Thursday, February 9, 2012

Talking About Conscience I

[Today in many circles the primacy of] conscience is presented as the bulwark of freedom against those who seek to narrow our lives through the use of authority.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 75
Reflection – Well, conscience is certainly the word of the day, isn’t it! In case you’ve been incommunicado the last weeks and have missed the story of the day (in which case, why are you reading this blog??), President Obama has clarified that the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as ObamaCare) will indeed force all insurance-providing employers in the States to pay for contraceptive medications and devices, including those with known abortifacient effects, with a religious exemption so narrow that, as has often been said, Jesus Christ wouldn’t have qualified for it.
In other words, Catholic hospitals, schools, and other social agencies will be forced to do something we believe is gravely evil, or be forced to pay millions of dollars in fines, or be forced to shut our doors, thus removing one of the major agents of social care of the poor from the American scene. Those really are the only three possibilities: a radical reduction in care for the poor (courtesy of the party that trumpets its unceasing compassion for the poor), heavy and probably financially unsustainable penalties specifically targeted against Catholics, or state coercion to commit acts tantamount in the judgment of our consciences to murder.
Last time I blogged about this a few days ago, a commentor was deeply troubled that I used the word ‘war’ to describe the Obama administration’s actions. I don’t know what other word is appropriate, honestly, although ‘persecution’ leaps to mind. Also, ‘grave evil’. Or ‘atrocity.’ Or ‘radical dismantling of religious freedom which is the backbone of the American way of life.’ Fortunately, there are elections coming up, and there is a Supreme Court who have shown signs of having basic awareness of what seems to elude Obama, Sibelius, Pelosi, and Biden (hint, freedom of religion does not end with the final blessing and dismissal on Sunday morning)—hopefully Americans will figure out that this whole business simply cannot stand and take appropriate democratic and peaceful measures to put a stop to this nonsense.
But back to conscience, because this is the key word. You may disagree with the Church’s teaching about contraception and abortion; you may disagree with any and all other Church teachings. But do we have a right to freedom of conscience against coercive state authority? And what is our understanding of this word ‘conscience,’ anyhow? I am going to spend the next few days going through some of Pope Benedict’s writings to shed some light on this question. By the way, the book cited above is just about the best concise source for this: a short little book, quite affordable, and he lays out the Church’s mind on the subject with his characteristic lucidity.
Interestingly, the above passage actually sets up a discussion of how conscience (i.e. the individual’s faculty of judgment regarding moral questions) is not opposed to authority (i.e. the moral teaching office of the Church). So often people hear the word conscience as a fancy way of saying “You’re not the boss of me! Don’t tell me what to do!”
It is not that, not precisely. Human freedom is an irreducible reality, but our freedom exists in a universe we did not create and we do not determine. Morally good behavior is a question of discerning the truth of things and the purpose of life, especially human life. Conscience then kicks in to guide our choices, not to what we decide is good or evil, but to what we discern as good or evil—big difference. There is an authority, or rather, An Authority, who determines good and evil, and who communicates His determinations to us. Conscience, first, is receptive, contemplative, passive in the sense of being a student, of regarding, of being given the moral law, not writing it.
Anyhow, more to follow—but we need to get as clear as we can on this question, since, as I say, conscience is the word of the day, and what we don’t understand can easily be stripped from us if we are not careful.

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