Ideas have consequences: the reality of conscience

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“Simply having a conscience is insufficient. The gift of conscience requires, directly implies, a grave responsibility for proper formation.” -MPM

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-by Dennis Buonafede

“…The awareness of conscience transcends time and culture. The Persians, Egyptians, Assyro-Babylonians and Hebrews all had an awareness of conscience, Confucius and Mencius in China did as well. Socrates associated conscience with an inner warning voice which he believed had its origin in God. The Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius in Rome, saw conscience as the voice of reason; again a manifestation of the spark of the divine in humanity. The early Church Fathers and the philosophers of the Middle Age each developed their understanding of conscience based on their knowledge and experience. For example, along with Scripture, St. Ambrose was influenced by Cicero, St. Augustine by Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas by Aristotle. [iii]

So central is conscience to the human person that its very existence is an argument for the existence of God. Dr. Kreeft explains:

“The argument from conscience is one of the only two arguments for the existence of God alluded to in Scripture, the other being the argument from design (both in Romans). Both arguments are essentially simple natural intuitions. Only when complex, artificial objections are made do these arguments begin to take on a complex appearance.

The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God. Thus everyone knows God, however obscurely, by this moral intuition, which we usually call conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul.” [iv]

While today we describe conscience as a “feeling” that something is right or wrong, it would be more accurate to center conscience in the intellect, hence it is the knowledge of what is right and wrong. Yet “it is intuitive knowledge rather than rational or analytical knowledge, and it is first of all the knowledge that I must always do right and never wrong, the knowledge of my absolute obligation to goodness, all goodness: justice and charity and virtue and holiness; only in the second place is it the knowledge of which things are right and which things are wrong.” [v]

We see in Dr. Kreeft’s explanation that conscience is a metaphysical awareness. When we discussed the First Principles,[vi] we saw that one of the First Principles in the order of Being is the Moral Order, namely, that good ought to be pursued and evil avoided. Human beings, embedded in this metaphysical order, and gifted with intellect, are intuitively attuned to this reality. [vii]

The advent of Christianity did much to develop our understanding of conscience, but within the last few centuries a change in understanding has crept into the Western mindset. Conscience has become associated more with feeling than with fact and it enables individuals to circumvent what would seem to be common sense. In Catholic circles, this exultation of personal conscience is what “allows” Catholics for Choice to claim that they can support abortion and all forms of artificial birth control “in good conscience.” Even their main publication is entitled “Conscience”. [viii]

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) foresaw this development when he wrote the following lament on the state of conscience to the Duke of Norfolk:

“[It is]the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no-one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to Church, to go to Chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.” [ix]

Lessons from Pinocchio

In 1883, the Italian author Carlo Lorenzini published a book entitled Pinocchio, a story of a mischievous puppet that was brought to life and became human when he learned the value of self-sacrifice. Walt Disney produced a film in 1940 that kept the basis of the story but made Pinocchio more readily lovable than the original. Also, in the Disney version, the role of Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s conscience, was given a more prominent role.

The story of Pinocchio is a moral tale, but also has a more profound metaphysical element to it (which the original writers may or may not have been aware of). In the Disney version the Blue Fairy gives life to a wooden puppet that was created by a lonely carpenter named Geppetto, who made a wish that the puppet could be a real son. After a series of adventures Pinocchio learns self-sacrifice and the Blue Fairy makes him “human”.

In fact, Pinocchio was human the moment he had that principle of Life which was both rational and volitional. The movie showed us this when the first thing that Geppetto had Pinocchio do was to go to school. His “substance” was human, his “accidents” or “attributes” were those of a puppet. [x] What his choices and actions did was to make him either more human or less human. In the movie, Pinocchio goes to the Island of Pleasure and begins to transform into a donkey. The moral here is that denial or neglect of our true nature leads us to descend into a more materialistic existence, one more fitting to animals than humans, something that we can see plenty of evidence for in our Western society, especially among the young.

Pinocchio’s transformation at the end of the story, arising from his unselfish behaviour, was not a change in substance but a perfection of it. Unlike the Englishmen in St. Newman’s Letter, Pinocchio’s conscience did not lead him to self-will but rather to self-giving.

