education. On a charitable reading we must assume that for O’Connor this scheme is genuinely aimed at evening out the gender balance in the higher levels of academia and not simply jobs for the girls.

Whilst one can praise O’Connor’s commitment to gender equality, one can certainly question her strategy for bringing that about. Such schemes which discriminate against one group so as to correct a historical imbalance against another group fall under the euphemistic title of positive discrimination. Whereas in the past women were negatively discriminated against when entering higher education, now we employ positive discrimination to get them in. The assumption here is that because the discrimination is positive (for women) it is good.

However, positive discrimination for one group is very easily seen as negative discrimination against another. This is because the other group that it impacts, in this case men, are being discriminated against on the basis of factors irrelevant to the post; it does not matter whether one is male or female in order to be awarded with a professorship, what matters, among other things, is one’s experience, publications, qualifications etc.

Now one may argue that historically men have benefited from discrimination against women in the past, and in order to right that we must employ positive discrimination on behalf of women. But this is quite flawed reasoning because it treats individual men and women as part and parcel of the amorphous groups: men and women, and it reasons that if an individual is a member of one group, then he or she deserves the appropriate discrimination. But it is not clear that the individual men applying for jobs in higher education have benefited from historical negative discrimination against women, nor that the individual women who will benefit from O’Connor’s proposals have been negatively impacted by historical negative discrimination against women.

Being a member of a group with an identity does not entail that one is subject to all the privileges and drawbacks of that group. Rather, human beings are individuals, and so if one wants to correct injustice, one must look to injustices upon the individual. This is why when it comes to employment, what is taken into consideration are only those criteria which directly affect the post in question, and the candidate is assessed on whether or not he or she meets that criteria. This is the fairest way of awarding a position to a candidate, since the only injustice that can occur will be one which overlooks the candidate’s fit for the post and judges the candidate on criteria not relevant to the post. In academia, gender is not a relevant criterion for the fulfilment of a post, and hence it would be unjust to wield it against a candidate who applies for a position (or to deny outright the opportunity to apply).

So in this case what we have is one injustice being used to correct another historical injustice; and it is not at all clear that in order to correct injustice we must make use of more injustice. Rather, resorting to injustice to correct injustice only perpetuates injustice, accustoms a society to the universality of injustice, and in this case does nothing to promote excellence in academia. This is why O’Connor’s plan is not only plain silly, it is downright unjust.

Dr Gaven Kerr