John F. Kavanaugh
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Thirteen years ago, when I started writing this column for America, two of my early offerings dealt with the strategic function of conscience in our ethical lives. As the years have gone by, and especially during the past year with its increased polarization of moral positions in church and society, I am more convinced than ever that we need a clear understanding of just what conscience is and how it functions.

Although there is a range of opinions concerning what conscience is—from an inner voice, a feeling or a sense of shame to the internalized values of parents or culture—I propose that the most effective account is the one offered by St. Thomas Aquinas: Conscience is a particular kind of judgment, a moral judgment, by which we apply our knowledge of good and evil to practical action.

As a practical moral judgment, conscience takes the form: “I ought to do X.” Aquinas points out that when I make such a judgment, I should follow it. But acting on my conscience is not enough. Like any other kind of judgment—business, artistic, scientific or athletic—we base our moral judgments not only on principles but on evidence, data and information. A judgment made without data, evidence or information is a foolish one indeed. Thus, Aquinas thought it is as important to inform one’s conscience properly as it is to follow it. If I refuse to look at evidence or information in forming my moral judgment, I am actually refusing to act morally.

It is this second point that seems most neglected in ethical discourse today. There is little doubt that various religions, nation states and philosophies hold different ethical principles. But whether one’s principles are based on duty, the will of God, submission to Allah, happiness, liberty or the common good, such principles are empty if they are not applied to the specifics of evidence, information and data.

Unfortunately, it is the resistance to evidence and information that marks so much of our present moral discourse. That is why the “marketplace” of ideas, or the “public square” has become so segmented and rigid.

In the world of politics and media, we find an increasing segmentation not only of markets but of convictions as well. Information is edited and selected to conform to the conviction of the viewer or the voter. Thus, information no longer informs or challenges one’s moral judgement; it only confirms opinion, whether that opinion is warranted or not. Spend one evening comparing the programs offered by MSNBC and Fox News. Compare Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Whom do they ridicule? What is their presumed moral universe? What information do they never consider? If we listen to only one side of these polarities, we are not forming our judgment, we are propagandizing it.

No matter what the issue, competing ideologies offer plenty of moral judgments; but there is little willingness to address data or information offered by the opposition. Undocumented immigration, tax reform, the Free Gaza movement, the Gulf Coast oil disaster, the financial crisis, all generate fierce opinion. But it is almost impossible to find any polarized antagonist willing to examine carefully data or arguments that challenge ideology.

In the church, things are just as segmented. I regularly receive messages by e-mail from the right and left. Both sides seem totally certain, but they are also totally ignorant of the arguments and evidence on the other side. As Aquinas would say, a conscience may be certain; but that does not mean it is correct. So think of the issues: abortion, global warming, President Obama, the health care bill, immigration reform, the wars in the Persian Gulf. Do you find any true engagement of the issues? Or do you find only assertions?

As for those who aspire to form the consciences of Catholic believers, they too must do more than make pronouncements. They must engage the evidence and data offered by those who dissent from their opinion.

To refuse to inspect hostile data or listen to challenging information is to reveal a conscience that has capitulated to ideology.

If a nation or church forms its people to accept assertions blindly, without supporting evidence, it will form a community not of moral agents but of menaces. They may be sincere, but they will be sincerely dangerous.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Virginia Edman | 5/21/2011 - 12:59am
Fr. Kavanaugh mentions Fox News and MSNBC. Chris Matthews and Glen Beck, but he does not mention Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Sometimes the sharpest minds are not on the news channels but the Comedy Channel.  To inform our consciences about the world we must read a variety of sources of information.   I read The New York Times, NCR, America, The Tablet, The Globe and Mail Toronto, The Toronto Star and I watch the CBC and WNED.  I especially like the Newshour with Jim Lehrer.  To watch CNN or Fox News is torture for me.  I do not like their point of view or their style.  My conscience is informed, but it is still my conscience.  I trust it as I trust myself.  I don't think that I am always right, but when I encounter a totally different opinion from my own I think that I cannot alter who I am.  I don't want the Church to tell me what to think.  I want the Church to be there for me and to enlighten my mind and spirit.  I want good homilies and intelligent commentary.  I want a community and not an institution that forbids dialogue.  I want respect for women and their opinions, and collegiality among those that hold higher positions-especially bishops. 
Michael Bindner | 6/28/2010 - 11:48pm
(to continue the above) The focus on mortal sin says as much about theology as it does about ethics. This focus on sinfulness, rather than on charity and justice (the lapses of which requiring more in the way of penance than a few Our Fathers - but instead restition), betrays an angry theology for which a blood sacrifice is required to appease an angry God. There is an alternative view of the passion and death of Jesus - on in which Jesus suffered on the cross to experience the abandonment from God that we all feel in sin - that He as God could never experience without His sufferings. The latter theology conforms to a merciful God and a humanistic morality, rather than a codependent God with a legalistic morality.
Michael Bindner | 6/28/2010 - 11:41pm
The avoidance of mortal sin has become a fetish in the Church over the last thousand years, yet it is the sins of injustice and omission that are much more important in the eyes of God.

The original objections to contraception in modern times were its promulgation for eugenic reasons - sometimes against the wishes of the patients themselves or in an attempt to avoid justice for the poor by seeking to lower their birth rate - rather than allowing for their natural increase, which could lead to economic and political unrest in their demands for justice.

