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Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Conscience, Freedom, and Law

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Perhaps you have noticed—it has been hard not to, with many articles and op-ed pieces in the news lately—the latest controversy between the U.S. Catholic bishops and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The debate is centered around the HHS mandate that employers provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage for employees—a requirement which, at least in the initial form of the mandate, even Catholic hospitals and universities would need to comply with by 2013.1 The responses from the U.S. Bishops have been remarkably unanimous, and firm; in fact, no controversy in recent memory has drawn such a swift and universal response. Their opposition, while softening only slightly with an apparent modification to the ruling, remains. And it has not been only Catholic leaders who are upset; nor only Catholics. Some who have no particular objection to the use of contraception in general are also upset: the rule has clearly struck a nerve, and raised alarm; and rightly so, in my opinion. But what is this all about really?

Religion, Freedom, and Conscience

It may seem at first that this is simply a religious matter: Catholicism, somewhat uniquely in our culture, officially opposes artificial contraception, and to force Catholic institutions and employers to provide contraceptive or sterilization services is akin to forcing others to abdicate their religious beliefs; it would be like forcing Jewish restaurant owners to sell pork, because of some supposed universal right-to-eat-pork. And in a very real way, this would be, and is, a violation of religious freedom. But several have pointed out, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, that this is more than simply an issue of religious freedom; it is also that of a more general freedom of conscience. But what is "conscience" anyway, and what does it mean to say that it is free?

Synderesis and Conscience

St. Thomas AquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas, from whom I draw insights as a Dominican, identifies several aspects of the moral activity of a human being, including conscience. Moral reasoning begins with the recognition of fundamental moral principles, by a natural habit that Thomas and the medieval scholastics called "synderesis", and which Josef Pieper, a 20th-century Thomistic philosopher, calls "natural conscience."2  Synderesis (or synteresis) is implanted in every human being, and this natural habit first discovers the most basic principle of all: "do good and avoid evil." Practical reason—our capacity for thinking through issues of morality—can analyze such first principles of our "natural conscience", along with other knowledge that we acquire, and then draw out further moral principles. Lastly comes "conscience" proper: this is the act of applying knowledge of universal moral principles to particular actions and circumstances. Applying to past actions, the act of conscience evaluates what we have already done: "screaming at the grocer yesterday was wrong", or "it was good when I helped that homeless man with food." In the present or impending future it results in commands or prohibitions: "don't do this," and "do that". The experience of this, indeed, is quite familiar to us all. Thomas was just placing a particular vocabulary and conceptual framework around it.

In any case, conscience comes in at this last phase of moral reasoning, in which principles are applied to a situation, and leads to a command or prohibition; and notice that this is a command or prohibition which our own intellect arrives at. It is not simply imposed from without; it flows immediately from within. In this regard, Bl. Pope John Paul II called conscience a "dialog of man with himself", which is also a dialog with God, a "sanctuary" within which a man or woman discerns the good action to take "here and now," or the evil to be avoided. Conscience, he wrote, is the "proximate norm of personal morality," the inner "witness" of the divine law, a witness whose voice is "only known to the person himself," hidden "from the eyes of everyone outside."3 

But precisely as a witness, it is first receptive: it testifies to what it has already heard and come to know in general about the good to be done, or the evil to be avoided. As the "proximate" norm, it is the nearest to us in every human act; but it derives it binding force, its personal witness in our inner sanctuary, from the truth about the good—about man, the world, and God. It brings home to us, and makes practical, the things we know to be true about human life, about how we should live. It is they way by which our moral ideals are invited to become incarnate.

Conscience and the Will

And once our conscience places before us a command, we are presented with a choice: do we obey it, or not? Do we will to "do this, shun that," or do we not will it? Of course, there are times when we are uncertain about what to do, since we do not yet see how our moral principles can be consistently applied to a particular situation ("should I stop, be kind and listen this person? Or should I move along and fulfill my promise to so-and-so on-time?"); but we all have also experienced times when our conscience's verdict is quite clear, and yet we remain conflicted for other reasons: "If I am honest about my mistake and publicly take the blame for this, I will be disgraced and looked down upon." In such cases, what we ought to do is clear; but we must give consent to the verdict of our conscience with our will, and we have the freedom not to do so; we can easily be dissuaded by self-serving rationalization and our passions or emotions. We can also be compelled by external forces, such as laws.

Conscience and Law

So what happens when some external law, which comes from a legitimate authority, orders us to do something which our conscience forbids? What is our "duty": to our conscience, or to the external law? Vatican II's document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, has this to say:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.4

Any attempt, then, to force another to violate their own conscience is an offense against their human dignity. And it presents its own moral challenge: will I be steadfast in doing what is right, and in avoiding what is wrong, or will I do what I am convinced is wrong in order to live comfortably, to "make peace"? This is the position that the current mandate puts many people in, including the Catholic bishops themselves. Those who, in following principles of natural law or of the Catholic tradition, are convinced that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil, are being asked to financially support such things, in spite of the fact that their own conscience will tell them to avoid such participation, or to even speak out against it. The U.S. bishops' own consciences, foreseeing this moral problem, have compelled them to speak out so that such a situation may be avoided. If these objections are not heeded, many will be in the position such that the right thing to do, the command of their own personal conscience, will be to disobey the law.

Thus, what is being threatened is the "freedom" which one ought to have from external coercion to go against one's own conscience. As Bl. John Henry Newman put it, conscience possesses its own rights, precisely because it possesses its own duties:5 its job is to allow the truth to speak in the depths of our hearts about how we should be, about who we should be. And this right is being violated by the current mandate; there is no allowance for "conscientious objectors."

May this political controversy, then, not merely lead to a peaceful political resolution—as important as that may be—, but to a renewed appreciation for the rights, and duties, of the human conscience—the sanctuary within which we are invited to encounter the truth: the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God.


  1. Below are various articles and webpages about this recent controversy:
    USCCB page on the issue. This includes a video-statement by the President of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and a list of individual statements issued by over 110 U.S. Bishops.
    USCCB Statement of objections to the mandate and its recently modified form.
    USCCB Blog: "6 Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate"
    Here's a page showing that apparently every USCCB Bishop has issued a statement against the mandate. This page has links to another page with bishops' statements, and another page with a list of institutions, Catholic and non-Catholic, that have done likewise. [Back to reading]
    The Catholic Health Association's statement about the modified mandate, and a note about reviewing its implications.
    Article on Carol Keehan (head of CHA) and the Bishops' response to the Administration's modification (National Catholic Register). [Back to reading]
    Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia's statement.
    Editorial in America Magazine by Spokane's Bishop Blase Cupich, and the America Magazine Editors' op-ed piece.
    National Catholic Reporter editorial: "Obama administration went too far with contraception ruling."
    Wall Street Journal Article: "Immaculate Contraception" — "An 'accommodation' that makes the birth-control mandate worse."
    "Bishops Oppose Compromise" (WSJ)
    NY Times: "Bishops Criticize Proposal on Birth Control"
  2. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame Press, 1966; reprint: 2003), 11. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 79, articles 12-13. [Back to reading]
  3. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, §§ 54-61. Quotations are from §§ 58, 54, 59, 60, 57, respectively. Cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 1-3; Gaudium et Spes, 16. [Back to reading]
  4. Dignitatis Humanae, 3. [Back to reading]
  5. John Henry Newman, "A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, Vol. 2, chapter 5. [Back to reading]

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