Near the end of the summer in 2010 a young woman in Eastern Europe became one of the most vilified people on the internet. What could she have done to receive such widespread disapproval? A video was posted of this woman throwing live, month old puppies out of a bucket into a fast moving river in Eastern Europe. One could make up a parallel example to this true story to illustrate a point. No matter where we visited in the world, if someone was found driving down a freeway while throwing puppies out the window of their car we would universally consider this an evil and despicable act. There would be no healthy, sane people who would consider such an act was even partly good.
While many points of morality are debated in our modern world, there are a certain virtues and beliefs which are universal accepted as true. There are no celebrations for ‘happy cowards’ anywhere in the world, and we universally condemn wanton acts of senseless cruelty to the innocent. These universal norms are called ‘natural law’ and our interior compass regarding these laws is called the ‘conscience.’
In Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, there is an important note about conscience which is frequently misunderstood. The Council Fathers note,
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (GS 16).
In Catholic teaching, the law mentioned here is called “natural law”. This law is known by all people, even by those who do not have faith. It is a law “written on their hearts.” Conscience and law are co-witnesses to truth and together they accuse or defend, which implies that they must be in agreement.
This passage from the council quotes Romans 2:15-16;
They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.
The word St. Paul uses for conscience, means ‘the interior faculty for the personal discernment of good and evil’ (TLNT, 335). Peter Kreeft calls the conscience our ‘morality-detector.’ Just as a smoke detector goes off in the presence of smoke, this interior faculty helps us discern good from evil. The Catechism notes that the conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC 1796).
The Fathers of the council also note that our conscience can be misled,
[ . . .] Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. GS 16.
Our modern world is quite familiar with the term ‘conscience’ but often the term is used in a distorted sense. The traditional Catholic understanding of ‘conscience’ included a process which first involved the awareness of principles of morality, then included the process of reasoning from these principles to conclusions, and finally to the conclusions about the moral quality of a concrete act: do this, shun that. It is very common today to hear people exalting their ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ in a manner that has short circuited principles of morality and careful moral reasoning.
Someone might also confuse their feelings or emotions with their conscience. I might feel compassion for someone and confuse this feeling with the voice of my conscience. Someone might feel compassion for the physician who chooses to euthanize his or her patent to comply with the patient’s wishes, and based on this feeling conclude that we should condone this act as a ‘mercy killing.’
The Catechism reminds us,
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience . . . formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. The education of the conscience is a lifelong task (CCC 1783-1784).
Our modern culture often exalts freedom as an absolute value without limits. It is clear that this is not genuine freedom and that living without limits does not lead to happiness or integral human fulfillment. Blessed John Paul II notes, “human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law . . . God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom” (VS 35).
Imagine yourself driving on a high mountain road along the sea coast. Along the edge of the road are guide posts and rails which literally protect you from driving over the cliff. Are these rails and posts an infringement on your natural right to freedom? Should you be offended that someone has placed them along the edge of the road? Is this a negative limit, a border, an imposition to rebel against? Human freedom becomes genuine freedom when it receives a limit, when it is formed and grounded by God’s law. Conscience and law are co-witnesses to genuine human freedom.
Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, Pray for us!
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.