The Church need not impose clerical notions of sexuality on married people in order to honor its tradition. Indeed, to truly honor its traditions on the topic of contraception, it would leave married people to their own sexuality while advancing their rights to be paid a living wage, with automatic increases each time a child is added (rather than resorting to birth control lite - natural family planning).
Michael Barberi | 6/27/2010 - 5:19pm
Church teachings do not have to be pronounced ex Cathedra to be infallible.  The Church considers its Magisterium infallible with respect to moral issues.  Humanae Vitae and John Paul II's encyclicals on the family et al, are moral issues.  Papal magisterium and Vatican congregations hold this teaching to be definitive, irreformable and without error.   As such, the Church teaches that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil and morally wrong.   I am not arguing for or against Humanae Vitae.  However, it would be highly misleading to say that Church Doctrines on moral issues, that are not pronounced Infallible ex Cathedra, do not have to be believed and observed.
As for Papal Infallibility, ex Cathedra, the Church has only used this authority twice over the past 150 years.  Both times it concerned Marian dogma: her Conception and Assumption.
As for the fact that "the information is there" about birth control and sin is  misleading.  Point to such evidence!  Most people don't search libraries and the internet to learn what is not taught from the Pulpit.  The few that do, find such information lacking and ambiguous.  I have been diligently searching for more insight into birth control and sin and have only found articles and documents on the pros and cons of Humane Vitae.  Never have I found anything on sin, sacrilege, confession, abolution and artificial birth control.  
Most parishioners, and many priests and bishops, do not consider artificial birth control to be morally wrong and intrinsically evil.  Thus, it is not a mortal sin to them.  NEVERTHELESS, this is not the Church's teaching!  Most, if not all, priests and bishops avoid any discussion from the Pulpit on this issue.  That is my point.  The Church does not teach the full truth.  It allows two different teachings to exit on Humane Vitae.  How far "out of context" do you want to argue about the teaching of Humane Vitae?  It is more than a tough situation.  For many expert theologians the problem started when Paul IX went against the majority of his commission on birth control based on fear of reversing past Papal teachings.  The decision, to many, was about maintaining the Church's power and authority.  Since then, the problem has been compounded since John Paul II has also supported it.  The hole that has been dug is now very deep.  The logic, philosphy and rationale for Humane Vitae is highly controverial.  Open discussion on this issue has been prohibited and highly limited in various Vatican Congregations and Councils over the past 25 years.  Ninety percent of sexual active Catholic couples practice probited forms of birth control.  Yet, most receive holy communion each week.  Priests and bishops know this, yet they keep silent. 
Silent dissent, and most written and verbal dissent, is tolerated in the Church.  The Vatican, and assenters in the Church, say that parishioners who rely on the dissent teachings of Humane Vitae are not held accountable of committing a mortal sin.    The Church hopes that over the next few decades this Humane Vitae will become widely accepted.  If not, the Church will grow smaller.  This is how the Church justifies the allowance and mismanagement of dissent within the Church and its own incomplete and ambiguous teachings.  It is right on this issue, everyone else is wrong.  Yet, these broader issues are never discussed from the Pulpit or from the Vatican.  The teaching is more than lacking, it is morally irresponsible.  The solution would be more chaos and much more people would leave the Church.  The drum beat for change would become deafening. 
 
Tamzin Simmons | 6/26/2010 - 10:59am
What I meant about birth control and the hierarchy of truth is that the teaching is not infallible-Humanae Vitae is not an infallible Papal document...
I agree that full teaching seems lacking on many issues, the information is there but do people bother to find it? Should Popes not write encyclicals and just rely on their verbal pronouncements being reported in the media because people would be more likely to listen to it there? But then there would be the problem of teachings being taken out of context which can lead to all kinds of further problems including the intellectual impoverishment of the faithful and the impoverishment of conscience because the information available is so decontextualised. It's a tough situation.
Michael Barberi | 6/24/2010 - 11:07pm
I agree with these past few comments.  However, in practical every day life, most Catholics do follow their consciences especially on matters of birth control and other issues. 
My point in raising this issue of conscience and birth control was to bring awareness that far greater issues surround the Church's teachings and how they choose to guide us.  They don't really educate in the fullness of truth on many issues.  They remain silent on many controversial issues like the issue I have raised several times on artifical birth control and sin.  My reading of the Church's teaching on birth control does not put it in the low hierarchy of acceptance or truth.  If you read it differently, there lies the problem.  There is no common understanding of right, wrong and sin when it comes to what the Church teaches on birth regulation.  That is a major problem.  It is easy to fall back into our self consciences and believe we are doing the right thing while we back away from confrontation with our Church over its education and silence on birth contro, especially regarding sin.   Most people today either walk away from the Church or ignore various doctrines.  
The lyrics of a recent song said, "when you see something wrong and try to make it right, you become a point of light".    If we are not perseverant, don't seek to inform our conscience, seldom pray and never speak out, change in the Church will take forever.   While the Church does many great things, something is wrong with the Catholic Church.  It coninues to confuse my conscience and soul.  When it comes to mortal sin, why wait for the answer at judgment day?  In the end, I may have to.  However, I choose to speak out and demand accountability for unambiguous and understandable truth from the Catholic Church.
Tamzin Simmons | 6/24/2010 - 8:31am
However, I had to go to a talk on Sexual Ethics given by a moral theologian to find out what I now know.
Obviously to inform ourselves we should use all available information, but the Church shouldn't shy away from presenting its teaching in context rather than merely as a set of do's and don't's which is how it seems to be understood by many.
Tamzin Simmons | 6/24/2010 - 8:28am
Re: birth control (which has obviously provoked a lot of interest) it was my understanding that there is a Hierarchy of Truth which is defended by the Church, and that the teaching on birth control is at a lower level in terms of truth than are the doctrines to which we must assent as Catholics. Therefore if, in good conscience a person does not follow official guidance on birth control they cannot be held culpable for whatever sin they might have committed, and moreover, the Church does not require them to assent intellectually to the guidance (even in cases where it is obeyed) and if they do not assent this does not negate their claim to being in communion with the Church.
6466379 | 6/23/2010 - 12:30pm
Professor John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., quoting Aquinas says, conscience may be certain, but not correct. It strikes me that conscience can also be correct, but not certain! This dilemma is caused by the convergence of a conglomerate of moral objectivity intermingling with the necessity of practical moral subjectivity, leading to what may be in effect, a correct, but uncertain conscience. As a result a person of good will may simply have to trust God, saying, "Lord, this beats me! You figure it out!"

