Category Archives: Conscience

Conscience


-by Joseph Heschmeyer, a former lawyer and seminarian, he blogs at Shameless Popery.

“To make sense of what the Catholic Church teaches about the importance of conscience, it’s important to know what “conscience” really is, because the term is often used in popular culture in inaccurate and misleading ways.

One way we misunderstand conscience is by thinking of it as a set of emotions, reducing it to “feeling good about doing the right thing” or (especially) “feeling bad about doing the wrong thing.” For instance, it’s become commonplace to say that psychopaths are “without conscience,” but this is untrue. They may lack empathy or emotion or remorse for their actions, but what they don’t lack is conscience, properly understood. Conscience may cause you to regret something, but “conscience” and “regret” aren’t the same thing.

What does this get wrong? As the Catechism explains, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (1778). The Catechism continues with a quotation from St. John Henry Newman, who describes conscience as “a law of the mind.” That is, conscience isn’t primarily a matter of feelings; rather, it’s about forming proper judgments about the morality (or immorality) of a particular course of action.

Conscience has a trifold role. It “includes the perception of the principles of morality,” “their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods,” and finally “judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed” (CCC 1780). So conscience tells you (1) that you shouldn’t steal; (2) that taking your neighbor’s lawnmower is stealing, and therefore wrong; and (3) that you should feel guilty for having taken your neighbor’s lawnmower.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drawing upon philosophers from Plato to Aquinas, describes this first level of conscience as “something like an original memory of the good and true,” saying that we find a “tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others.” Professor J. Budziszewski calls these the “truths that we can’t not know.” It’s why a non-Christian, and even a non-believer, can’t escape the realization that things like theft and murder are evils . . . even if they can’t explain why they know these things. C.S. Lewis calls these “basic moral intuitions” and says, “If there can be a difference of opinion which does not reveal one of the parties as a moral idiot, then it is not an intuition.” These are the most basic building blocks of morality. They are not arguable because there are no more basic principles than these to point back to.

The second level of conscience applies these general principles. Budziszewski explains,

At a certain stage of mental development, when the teacher says, “Johnnie, two plus two is four,” Johnnie can see for himself that two plus two is four; otherwise the words would be meaningless to him. At a certain stage of development, when Mother says, “Johnnie! Stop pulling your sister’s hair! How would you like it if someone pulled your hair?” Johnnie can see for himself that he should not treat another person as he would not wish to be treated himself; otherwise the command would seem arbitrary to him. Such knowledge can’t be simply pumped in. There has to be soil, or the seed cannot take root.

In this second stage, conscience takes basic moral principles (e.g., I shouldn’t do evil) and applies them to practical situations (e.g., if I wouldn’t want someone to pull my hair, it’s probably evil to pull my sister’s hair).

This leads to the third role of conscience: forming a judgment about the concrete act (e.g., pulling my sister’s hair is evil, so I shouldn’t do it). It’s here that conscience has a connection to emotions like regret, which is why we can talk about the “pang of conscience.” It’s not just regret, either: it’s here that the conscience “‘warns,’ ‘advises,’ ‘urges,’ or ‘prohibits’” regarding actions we have not taken yet, or (if we have already begun to act) it may “examine a judgment of action, intervene, stop its accomplishment,” or cause us to reconsider.

By means of these three roles, “conscience is the way that moral knowledge becomes immediately practical again.” That is, conscience uses these three steps to get from “do good and avoid evil” to “do this good and avoid that evil.” And it’s about conscience understood in this way that the Church has some shocking things to say.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Physics allows for the soul


-by Tara Macisaac, The Epoch Times

“Henry P. Stapp is a theoretical physicist at the University of California–Berkeley who worked with some of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He does not seek to prove that the soul exists, but he does say that the existence of the soul fits within the laws of physics.

It is not true to say belief in the soul is unscientific, according to Stapp. Here the word “soul” refers to a personality independent of the brain or the rest of the human body that can survive beyond death. In his paper, “Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory With Personality Survival,” he wrote: “Strong doubts about personality survival based solely on the belief that postmortem survival is incompatible with the laws of physics are unfounded.”

He works with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—more or less the interpretation used by some of the founders of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Even Bohr and Heisenberg had some disagreements on how quantum mechanics works, and understandings of the theory since that time have also been diverse. Stapp’s paper on the Copenhagen interpretation has been influential. It was written in the 1970s and Heisenberg wrote an appendix for it.

