The arrested development of the American conscience in moral decision making
“Calming the conscience, numbing the conscience, this is a great evil.” – Pope Francis, Oct. 9, 2015
Over the past two years I have been writing about the differences between the European and American use of conscience. These differences have led me to believe that we in the United States need to develop a much more rigorous notion of conscience.
This article is in two parts. First, I share findings that I have published elsewhere, most notably in the journal Theological Studies. Second, I suggest several elements that we need to retrieve so as to develop a richer understanding of conscience that is more sensitive to the demands of moral truth. In particular, I emphasize that the virtue of humility can help us appreciate why these elements are so necessary. Here I propose that a humble conscience provides us with a deeply relational and accountable source of moral agency.
After World War II, European theologians, having witnessed Catholic participation in unimaginably heinous conduct during the war, developed a robust promotion of the call of conscience for all Catholics. These theologians were developing a moral argument that would replace the moral manuals of the 18th through the 20th centuries that they believed had helped lead the way to an obediential passivity in the laity that left them unprepared for the dictatorial rule of the Nazis and their Fascist allies.
Later, they further developed a theology of conscience that was at once deeply embedded in the person yet highly relational and always mindful of the responsibility to hear the call of Christ. Their writings were taught throughout European seminaries and universities, where priests and bishops accepted and embraced these insights, which they in turn as council fathers validated in the celebrated paragraph on conscience in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (No. 16).
We need to appreciate that their ethics was built in a spirit of humility on a deep conviction of their own wartime guilt. One might make the generalization that the European conscience awoke in a new way when it acknowledged the truth and confronted the consequences of its own actions and inactions in the barbaric rubble of the Holocaust.
After World War II, through a variety of ways, Europeans began a process of understanding their capacity for evil by examining the history of their own actions. That understanding continues to be visible today when one visits Germany, for instance, and sees public, social reminders of the nation’s own atrocities. From the Concentration Camp Memorial in Dachau to the Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, we can literally enter and see the pangs of the European conscience evident in its enduring testimonials.
In contrast, the contemporary American rejection of the manualist tradition and turn to conscience was not at all through any experience of remorse, either individually or collectively. The war, in fact, prompted no crisis of conscience, because Americans, including their theologians, believed they were on the right side. From the end of the war to Vatican II, most American moral theologians ignored the Europeans’ promotion of Catholic conscience. In the “Notes on Moral Theology” published regularly in Theological Studies, for instance, American Jesuit moralists routinely dismissed the claims of the European moralists and their appeals to conscience.
Appeals to conscience emerged later in the United States both during the Vietnam War and in response to “Humanae Vitae” in the personal appeals by young men drafted into an undeclared war and in the claims of married couples hoping for a change in church teaching on contraception. These moments of conscience were not begun, as they were in Europe, with the collective social acknowledgement of profound human violations of the moral law. When the Americans turned to conscience, they were pleading individually against the very law-and-order mentality that American Catholic culture had so strongly supported even as the Europeans turned in a different direction.
Unfortunately the American use of conscience never really settled into, nor emerged from the place it did in Europe, that is, as the source of responsible personal and social moral agency. When we consider the U.S. bishops’ recent protest using a conscience clause against the Affordable Care Act, they appear to be doing what Americans normally do when they turn to conscience: They seem to invoke it to opt out of an existing law or command, whether that be the military draft, “Humanae Vitae” or, as in this case, the Affordable Care Act.
I do not think that the arrested development of the American conscience is simply the result of the rejection by U.S. moralists of the European initiative; it is also rooted in the longstanding American incapacity to recognize its own wrongdoing. Indeed, historians comment on the practice of American exceptionalism, in which we excuse many of our actions by presuming that our nation has a manifest destiny that exempts us from the standards that others must follow.
Consider slavery, for example, the quintessential American sin. Despite the nation’s own history of enslaving millions of people and of enjoying the benefit of slavery even without owning slaves, America has never collectively faced itself in conscience. As M. Shawn Copeland reminds us, the American conscience is haunted, profoundly damaged by the complex history of slavery in the United States and by its national willfulness to accommodate to and profit from racism.
Still, slavery did not arrive here innocently. The blindness evident in the collective consciousness of many Americans was rooted in the nation’s claim of manifest destiny, a claim that concomitantly animated the extinction of Native American populations as well as the enslavement of Africans.
The silence in the United States about slavery has further promoted an American understanding of itself as “innocent” that has played out time and again as the country sees itself as blameless and virtuous in the world. Americans, including American Catholics, never engaged in collective repentance for our own moral abominations in World War II, including intentionally killing innocent civilians in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden. The silent, presumptive innocence claimed by the United States is palpable when we listen to the American perspective on its relationships with Latin America, its understanding of the global ecological crisis or its de facto policy of unparalleled mass incarceration, yet another symbol of the racial entitlement tied to our manifest destiny. Until we can recognize the evidence of our own capacity for evil in the personal and national history of our own actions, we cannot claim to have a conscience, let alone to be exercising one.