Father Kavanaugh also points out that, conscience can be "uninformed." How about "under-informed?" Is there subtle connective tissue between the two, or are they entirely contrary? Sometimes if conscience is "under-informed" but certainly not "uninformed" it does give rise to uncertainty, despite correct moral anchors!

On and on I could go, trying to explain what I find hard to satisfactorily explain, so I keep wondering, what exactly is conscience like? Maybe it's like a grapevine that's firmly rooted in the "soil" of the contingencies of the here-and-now, but ever tending upwards, to "things above" growing with lots of twists and turns, while clinging to anything that offers support, weather-beaten and gnarled, yet capable of fruit that brings happiness to the human heart as scripture suggests, Unfortunately, conscience can also be like scripture's barren fig tree, cursed in its fruitlessness and ending up dead all the way down to its roots! Then what?

Once again, Father Kavanaugh has produced a soul-stimulating article in, "Uninformed Conscience" helpful to the morally sensitive individual and those along the way in any degree of enlightenment, or the lack thereof. I hope I'm on the right track, living according to the proddings of of what is called "conccience." When St. Joan of Arc was questioned by her interrogators as to whether or not she considered herslf to be in the "state of grace" she replied,
"If not, may God put me there and if I am, may God keep me there!" I guess that pretty much sums up how one whould should relate to the question a mal/formed, versus a well/formed conscience, doing the best one can and leaving the rest to the Merciful Jesus who told St. Faustina, "Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to My Merciful Heart!"
Michael Barberi | 6/21/2010 - 4:52pm
Mr. Nickol:  I agree with your comments that the major question is "how to inform oneself". 
However, the Church has an obligation to educate and explain all aspects of its teachings.  If the Church is silent on perplexing issues concering its teachings, how can anyone have an informed conscience? 
The Church can argue that they have provided sufficient education and guidance on certain teachings (e.g., Humane Vitae).   However, sin, confession, sacriledge AND conscience is never addressed from the pulpit regarding the practice of articial birth control.  When 90% of parishioners (and a significant number of clergy) do not follow a teaching, the Church cannot blame the dissenters and excuse themselves from their own moral obligation and responsibility regarding thorough and truthful education.  They cannot focus on one aspect of a teaching (natural birth control) and deliberately ignore other perplexing issues.   My conscience tells me that is morally wrong.
 