Stapp noted of his own concepts: “There has been no hint in my previous descriptions (or conception) of this orthodox quantum mechanics of any notion of personality survival.”

Why Quantum Theory Could Hint at Life After Death

Stapp explains that the founders of quantum theory required scientists to essentially cut the world into two parts. Above the cut, classical mathematics could describe the physical processes empirically experienced. Below the cut, quantum mathematics describes a realm “which does not entail complete physical determinism.”

Of this realm below the cut, Stapp wrote: “One generally finds that the evolved state of the system below the cut cannot be matched to any conceivable classical description of the properties visible to observers.”

So how do scientists observe the invisible? They choose particular properties of the quantum system and set up apparatus to view their effects on the physical processes “above the cut.”

The key is the experimenter’s choice. When working with the quantum system, the observer’s choice has been shown to physically impact what manifests and can be observed above the cut.

Stapp cited Bohr’s analogy for this interaction between a scientist and his experiment results: “[It’s like] a blind man with a cane: when the cane is held loosely, the boundary between the person and the external world is the divide between hand and cane; but when held tightly the cane becomes part of the probing self: the person feels that he himself extends to the tip of the cane.”

The physical and mental are connected in a dynamic way. In terms of the relationship between mind and brain, it seems the observer can hold in place a chosen brain activity that would otherwise be fleeting. This is a choice similar to the choice a scientist makes when deciding which properties of the quantum system to study.

The quantum explanation of how the mind and brain can be separate or different, yet connected by the laws of physics “is a welcome revelation,” wrote Stapp. “It solves a problem that has plagued both science and philosophy for centuries—the imagined science-mandated need either to equate mind with brain, or to make the brain dynamically independent of the mind.”

Stapp said it is not contrary to the laws of physics that the personality of a dead person may attach itself to a living person, as in the case of so-called spirit possession. It wouldn’t require any basic change in orthodox theory, though it would “require a relaxing of the idea that physical and mental events occur only when paired together.”

Classical physical theory can only evade the problem, and classical physicists can only work to discredit intuition as a product of human confusion, said Stapp. Science should instead, he said, recognize “the physical effects of consciousness as a physical problem that needs to be answered in dynamical terms.”

How This Understanding Affects the Moral Fabric of Society

Furthermore, it is imperative for maintaining human morality to consider people as more than just machines of flesh and blood.

In another paper, titled “Attention, Intention, and Will in Quantum Physics,” Stapp wrote: “It has become now widely appreciated that assimilation by the general public of this ‘scientific’ view, according to which each human being is basically a mechanical robot, is likely to have a significant and corrosive impact on the moral fabric of society.”

He wrote of the “growing tendency of people to exonerate themselves by arguing that it is not ‘I’ who is at fault, but some mechanical process within: ‘my genes made me do it’; or ‘my high blood-sugar content made me do it.’ Recall the infamous ‘Twinkie Defense’ that got Dan White off with five years for murdering San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.”

Love,
Matthew

Conscience 2


-please click on the image for greater detail


-by Matt Nelson

“Throughout the wide world of creation, God has left all sorts of signs that point right back at him. Often these clues tell us more than that a divine being exists; they often tell us what kind of divine being exists. Some of these clues lie right under our noses in the world around us, whereas others lie deep inside us at the level of immediate subjective experience. Among these interior signs is the conscience, which points toward the existence of not merely a God, but a personal God.

In his “Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent,” St. John Henry Newman sets out to demonstrate how we come to approve or “assent” to the reality of God. Newman does this by appealing to the human conscience, demonstrating the significance of this mysterious interior faculty and showing how its presence and effect upon us suggest the reality of a divine moral legislator. Newman writes:

“Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).”

But where does our conscience come from?

The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty—yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us. We often find ourselves going where we do not want to go, doing what we do not want to do, or saying what we do not want to say; our conscience informs us of this.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right,” affirmed Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, “A Proper Sense of Priorities.” Truly, the conscience demands unconditional obedience, respect, and loyalty—often at a cost. Yet to disobey our conscience is often the more immediately painful option, at least on an emotional level. Strangely, in a culture so averse to moral authorities, despite the potential consequences of choosing the right decision over the popular decision, almost no one would say it’s okay to disobey one’s own conscience. It may not even be possible to say, “It’s okay to disobey your conscience” without disobeying your conscience.