Awakening the American Conscience
An examination of conscience belongs not only to persons but also to societies, an insight that all Catholics can appreciate as they begin the liturgy of the penitential rite at Mass, confessing in common their sinfulness. In fact, at the United Nations, Pope Francis, echoing a language that reminds us of phrases like the “conscience of the nation,” summoned the assembly to an examination of conscience. Referring to military and political interventions that are not based on international agreement, he argued, “These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs.”
With this in mind, I offer five different theological claims that might help us appreciate the conscience as the personal and social seat of moral responsibility and accountability.
First, the judgment of conscience should prompt us to confront our sinfulness. Commonly, conscience is divided into two significant functions. It looks backward at one’s own deeds, judging its own conduct and behavior, as one does when one examines one’s conscience. The second function of conscience is to discern or to direct agents to moral action. Thus the judicial conscience looks back, while discerning looks forward. These are fairly sequential; our capacity to discern well depends on whether we have judged well. The fundamental ethical mandate to know oneself is evident in this connection, but so too is the liberating work of judicial conscience. By knowing our sinful history we can in grace respond to it, ask for forgiveness, overcome it and try not to repeat it.
Certainly, a judicial conscience can discover not only moral failure but also moral satisfaction; but if it does not discover sin anywhere, then it does not discover the truth of itself. The discovery of one’s own sinfulness is an essential step in self-understanding and moral maturity.
While reaching its full flowering in the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of penance, the birth of conscience through remorse is a common theme throughout history. Any reading of Roman philosophy, for instance, teaches us that conscience was first recognized by its pangs, convictions and stains. Cicero, Julius Caesar and Quintilian refer us to the ways conscience awakens us to recognize our own misdeeds. In that awakening, many of us encounter conscience for the first time. In his book Conscience: A Very Short Introduction, Paul Strom remarks that this idea of conscience was so evident that in the very popular rhetorical work from the first century B.C.E., Rhetorica ad Herennium, prosecutors were advised to say that his adversary’s client shows “signs of conscience”: “blushed, grown pale, stammered, spoken inconsistently, displayed uncertainty, compromised himself.” To have a conscience is to recognize one’s own guilt.
Why? Because conscience helps us understand the objective moral truth. A guilty conscience is precisely one that recognizes a lack of connection between what we thought was a good to pursue and the realization that, as a matter of fact, it was not a good to pursue. Truth in conscience lets us see that we were wrong. When we first recognize that truth, we begin to realize that not everything we pursue is good; therein is the awakening of conscience: the humble willingness to submit our choices to the truth.
Second, when we discover our sinfulness, we discover our freedom. Some theologians have noted that the confession of sin is itself effective and illuminative. It is effective inasmuch as we do not know the scope of our sinfulness until we begin to acknowledge that we are sinners. Only when we utter “mea culpa” do we begin to see our history of sinful harm, which has not only hurt others unjustly, but has also impeded our own flourishing. Until we make this admission, we remain behind artificial blinders that keep us from recognizing the trajectory of effects that have occurred because of our sinfulness.
In that effective acknowledgement of our culpability, we are gifted with an illumination by which we understand first, what we did, but second, what we could have done. That is, the confession of our sinfulness lets us recognize that we could have acted otherwise. Until we have that illumination, we are trapped by an understanding of ourselves as weak and constrained, a convenient stance that literally keeps us from believing that we need to confess.
Thus, when we confess, we often realize that we sinned not out of weakness of will but out of a misapplied strength. Much of the manualist theology of sin, lacking a theology of conscience, made sin look inevitable and our own selves look weak, living in a world without virtue and grace. In that context we confessed sins that we could not have avoided, pleading that other conditions made us do what we did. We need to learn to confess our sins in the light of Christ, realizing in grace that the chance to act otherwise was there and that the excuses we proffer are merely, well, excuses. The honest and full confession of sin makes us realize that the disordered and prideful trajectory of our personal and social history can be changed.
Moreover, in the illumination of our sinfulness, we see just how sinful we are. We might do well to remember the insight of Dorothy Day, who realized as she matured that her own sinfulness was greater than she had realized. That insight brings with it a redemptive humility, a humility burdened not with self-deprecation but rather with an unabashed self-understanding of what it really means for one to act in conscience—that is, to do good and avoid evil in accordance with God’s will.
Conscience grows out of the humble self-understanding we have when the pangs of conscience move us to the confession of our sins. In that confession, we see who we have been called to become as authentic human beings; we recognize not primarily our failings but pre-eminently our calling to repent and move beyond them in God’s forgiveness.
Conscience Is the Key
Third, though deeply interior, the conscience is the key to our relationships with others, our world, ourselves and our God. As the Bible teaches us, through our consciences we examine our past histories and set the course of our future, always with others in mind. The word conscience, suneidēsis in Greek, appears in the New Testament 31 times, mostly in Paul, and almost always in terms of our relationship with others, for it is about our awareness of them. A key example of this is the question about meat dedicated to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; Rom 14), where Paul asks us whether our decisions in freedom are mindful of the needs of our fellow Christians growing in faith (see also 2 Cor 1:12; 5:11).