JAMES OLEARY MR | 6/21/2010 - 4:31pm
I have no standing when it comes to moral theology. I will say "black is white" if that's what it takes to keep me in the Catholic Church as a full member. I do have an informed opinion on the arguments going on here though, informed from my experience as a social worker. I think the above intelligent discussion, good as it is, and correct as Father Kavanaugh is, doesn't mention the radical call of the Gospel, which is what Jesus asks us to be and to do. I really don't think the saints of the past or the saints now have any problem deciding right from wrong. They looked around and are still looking around and they go the same kind of people Jesus stopped His journeys for, whether they are sick or blind or poor or ignorant.  They are the people leading the procession into paradise Flannery O'Connor showed Mrs. Turpin at the end of "Revelation." 
David Nickol | 6/21/2010 - 12:31pm
So many times when one reads a Catholic commentary on conscience, the argument is that a conscience must be "well formed." This means (by some interpretations) that if your conscience tells you one thing, and the Church says another, your conscience is wrong. You are obliged to do what the Church says, or perhaps refrain from action until you have read and studied to the point where you come to agree with the Church (if ever). Of course, there are many problems with that approach. One is the difficulty of knowing for certain what the Church really teaches. (What does "direct" mean in the case of "direct abortion"? What would have been the reaction to a school child in the 1950s if he told Sister Mary Catherine he didn't believe in Limbo?) But most seriously of all, the insistence on certain interpretations of a "well formed conscience" is really an abandonment of the idea of conscience in favor of blind obedience. Thankfully Father Kavanaugh did not go that route. The question remains, though, how to inform oneself. 
Michael Barberi | 6/20/2010 - 10:01pm
If the Church really believes in the role of informed conscience, as mentioned in Vatican II and Cardinal Ratzinger, my faith in the Catholic Church is restored!  
I read many expert articles about the subject of birth control and the application and role of conscience, in particuliar, those of expert Dr. Janet Smith.  Certainly, conscience is not infallible whether it be the conscience of the Church or individual.  Uninformed conscience can lead to the justification of horrific acts.  However, if individuals strive to educate themselves, seriously reflect on the Church's point of view, rationale and teachings, and pray for guidance, do they not fulfill the requirements of conscience and judgment? 
The dissenters of certain Church teachings, like Humane Vitae, face the dilemma of obedience versus conscience.  They go with their conscience after much reflection and prayer.  So does the Catholic Church you may say and they have the ultimate authority on moral matters.  However, the Church is not infallible and they have made makes mistakes.   Galileo was a heritic, a woman on top was a mortal sin, the Syllabus of Errors was issued by the same Pope that declared himself (and all Popes) infallible.  The list goes on. 
If Vatican II and Cardinal Ratzinger's comments on conscience is true, why all the fuss over Church teachings, especially Humanae Vitae?  I continue to be perplexed that the word SIN is not mentioned in Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II's encyclicals that support it, or any formal written communications from the Church on this subject.  Is it not highly misleading to use the words "morally wrong and intrinsically evil", and not mean mortal sin?  Yet, the subject of sin, confession and sacriledge as it applies to the practice of artifical birth control is never mentioned or explaned from the pulpit.  Parishioners simply dismiss Humane Vitae and proceed to receive holy commuinion based on their conscience and judgement on this subject.
In closing, when the Church remains silent about the issues of sin, et al, on artifical birth control, they mismanage their own moral teaching and create moral dilemma.   Does not this impede the desire of Catholic parishioners to reach informed conscience decisions?   Do we all simply dismiss a Church teaching and go on with our lives?  Or do we have an obligation to speak out and try to correct our Church's misguided ways, in the management of its own teaching, as our informed consciences tell us?
This article and its many comments has given me hope.  However, it took me several re-readings to understand the role of conscience as defined by the Church, and I have a master's degree.  I will continue to read further, however, most Church teachings on issues are verbose and ambiguous for the most part.  Most parishioners demand simple explanations.  If I have exaggerated the birth control example, as defined, I would appreciate guidance. 
LARRY | 6/20/2010 - 4:17pm
Fr. John Kavanaugh's claim that the most neglected point in ethical discourse today is this: "If I refuse to look at evidence or information in forming my moral judgment, I am actually refusing to act morally."

And this appears to be triggering a number of interesting comments and thoughtful reflections.

One question is not being mentioned, however, but should be seriously asked: "What weight must one give to the evidence of church teaching in forming one's moral judgment?"

In its "Declaration on Religious Freedom," Vatican II taught that "in forming their conscience the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the church." A number of bishops, you may remember, noted the obvious: one can "pay careful attention to a teaching" and still disagree with it. They proposed that the text be changed to say that "the faithful must form their conscience according to church teaching." The commission responsible for rewriting the text claimed that the new wording proposed was "too restrictive" and that the original text "sufficiently expresses the obligation binding the faithful."

This was put to a vote by the whole council which, by a vote of 2,033 to 190, agreed with the commission. The formula recognizing the primacy of conscience remained therefore in the final text of 'Dignitatis Humanae'.

It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of the council's theologians, who commented on this topic: "Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on he individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, is one which in the last resort is beyond the claim even of the official church."

One might wonder if now, as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger would in any way wish to modify his original comment.

P.S.: Only last March, Australia's Cardinal George Pell claimed that "the church never taught the primacy of conscience." (NCR, March 3).
CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 6/19/2010 - 10:52am
John Kavanaugh’s recent comments on “Uninformed Concscience” are timely and thought-provoking.  I offer below three points in dialogue with his, not refutation.
     First, good moral judgements require more than simply data and information and evidence.  They also need discernment.  Any conclusion about “what I ought to do” must, first and foremost, be an answer to the question “What do I discern as God’s will here?”  
     Second, many contemporary issues of conscience are not about personal and private matters.   At the level of the society, which is the domain Fr. Kavanaugh is  addressing (rightly, I think), the collective ethical question is not simple “What should I do?” but rather “What should we do as a society?”
      Collective good is not simply a lot of individual good.  The moral dimension of public policy includes more than the binary question, “Is this proposal good?”  Other questions  arise:  “Is this proposal really viable?”  “Will the hoped-for benefits really materialize?”  “When and if these benefits do arrive, will they still be worth more than the negative effects which will also come along with them?” The actual experience with prohibition is illustrative. These are practical questions, for which more data or better information may be less helpful than concrete experience with the ways of the world.  The good” from a personal perspective may be radically different from the perspective of the society as a whole.  It is a distinct issue deciding how wisely to pursue that good both by what means and at what cost.
      My third point concerns a problem with theory.  All theories organize the available data to show patterns; and in that process each specific theory obscures as well as clarifies.  Data not fitting well into its schema is discounted; while data which does fit well gets the limelight.  Surprise surprise, the data I “see” confirms my theory; and thus my theory needs no more examination.   
      So we all quickly arrive at the point where we are defending “our” own theory instead of continuing to critique and develop it.   As we do, the collective discussion takes place on the basis of essentially different data sets.  So any convergence towards a consensus is virtually ruled out.  We are no longer talking about the same things.
     As I mentioned, Fr. Kavanaugh has raised some timely and significant points.  I think we need, collectively, to give them some serious and personal reflection.
 