But where on earth does such firm and unshakable authority over humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:

“Conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.”

Newman draws the same conclusion when he calls conscience the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.” He too was in awe of the mysterious authority of the conscience and believed that the best explanation behind it was a supreme and authoritative personal authority, which he characterizes powerfully in this reflection:

“Man has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others . . . what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands; that it praises, blames, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses of the unseen. It is more than a man’s own self. The man himself has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it.”

It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing. Feelings (unless bridled according to right reason) are often fleeting, impulsive, and irrational. Conscience, on the other hand, is abiding, authoritative, and reasonable. These distinctions are key. Kreeft points out, “If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.” Feelings may accompany our conscience, but they are not synonymous with it.

Newman suggests that such a relationship between conscience and the feelings it potentially invokes makes sense only if there is a personal explanation behind it. In his “Essay,” he wrote, “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear.”

Through our conscience we discern not only a moral law, but a moral lawgiver. When we transgress our interior moral compass, we feel a genuine sense of guilt, as though we have let someone down. On the other hand, when we obey our conscience, we feel invigorated—particularly if such obedience requires great courage—as though we have been praised by another. But merely impersonal objects like brains neither praise nor blame. The feelings we experience when we respond to our conscience are distinctly relational and point to a personal being who is holding us accountable for our actions.

“There is no moral authority outside of oneself,” asserts the spirit of the age. Yet despite this popular attitude, there is a common human experience of something dangerously akin to moral obligation. There does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal opinion; there does seem to be an interior voice within us that commands us to do good always and to avoid evil.

Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct. Our inclination to do what is right, they say, exists in order to keep the peace among the human species. The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.

But conscience is different from instinct. My instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child. The moral choice may be more evolutionarily undesirable, yet in such cases, conscience still tends to overrule instinct. But even in cases where there may be natural advantages to following our conscience, this does not rule out God as evolutionarily obsolete. As philosopher Mitch Stokes reflects:

“I have no doubt that our moral code(s) provide survival advantage over many of the alternatives. But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically. It may be, for example, that a divine lawgiver hardwired us with knowledge of moral laws, and one of the benefits of following them is that things will generally go better for us, as well as for others.”

So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.

It might be tempting to reach for Occam’s razor at this point. Perhaps this just sounds as though we’re superfluously adding God into the picture. But that is not the case at all. The unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from somewhere, and as we have noted, there is good reason to believe that a personal agent is behind it all. But the only kind of personal agent that could have such absolute authority over humanity is a divine lawgiver—so from this we are reasonable to conclude that the authoritative personal lawgiver behind the irrepressible “law written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15) is God.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Conscience

-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

What is conscience?
God creates us with a capacity to know and love him, and we have a natural desire to seek the truth about him. Fortunately, we don’t search for God unaided; indeed, he calls us to himself and writes his law on our hearts to help us draw closer to him.

Conscience helps us hear the voice of God; it helps us recognize the truth about God and the truth about how we ought to live. Conscience is “a judgment of reason”1 by which we determine whether an action is right or wrong.

Jesus told the apostles, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We deepen our relationship with God by following him, and in doing so, we become more fully ourselves.

Importance of a Well-Formed Conscience
Have you ever made a decision that turned out badly, but if you had more information beforehand, you would have made a better decision? Sometimes, we may have the best of intentions to do good, but choose an action that is, in itself, wrong.

For example, think of learning a new language. We can only speak with the language we have, and if we have not received good education in vocabulary and grammar, we will communicate poorly, and others will not understand us. It is similar with conscience.

If our conscience isn’t well-formed, we aren’t well-equipped to determine right from wrong. All of us have the personal responsibility to align our consciences with the truth so that, when we are faced with the challenges of daily life, our consciences can help guide us well.

How to Form Our Consciences
Wherever we are on our journey with Christ, we can grow deeper with him by continuing the work of forming our consciences well, so that we may follow him ever more closely. Although not a complete list, these suggestions can help us as we seek to inform and strengthen our consciences with God’s truth.

Pray
Through prayer and participation in the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, we encounter the living God. Spending time with the Lord, such as in silent adoration, opens our hearts to him. In drawing closer to the Lord, we allow God’s grace to conform our minds and hearts to Christ, so that we might better discern in every moment how we ought to act.