Ideas Have Consequences

It is obvious that our conscience alone is insufficient, as it needs to be formed and educated by solid moral teaching and example. Yet, at the same time, the Second Vatican Council declared that “Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16). From a philosophical perspective, the more we respond to a properly informed conscience, the more we conform to reality. The more we conform to reality, the more human we become. In the spiritual life, the Second Stage is often called the “Illuminative Stage” where, among other things, God’s grace illuminates and makes more sensitive our conscience.

When we examined Metaphysics we recognized that there is a logical (yet simultaneous) order in First Principles, beginning with Non-Contradiction and ending with the Moral Order. We also see in examining Human Nature, that we also have a logical (yet simultaneous) order in our being, starting with Reason that grasps the First Principles and ending with conscience; that desire to conform to the Moral Order. Our greatness is not that we can “know” reality but that we can willfully conform to that reality; not just to know truth but unite ourselves to Truth Incarnate, in cooperation with God’s Grace.

Pope Benedict, in response to a question on conscience, stated:

“In the Christian tradition, ‘conscience’, ‘con-scientia’, means ‘with knowledge’: that is, ourselves, our being is open and can listen to the voice of being itself, the voice of God. Thus, the voice of the great values is engraved in our being and the greatness of the human being is precisely that he is not closed in on himself, he is not reduced to the material, something quantifiable, but possesses an inner openness to the essentials and has the possibility of listening. In the depths of our being, not only can we listen to the needs of the moment, to material needs, but we can also hear the voice of the Creator himself and thus discern what is good and what is bad. Of course, this capacity for listening must be taught and encouraged.” [xi]

An End and a Beginning

Those readers who have been following this series may have noticed that philosophy, while “simple” and “common sense” in content, is difficult in comprehension. It is also time consuming. In God’s mercy, He aids our reason with Revelation and Grace. All of Human Nature is contained in the first four chapters of Genesis. The Law is found in the Ten Commandments. Our politics should be the Beatitudes. Yet unfortunately, we live in an age that has reduced Christian Revelation to just another option; equal among many.

As a Catholic teacher, my approach to the subject of philosophy is that it is a tool by which young people can be evangelized; it is what St. Aquinas calls the “Gospel of Natural Reason.” Focusing on the areas of speculative reason as outlined in Metaphysics and Human Nature, it is impossible not to come into an awareness of the Divine. Only willful avoidance of the Truth, as seen in the course of philosophical thought in the last five centuries, has led us to the point where Reason itself is in eclipse.

Yet speculative philosophy can only take us so far. Since human beings are, at their core, an acting person, they must know by which principles they ought to act. This leads us to the area of philosophy known as Ethics or Morals. It also includes Politics. Here we leave speculative philosophy behind and engage in Practical Philosophy or Applied Philosophy.

While I will be addressing specific moral and political issues, I will do so in the context of laying out the logical consequences and principles that flow from what we’ve discovered through speculative philosophy. Among the topics of discussion with be: “The Good,” “Happiness,” “Natural Law,” “Virtue,” “Principle of Double Effect,” “Human Rights,” “Solidarity” and “Subsidiarity,” among others.”

Love,
Matthew

Footnotes:

[iii] A good, yet brief, examination of conscience can be found at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04268a.htm and the Catechism of the Catholic Church http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm

[iv] http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/conscience.htm

[v] ibid.

[vi] http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2015/06/dennis-buonafede-the-metaphysics-of-man-and-broccoli/

[vii] Of course, human history is rife with evil so our ability to know and do the good is limited. The doctrine of Original Sin explains why the intellect is darkened and the will is malicious. It also explains the need for the 10 Commandments to enlighten the Intellect and the necessity of Grace to give the Will the power to choose the good known by the intellect. Secular humanists, in contrast, place all their hope on “education” as if that was enough for men to change their behaviour.

[viii] http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/conscience/default.asp

[ix] Letter to the Duke of York, p.58 as quoted in: Newman Today, Volume 1, Ignatius Press, 1988, p.73

[x] See PRINCIPLE OF SUBSTANCE in http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2015/06/dennis-buonafede-the-metaphysics-of-man-and-broccoli/

[xi] http://annunciations.wordpress.com/2007/08/20/q-a-with-pope-benedict-xvi-formation-of-conscience/

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