 
Cathy Fasano | 6/18/2010 - 6:26pm
Mr. Mosman, you are missing my point.  Any intellectually honest formation of conscience has the logical possibility of ending up somewhere horrible and frightening.  Precisely because of our lack of infalliblity - our consciences are not infallible, but also our abilities to understand and apply conscience and Church teaching are not infallible either.
And in the meantime, life must be lived, so you have to figure out what from the set of looks-like-mortal-sins you will commit.  Even if you take the must-be-taken-completely-on-faith position that there is an error in your analysis somewhere and one or more path is not, in fact, sinful, until and unless you identify the error you are flying blind...
Is it really any wonder that people choose to avoid thinking too hard, or learning too much?
E.Patrick Mosman | 6/18/2010 - 5:10pm
Ms.Cathy Fasano,
You have either not read the complete excerpt or have not understood Cardinal Ratzinger's learned repudiation of the concepts of one's "subject conscience' and society's "moral relativism" with the following;
"But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence."
Cardinal Ratzinger's address carefully constructs how following one's own subjective conscience can lead to self-justification for horrific acts. It should be required reading for all who write on conscience and truth; http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/RATZCONS.HTM
 
 
 
 
Michael Barberi | 6/18/2010 - 4:10pm
Ah, yes the dissenters.  Whoa to those dissenters that teach a different message regarding artificial birth control.  They will have to face our Lord and pay a terrible price. 
Unfortunately, these remarks MISS THE POINT.  It is the CHURCH, not the dissenters, who allow two different messages to exist on artifical birth control!  No priest or bishop has the courage and conviction to speak frequently from the pulpit on the truth, fully and understandably, regarding sin, sacriledge, confession and holy communion with respect to the paractice of artifical birth control.  It is the Church who hides in the corner and remains silent on the issue I am raising.  My argument is not for the right or wrong concerning Humanae Vitae and other subsequent encyclicals that support it.  I argue for the TRUTH about this teaching.  I ask where is the conscience of the Church on this issue!  If you "google" Humanae Vitae, artifical birth control and the Church, et al, you only get the arguments for and against.  This is not the POINT.  The Church knows the truth but turns a blind eye (or a cowardice eye) toward the real issue of artificial birth control and its dual teachings.  It is a mortal sin?  If so, teach us the TRUTH!!  Is not the truth self-evident.  The Church fears the Truth and its consequences.  They don't want another crisis.  They don't want to lose more parishioners.  They don't want to awaken the giant in the room called the "Body of Christ" who will demand clarity, re-evaluation and justice Who leads parishioners toward the morally wrong and condemnation?for the Church's dysfunctional mismanagement of this teaching.
Who leads parishioners toward the morally wrong and condemnation: the Church who remains silent about the real meaning of its teaching and allows dichotomy teachings to exist, OR, its dissenters?
Is there anyone in the Church with the courage to addres the issue I raise? 
Cathy Fasano | 6/18/2010 - 11:40am
I think that you have ignored completely the elephant in the room, which is that forming conscience, like every significant endeavor undertaken in honesty and good faith, carries the risk of ending quite differently than one desires.  I thought that Patrick's choice of editing for Benedict's 1991 talk was quite expert in that it highlighted the self-negating nature of the "yes, BUT..." philosophical construct:
"It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But..."
In other words, Benedict, and indeed the Church as a whole, quite vigorously dispute the notion that one must follow a certain conscience.
The risk is stark and terrifying:  you have some complete set of choices of actions and inactions which you may take in response to some circumstance of life; each and every choice in the set is a mortal sin, either because your conscience tells you so, or the Church teaches so, or both your conscience and the Church teach you so.  In other words, the Church is demonic and depraved, using it's full authority to lure and bully you into doing what shocks your conscience.  Or worse, it is God who is demonic and depraved, setting you up in a catch-22 where no choice that you can make can have any outcome other than damnation.
So you go vague and mushy-minded and hide in the corner.  Stick your fingers in your ears and sing "la la la I can't hear you!!!" to both Church and conscience.  Is it prudence or cowardice?  Yeah, both.  Because ignorance, no matter how vincible, self-delusion, no matter how lame, is infinitely better than any reality like that.
Greta Green | 6/18/2010 - 3:09am
The issue only becme cloudy when those who are in position to teach the actual techings of the Catholic Church instead teach dissent from Church teaching.  Those who serve the Church as its shepherds who teach this dissent will in the end have to accept the responbility for those souls lost to our Lord by their actions.  Jesus said we must come to Him as children and created His Church with strong power to forgive or retain sin to his priests and bishops.  He also had a very nasty end result for those who harmed his children. 
We often see this happen with those who support a leftist or dissent filled agenda as they know the True teaching of the Catholic Church as above with birth control, but prefer to dissent or to remain silent.  Pope JP II did a wonderful service to the entire Church with his Theology of the Body which should have become a critical part of all those who work with the layity in this critical area of marriage and our relationship with God and life.  It was clearly a gift from God and yet how many have made it part of all marriage preparation in thier parishes?  Sad and such a terrible price to pay when they meet our Lord. 
E.Patrick Mosman | 6/17/2010 - 8:11pm
It is hard to believe that a column entitled "Uninformed Conscience" fails to mention then Cardinal Ratzinger's 1991 address entitled 'Conscience and Truth" delivered in February 1991 at the '10th Workshop for Bishops; in Dallas Texas or Pope John Paul II's  Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life,1995).