Suneidēsis does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but the word most routinely associated with conscience is kardia, “heart.” In fact, kardia is used over 800 times in the Bible, though not ever as a specific bodily organ; rather it always points to the source of all of our affective desires. Curiously, we Catholics might not realize this because the Catholic version of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible insists on keeping kardia as heart,though most Protestant translations refer to it as conscience. In 1 Sm 24:5, for instance, we see “Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak.” In 2 Mc 2:3 we read, “And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.” In Sir 42:18 we read, “He searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets.”
In the New Testament, kardia appears four times in 1 Jn 3:19-21: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him, whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God.”
I believe that it is precisely a humble conscience/heart that helps us to appreciate our relationship to others. If we define humility as knowing our place in God’s world, then we should see the Magnificat as a quintessential expression of humility, where the church sings the song of Mary who proclaims the greatness of God’s ordering of the world and her place in it. We, too, in humility, can see in the Scriptures, whether in Samuel, the Wisdom literature, John or Paul, that conscience brings with it a new freedom that allows us to see our place among the people of God.
When we discover our place in God’s world and our relationships therein, we begin to see how much we can learn for the formation of our conscience with “the word of God” as “the light for our path,” “assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1785). Learning to take advantage of the insights of our family and the community of believers, including its magisterium, we form our consciences by entering into a journey that only strengthens our capacity to hear the word of God and keep it.
Fourth, humility keeps us grounded. Inasmuch as the word humility derives from humus, meaning soil or dirt, humility keeps us close to the moral terrain in which we find ourselves. A humble conscience keeps us alert to our environment, our neighbor in need, our own responsibilities and the need to take account of the future and its challenges. Here we realize that the humble conscience engages—and sometimes interrupts—our agenda for our lives, which can so easily proceed automatically.
When we study the American civil rights movement, we can see conscience at work. While from one perspective one could see the entire civil rights movement as no more than a rejection of the racist laws in the United States, from another, we could see that the civil rights movement was at once an argument for the articulation of an objectively true law of justice, fairness and equality to replace the old false one. The movement’s leaders worked not only against unjust laws but, more important, in solidarity for the right realization of a dream. In conscience the leaders understood the harmful practices of redlining schools and neighborhoods, of demarcating space in restaurants and buses and of imprisoning and hanging innocent friends and family members. Their feet and eyes were on the American terrain, and they knew their place in God’s world, a knowledge that prompted them to sing the spirituals and the blues, their own Magnificat. In conscience, they made the laws right. From them we learn that the humble conscience is mindful of what one is called to do. From their witness we learn to form our consciences.
Finally, conscience brings with it a humility that affects not only how we understand our place in God’s world but also how we think, learn and understand. This insight into a humble way of thinking that rejects the imperial ego becomes a relational way of thinking and is complemented by what other theologians call the grace of self-doubt. In humility we discover that there can be a real grace in doubting ourselves and our opinions. This grace animates and informs our humility and helps us to see that the work of realizing ourselves as disciples of Christ is a formidable lifelong task fraught with misperceptions and yet possible precisely because of that humility.
Make no mistake about it: Conscience is not infallible. Quite the contrary. As Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”reminds us, we frequently err. But we can get to the truth only through conscience. Humility, then, is constitutive of the Christian quest for moral truth, because in truth we are always learning and opening ourselves to correction. For Catholic Christians, this process is assisted by prayerful participation in the life of the church, particularly by attention to the preaching of God’s word and the reception of the sacraments.
This final insight takes us to the beginning of this section of the article. In conscience we understand that we are bound by the truth as it really is. Truth stands in judgment of our own misdeeds, a judgment that we recognize in the pangs of conscience. When we confess, we effectively acknowledge objective truth and therein allow the judgment of conscience to rule that we have sinned. In that confession, we recognize truth not as something that we made up, but rather something that compels us. This phenomenon of “obeying our consciences,” “heeding the dictates of conscience” and “recognizing the demands of our conscience” captures the sense that conscience allows us to hear the truth as it is. In conscience we experience the claims of truth. This is why, for many, it is precisely a guilty conscience that allows us to have the experience that what we ought to pursue is only the right. We cannot in conscience make what is wrong right. A well-formed conscience, where we learn truth, teaches us in humility to allow truth to have its say. As St. John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993) reminds us,“freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth” (No. 64).
In the United States we need in humility to engage the conscience, to allow ourselves to be judged by the truth. In that experience of humbly submitting our personal and collective history to the truth we will discover both our sinfulness and our redemption together, because it is only as redeemed that we can know the true scope of our sinfulness. I suggest that looking in humble conscience at our histories on race and on the environment, we might begin to find the sources of our error and therein the possibility of acknowledging the truth, not only of our past, but of the course for our future. And then we might discover that our consciences should always be operative—and not only when we want to opt out.