Learn
Without a foundational, practical formation, it is difficult for our consciences to guide us well in concrete situations. As Catholics, we have the immense gift of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and can turn to it for help forming our consciences. For example, learning about Christian moral principles, reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or researching what the Church says about a challenging teaching will help us grow in knowledge of the truth. In turn, this helps us understand a little more how to live in a way that leads to our true happiness.

Reflect
We are formed by the stories we hear and tell. We may be uncertain how we ought to respond to various challenges as followers of Jesus, but there are many saints who have faced similar questions throughout the ages. Immersing ourselves in the stories of holy women and men can encourage us and help us develop habits of mind that allow us to grow. Stories help us hone our instincts.

Nurture friendships
A life of following Jesus is exceedingly difficult without help from a community. When we devote energy to holy friendships with people who are also trying to know, love, and serve the Lord, we gain partners who can lighten the load. Conversation with other Christians about how to respond to challenges in the life of discipleship are vital.

Two Challenges
A couple challenges we may face in following our consciences are worth noting.

Indifference
When we are bombarded with news, images, stories, and sound bites, it’s easy to become numb to other people and the world around us. Conscience requires us to be attentive. We must listen to God, who speaks to us. Having a well-formed conscience doesn’t mean we have all the answers to the complex problems in the world, but it does mean that we are sensitive to the needs and struggles of other people.

Coercion
Increasingly, we are seeing that certain groups use the power of the media and even of the state to coerce people to violate their consciences. We can see how unjust these types of actions are that insist that popular opinion, rather than conscience, should be our primary guide for action.

Our Response
Inspired by the example of Sister Agnes Walsh and her mother superior, let us devote ourselves anew to following wherever the Lord leads. Let us take courage from their example of faith and, when facing our own trials, remember what Jesus promised his apostles before ascending into heaven: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Be not afraid; God is with us.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., 1778.

-Archdiocese of St Paul/Minneapolis

What does it mean to have a well-formed conscience?
The formation of a good conscience is another fundamental element of Christian moral teaching. “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, no. 1796). “Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary” (GS, no. 16).

Conscience represents both the more general ability we have as human beings to know what is good and right and the concrete judgments we make in particular situations concerning what we should do or about what we have already done. Moral choices confront us with the decision to follow or depart from reason and the divine law. A good conscience makes judgments that conform to reason and the good that is willed by the Wisdom of God. A good conscience requires lifelong formation. Each baptized follower of Christ is obliged to form his or her conscience according to objective moral standards. The Word of God is a principal tool in the formation of conscience when it is assimilated by study, prayer, and practice. The prudent advice and good example of others support and enlighten our conscience. The authoritative teaching of the Church is an essential element in our conscience formation. Finally, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, combined with regular examination of our conscience, will help us develop a morally sensitive conscience.

Because our conscience is that inner sanctuary in which we listen to the voice of God, we must remember to distinguish between our subjective self and what is objectively true outside ourselves. We can be subjectively in error about something that is objectively true. On the objective level, if our conscience is “correct,” then there is no error between what is internally perceived to be true and truth itself. If there is an incorrect conscience, that means that the conscience is erroneous in its view of truth.

On the subjective level we can have a “certain” conscience, which means we believe that our conscience is in conformity with what is objectively true. A person can have a “certain” conscience on the subjective level but an “incorrect” one on the objective level. For example, a person thinks that Ash Wednesday is a Holy Day of Obligation and chooses to miss Mass anyway. The person thinks it is a Holy Day (certain subjectively but incorrect objectively) and acts on it. This person has a certain but incorrect conscience. But because the conscience acted against what it perceived to be objectively the good, the conscience chooses to sin.

There are some rules to follow in obeying one’s conscience. First, always follow a certain conscience. Second, an incorrect conscience must be changed if possible. Third, do not act with a doubtful conscience. We must always obey the certain judgments of our conscience, realizing that our conscience can be incorrect, that it can make a mistake about what is truly the good or the right thing to do. This can be due to ignorance in which, through no fault of our own, we did not have all we needed to make a correct judgment.

However, we must also recognize that ignorance and errors are not always free from guilt, for example, when we did not earnestly seek what we needed in order to form our conscience correctly. Since we have the obligation to obey our conscience, we also have the great responsibility to see that it is formed in a way that reflects the true moral good.

Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and the right solution to many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. (GS, no. 16)”


-by Fr. Christopher Pietraszko, Ignitum, Fr. Christopher serves in the Diocese of London, Ontario.

“The Church is not called to micromanage consciences – because a conscience is a throne for Christ living in a unique way in the individual, whereby their own subjective experience of objective reality is called to become docile to God’s will in freedom (aligned). Micromanaging the conscience is ultimately dehumanizing, trivializing the the sacredness of the individual will in relationship with God’s particular call in that person’s life.

Egalitarianist tendencies can govern the mind of any form of leadership, whereby seeking “sameness” in all things is perceived to be equalizing, fair, and simple. This however is contrary to the gospel which expounds on the unity manifest in diversity. These two dimensions of unity and diversity are sometimes exaggerated or not integrated and in such a case one has not reached what we might call an intellectual or affective maturity in discernment.

Sacred Scripture indicates that the ‘body of Christ’ is made up of members who accept diversity for the sake of unity, and unity for the sake of accepting diversity. These two dimensions, when rightly ordered to God’s mission, not man’s vision, embody the Church as the hands and feet of Christ. When diversity is emphasized to the neglect of unity we become individualists or “rogue” or “lone-rangers.” However, every extreme generates the other as a result of tribalism. Thus, those who emphasize unity at the neglect of diversity find themselves promoting an oppressive type of conformity. With this, what we discover is an abuse of power. With the former we discover an excessive acquiescence of power.

A healthy understanding of the moral law helps us understand why the Church needs to butt-out of people’s decisions, while also enforcing others. Both respecting a person’s individual conscience and enforcing certain disciplines are for the sake of the common-good. Typically the enforcement of law is seen as the sole proprietor of working towards the common-good, however to Aquinas this is an incomplete truth. In fact, he would state, that if a law isn’t followed by the masses, it may be the case that the law needs to he changed.

Developing a deeper understanding of the law that gives way to the subjective discernment within the Church that does not require a micromanaging paternalism is discoverable in the distinction between positive precepts versus negative precepts. Negative precepts require solid teaching that is unwavering because they are “negative” statements that involve the rejection of what is always objectively the case. The term we would use here is “intrinsically wrong/evil.” Negative precepts of the law are universal, and as such, teachings on contraception according to the Infallible Document of HV are considered as such. These therefore require enforcement.

Positive precepts however can pertain to what is licit, but not necessarily in every circumstance. For instance, pregnant women cannot receive the vaccine due to health concerns since the vaccines themselves are still in the experimental phase and we do not have enough information pertaining to the effect they may have on both the mother and child. Another example could be in regard to evangelization. It is true that we are all called to evangelize as baptized Christians, but not in every circumstance. For instance, when I sleep, I am not consciously able to dialogue with another using my charisms as such to explicitly generate faith in the lives of others. What of vocations?

To some degree, it is both the discernment of the Church and the discernment of the individual. Thus involving both in this discernment process, like a marriage involves listening to the voice of Christ who speaks through the conscience/discernment of what Christ is saying. Therefore one does not force a person against their will to enter into a vocation (arranged marriage/enslaved-priesthood). What of the number of children a couple have? Although there are given principles that are universal, the application of those principles to their concrete circumstances are not always clear: health conditions, mental health, and as such: grave-impediments. The priest does not dictate to the family that no matter what they must have 8 children. In an egalitarian manner, the priest does not say: all couples must have 8 children.

Being formed in our family or origin, our relationships, or even our monastery/convent/seminary, in the way these principles are set forward will have an impact on how we live out our vocation. If in one environment conscience is not respected or the law is not enforced when it ought to be, then this disordered approach to unity (egalitarianism) or diversity (individualism) will be copied, reacted to (thus opposed in its opposite extreme).

The Church, government, in respect to human wisdom is never perfect. Thus it must ongoingly examine the complexities of the day, and do its best to first ask the question: “What do you will God?” How we listen to that voice, while in humility and mortification suspending our own natural vision, and preferences, will give us the interior freedom to be led by Christ and navigate a healthy integration of these two principles. We must be patient in the discernment process, accepting that some mistakes will be made, because it can be challenging to know how to integrate two principles that exist in a perpetual state of changing tension (cf. Cardinal St John Henry Newman)”

Love & Peace,
Matthew