Since Vatican II the liberal wing of the Catholic Church has promulgated the superiority of one's own, or the subjective conscience, and in February 1991 then Cadrinal Ratzinger delivered the Church's response in his presentation 'Conscience and Truth" delivered at the '10th Workshop for Bishops; in Dallas Texas. A summary is found in the following;

"It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity. No door or window would lead from the subject into the broader world of being and human solidarity. Whoever thinks this through will come to the realization that no real freedom exists then and that the supposed pronouncements of conscience are but the reflection of social circumstances. This should necessarily lead to the conclusion that placing freedom in opposition to authority overlooks something. There must be something deeper, if freedom and, therefore, human existence are to have meaning.

The erroneous conscience, by sheltering the person from the exacting demands of truth, saves him ...—thus went the argument. Conscience appeared here not as a window through which one can see outward to that common truth which founds and sustains us all, and so makes possible through the common recognition of truth, the community of needs and responsibilities. Conscience here does not mean man's openness to the ground of his being, the power of perception for what is highest and most essential. Rather, it appears as subjectivity's protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality. Liberalism's idea of conscience was in fact presupposed here. Conscience does not open the way to the redemptive road to truth which either does not exist or, if it does, is too demanding. It is the faculty which dispenses from truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which should not like to have itself called into question. Similarly, it becomes the justification for social conformity. As mediating value between the different subjectivities, social conformity is intended to make living together possible. The obligation to seek the truth ceases, as do any doubts about the general inclination of society and what it has become accustomed to. Being convinced of oneself, as well as conforming to others, are sufficient. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction and the less depth he has, the better for him.
 What I was only dimly aware of in this conversation became glaringly clear a little later in a dispute among colleagues about the justifying power of the erroneous conscience. Objecting to this thesis, someone countered that if this were so then the Nazi SS would be justified and we should seek them in heaven since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience. Another responded with utmost assurance that of course this was indeed the case. There is no doubting the fact that Hitler and his accomplices who were deeply convinced of their
cause, could not have acted otherwise. Therefore, the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their albeit mistaken consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation. Since that conversation, I knew with complete certainty that something was wrong with the theory of justifying power of the subjective conscience, that, in other words, a concept of conscience which leads to such conclusions must be false. For, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples which follow therefrom do not justify man. Some thirty years later, in the terse words of the psychologist, Albert Gorres, I found summarized the perceptions I was trying to articulate. The elaboration of these insights forms the heart of this address. Gorres shows that the feeling of guilt, the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to the spiritual make-up of man. This feeling of guilt disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience's complaint against my self- satisfied existence. It is as necessary for man as the physical pain which signifies disturbances of normal bodily functioning. Whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill, a "living corpse, a dramatic character's mask," as Gorres says. "Monsters, among other brutes, are the ones without guilt feelings. Perhaps Hitler did not have any, or Himmler, or Stalin. Maybe Mafia bosses do not have any guilt feelings either, or maybe their remains are just well hidden in the cellar. Even aborted guilt feelings ... All men need guilt feelings."

Cardinal Ratzinger's address carefully constructs how following one's own subjective conscience can
lead to self-justification for horrific acts. It should be required reading for all who write on conscience and truth; http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/RATZCONS.HTM 

Soon after John Paul II's passing, President George W. Bush spoke approvingly of the Pope reminding “us of our obligation to build a culture of life, in which the strong protect the weak.” But few have read the papal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life,1995), in which the “culture of life” is fully explained and defended.   It is a remarkable document in which John Paul carefully offers a case for the sanctity of human life, the wrongness of certain practices including abortion and euthanasia, and the obligation of Christian citizens and public officials in advancing a culture of life.  What will surprise many is John Paul’s impressive grasp and use of Scripture and how he weaves together an extended argument whose premises include passages and principles from the Word of God.  But what John Paul teaches  and what will appear novel to some of many, is the careful manner in which he shows that the moral principles found in Scripture are consistent with a reflective understanding of the order and nature of things that one can know apart from the biblical text.

For example, John Paul points out that when proponents of liberal democracy embrace moral relativism (as they often do), they are in fact offering a self-defeating point of view that, ironically, is philosophically incapable of sustaining a political regime that claims that the purpose of its laws is to protect human equality and dignity.   Writes John Paul:

"It is true that history has known cases where crimes have been committed in the name of "truth". But equally grave crimes and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being committed in the name of  "ethical relativism". When a parliamentary or social majority
decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life, is it not really making a "tyrannical" decision with regard to the weakest and most defenceless  of human beings? Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?"

According to John Paul, "a democratic regime, whose purpose is to do justice by treating all human beings under its authority with equal regard, cannot do so without embracing certain fundamental moral truths as foundational to its institutions and laws: “the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the `common good’ as the end and criterion regulating political life…” This means that governments that permit abortion-on-demand and suicide, and do not protect the institutions of marriage and the family, do not advance the cause of liberal democracy, because they are in fact violating the essential principles of liberal democracy.  For abortion-on-demand and suicide are inconsistent with human rights and the dignity of the person, and marriage and the family are necessary for the common good."
Michael Barberi | 6/17/2010 - 4:16pm
Bravo, Fr. Kavanaugh for a great article on conscience.  I also found the proceeding comments very helpful and insightful.  I will check out that book you suggested.
As for my conscience, I am greatly concerned over the moral dilemma the Church has put Catholic around the world in.  I don't want to debate the Church's position on artifiical birth control, even though I have read and reflected much on this subject.  My issue is that the Church allows two different teachings to exist within the Church on this subject.  Of course, the Church will say there is only one teaching like Humanae Vitae and subsequent encyclicals on the Family that support it.  However, we all know, and so does Church hierarchy, that most priests and many bishops teach the rule of conscience as guidance for parishioners.  The largest oversight and moral wrong is that Humanae Vitae and all articles, encyclicals etc since then, does no address SIN.  Of course everyone knows that the words "morally wrong and intrnnsically evil means mortal sin.  Howver, Sin is not preached from the pulpit only weak persuasive evidence and rationale about the right and wrong way of birth control.  According to the Church, anyone who practices artifical birth control committing a mortal sin because it is morally wrong and intrinsically evil.   Yet, millions of Catholics today practice artifical birth control, don't confess it as a mortal sin and receive holy communion each week.  Thus, no one from the pulpit will say that is a sacraledge. 
What is morally worse: a Church that does not clearly explain when a sin and sacrilege is committed with respect to artifical birth control, OR, a Church that allows two different teachings to exist within the Church on this subject? 
It is not enough to issue encyclicals and occasional weekly Mass material on this subject and say the Church has spoken.   In more than 40 years, I have never heard a sermon from the pulpit talk about sin and artificial birh control.  If the Church wants its body (its parishioners and priests et al) to accept its teaching on aritifical birth conrtol, it should manage its message and not create a moral dilemma.  Following one form of this teaching supposively leads to heaven, the other to damnation.  Since your article was written on Conscience, where is the Church's moral conscience on this subject? The Church is perpetuating a moral wrong by not addressing and explaining this issue clearly, honestly and thoroughly.  They dilebrately overlook the practice of artifical birth control and the issues of sin, sacriledge, confession and holy communion.  The Church must be held accountable for its mismanaged message and moral wrongs.   If they would tell parishioners from the pulpit about when a mortal sin and a sacriledge is committed with respect to the practice of artificial birth control, more than 50% of parishioners would not return to the Church.  At a minimum, there would be a loud cry of anger and a demand for clarity and re-evaluation.  Note, I am not saying the Church's teaching on artifical birth control is right or wrong.  I am demanding clarity, moral accountability and honest explanations for its teachings on this subject.  After all, the Church uses it Magisterium to declare this teaching infallible.  Which one?
Fr. Kavanaugh, I would appreciate your views on this subject.
Tamzin | 6/17/2010 - 11:49am
Thanks to Fr. Kavanaugh for an excellent article. I really enjoyed reading it. I thought the point about the propagandisation of judgement was particularly interesting. It made me think of one of the difficult aspects of forming one's judgement and conscience: time. I live in the UK, and while I believe that we are fairly lucky over here in that, while there certainly exists some media bias, there still remains the possibility of access to fairly neutrally reported news. However, much as people might recognise that there is bias in the information we often receive from the media, from colleagues and from friends, there often isn't the time to throroughly research and meditate upon every issue that comes our way. (I don't mean that as an excuse, we should make time, but it can be difficult.)
Gil Huhlein | 6/16/2010 - 4:57pm
I have been diagnosed as a depressed person. Despite such clinical diagnosis I have never lacked hope nor faith! I would call my emotional state one of occassional sadness and not despondencey. The Church and more to the point, Jesus and His Gospel is the light and guide to view all issues in the world today! Our Hope is in the name of the Lord!

Let us approach our opposition through gentleness and patience! Jesus never taught us to tar and feather those we disagree with!

"Contempt before investigation is ignorance!"

If we would all consider the issues of the day through the Sacred Heart of Jesus the world would be a more respectful and loving place. Peace & Love
we vnornm | 6/16/2010 - 3:06pm
Great article by Father Kavanaugh!
 
Sadly, even universities are places of "assertions" and few opinions get changed during a discussion or conference.
 
Even sadder, "facts" are doctored to support only one position.
 
I once heard someone say, "Everyone is entitled to have their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to have their own facts."
 
Jack, hang in there. I have been hammered a bit by both the "right" and "left" and was encouraged when a friend told me that this is a true compliment to one's thinking.
 
Thank you for your contributions to our country as a veteran. bill
Jack Anliker | 6/16/2010 - 11:04am
How can you have a discussion where you bring facts and information that directly challenge the other person's faith?   People have faith in their ideologies which do not respond to reason.   I refer to people on the left and right whose motto is "my way or the hiway" or "you are either with us or against us."  It is much easier to just believe simple slogans and solutions.  Politicians must raise money to get elected and reelected so they pander to anyone with money to give and fill the airwaves with 30 second sound bites.  I had eight years with Franscican Sisters and four years with the Jesuits which helped develope my questioning conscience but it just puts me in the middle to be hammered by the left and right.  I have been accused of being a leftist aiding trouble maker by the Heritage Foundation when I was a VISTA volunteer while being a veteran caused the words nazi, baby killer, elitist asshole, etc... to be hurled at me.   The Catholic Schools have mostly lay teachers now who can teach about conscious but are not living examples of how conscious can shape our lives.  I have been told by a State of Oregon employee to never volunteer but told him it was too late, I was raised Catholic, I always volunteer.  My conscience tells me it is the correct action.  A conscience needs to be nurtured and developed.  I don't see young people being given this training.  I like to read and learn how things work which is rare in a world where fewer and fewer people can read.  I enjoyed your essay but as I was taught by my family, it is the left and right who will kill us so keep your eye on them.  When the middle goes away completely, it is time to find a new country. 
 
CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 6/15/2010 - 3:15am
Thank you so very much for identifying so well our quandary today, the absence of dialogue, and our resistance to listening to the other.
C Walter Mattingly | 6/14/2010 - 8:41pm
Ken, I share your dismay at contemporary events in our church and our society, yet I feel your original, unquestioning trust in an all-knowing and all-good clergy and church community never has had a foundation in fact. Even Jesus could not finally trust Peter or the other apostles to recognize and support him at crunch time, yet he founded his church on this conflicted soul.  Read a few verses of Dante, or a history of the Medici popes, and you find disasters far greater than what we now suffer. The church has always been wonderful and messed up simultaneously, like we are individually. That is where the ball lies. I would like to call this condition Original Sin, probably because I can't understand, much less explain, Original Sin either. But to say that because the church or others have failed in this or that dimension is justification for moral relativism is to me throwing out the baby with the bath water.  Having just reread Fr Martin's book, Ignatius provides a way of proceeding, I believe, that may assist your efforts to reestablish a moral modus operandi for decision making, while at the same time addressing Fr Kavanaugh's concern about building a foundation of evidence before proclaiming an opinion.  (Duh. Both are Jesuits, what would you expect?) Ignatius calls this detachment, closely related to indifference, in which as far as possible you clear your mind, becoming neutral before proceeding and then carefully consider the facts and positions of all sides, acknowledging what remains constant and what changes in any issue.
For example, suppose you are concerned with the social justice issue of improving the prospects for young men, particularly the underprivileged inner city males, in the US. You might move from a blank slate to comparing statistics such as the reason young men were turned down for service in Roosevelt's day with the present day. In Roosevelt's time, the most common cause of rejection was malnutrition, which of course related to not enough nourishment for the hardscrabble lifestyle of many during the late days of the second depression of 1937.  One social justice answer to that problem of hunger might be something like the food stamp program. In our day, however, the main cause of rejection from service is obesity. Obviously this means that most of these young men eat too many calories and/or are physically inactive, mostly lifestyle choices rather than lack of particular goods such as food. This relates, you might further conclude, to educational issues and the self-discipline of delayed gratification. These are learned mainly in the home and in the schools. (It takes discipline and delayed gratification to pay attention, do homework, etc. rather than play video games or hang out on the corner.)  Since there exists a high correlation of school success with having 2 parents in the household, and that percentage has dropped fully in half, from 75 to 38% over the past half century in minority households, it would help the general well-being of all concerned to encourage such families.  One way of doing so is promulgating schools that teach a religious curriculum that includes inculcating values such as fidelity and restraint.  Since a higher proportion of these schools' students graduate and score average or better on tests than their peers, these young men are learning the discipline of academic life, which also entails delayed gratification. Therefore supporting school vouchers for those families which cannot afford to pay for parochial or other schools that provide religious foundations can be considered an important act of social justice for this population.
I have tried to provide a simple example by visiting an issue important to me, yet I think it representative of how you might use facts current and past to blend with the church's core value of social justice to come to a moral perspective and plan for acting morally. It is by no means complete, and only the opinion of a citizen of the church and state. It is almost certainly to be modified for other or future factors, but it is so much better for us all, I believe, if we act in an open-hearted and thoughtful manner, moving from as blank a slate as our own predispositons will allow to an informed one, as opposed to being a reed tossed about in ethical crosswinds.
If you conclude that you still don't get it, or, more likely, I don't get it, try Fr Martin's book. Seriously. It is accessible, helpful, and cheap.
 
KEN CHAISON | 6/14/2010 - 4:44pm
I feel like a reed shifting in the wind.  I used to know whom to trust to help me form my concience. Now I do not know how to reconcile my concience.
I used to believe that we could trust people in high places in government.  Certainly they would have the best access to data, and provide information honestly to the people. After all, they had gone through some scrutiny to get to those positions.  As we all know now, money controls most everything done in Washington.  Lobbyists lavish large amounts of cash to get political favors.  Many politicians have also been involved in sex scandals which also compromise their positions. I do not feel any level of trust in them.
I used to believe that clergy could be trusted.  There are many wonderful members of the clergy who have lived faithfully to their mission and to their vows, but the revelations of abuse all over the world, and hearing that even the pope, himself, may have had something to do with keeping the secrets of child abusers, has tainted everyone else.  In the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, churches have been sold to pay for law suits.  Much damage has been done.  It all comes down to money and scandal in the church as well.
The church is not open to sharing all of the "specifics of evidence, information and data" that you mention.  Members of the hierarchy and their lawyers have been busy trying to prevent that information and data from being revealed ever since the scandals first broke and continue to do so even today.
I welcome the opportunity to look at all the evidence, as you say, to help me form my moral judgments, but the evidence is withheld from me.  Truth is withheld by corrupt politicians and truth is withheld by The Church.
Therefore, I do not believe that anyone can be faulted for forming their own concience and making a wide variety of judgements, some of which are strongly opposed by others.  All of those formations are valid and 'correct' based on the available information available to the individuals.
We all become reeds, shifting in the wind and with no firm foundation because of lack of trust in the people and the institutions, in which we used to believe.  Trust must be restored before one can possibly say that another's conscience is not correct.

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