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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role

Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




Freedom of conscience


FREEDOM OF conscience is something we take for granted these days, but, though it has always been at the heart of our Catholic tradition, the notion of freedom of conscience has had a chequered history in the teaching and practice of the Church, as a brief overview will show.

In the Jubilee Year 2000 the late Pope John Paul II called the Church to an examination of conscience and a ‘purification of memory’ because of past failures to live authentically as followers of Christ. In his Apologies he listed among the mistakes made by the Church over the preceding 1000 years the many violations of conscience and other rights of the human person perpetrated in the name of the faith in religious wars, the courts of the Inquisition, the Crusades, anti-Semitism and other expressions of grave intolerance. During that long period inadequate notions of conscience, of human freedom and even of faith held sway among some, often influential, members of the Church.

For four hundred years following the Council of Trent handbooks of moral instruction were used in seminaries to prepare priests for the ministry, especially the ministry of the sacrament of penance. They were practical manuals, with a pastoral orientation and only minimally theological in presentation. It is interesting that typically the first and fundamental treatise was devoted in these manuals to conscience. However, although this is a measure of the importance accorded to it, as time went on the full meaning of freedom of conscience was lost and conscience was given only a limited and restrictive role in the conduct of moral life. In some quarters this was pushed to extremes.

As the second millennium of the Christian era progressed, the secular world began to react against current restrictive understandings of conscience and freedom. The rights of individual conscience and of its liberty in face of any kind of despotism and unjust oppression were increasingly elaborated during the eighteenth century and finally found expression in the ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ of 1789. Ideas of democracy, tolerance, freedom of thought and speech and human rights were spread in the Western World by the French Revolution and today have become an essential part of our modern cultural heritage, although, as has in fact not infrequently happened, the danger of turning freedom of conscience into an absolute is always present.

Because of its heavy emphasis on the law of God, the official Church of the time strongly opposed this promotion of the rights of individual conscience, which it associated with bitter memories of revolutionary anticlericalism. Liberty of conscience was condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832 as a ‘pestilential evil and insane raving’, a condemnation taken up and confirmed by Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors in 1864. This continued refusal (at least up to Vatican II) to endorse freedom of conscience was one of the main aspects of the burgeoning divorce between the Church and the contemporary world.

Older Catholics can probably remember how we tended to think of conscience prior to Vatican II. Conscience was something that we had, that we consulted for guidance, somewhat in the manner of the commuter consulting the rail timetable or the forward planner looking up the calendar. It was our private rulebook, a sort of built-in personal code of ethics, or perhaps our very own dictionary of moral answers, all given to us by God and enforced by our Church. Conformity and obedience to authority (of God and Church) rather than freedom characterised conscience. ‘Having a conscience’, for example, about snatching handbags from little old ladies or falsifying income tax returns or missing Mass on Sundays meant being a person in whom had been instilled the conviction of the wrongness of such actions and who in consequence would feel guilty in doing them. Since it often takes courage to ‘follow your conscience’ (that is, in obeying these perceived and accepted rules of conduct), particularly when it involves inconvenience or difficulty, for many of us moral responsibility consisted, not in being a mature and self-determining person (in this way conscience was denied any role in personal self-expression or determination), but rather in awareness of these rules of behaviour together with a strong will enabling us to live by these rules.

The theological underpinning of this kind of thinking was rooted in the kind of theology popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Theologians set out to recapture what they thought were the key elements of the Golden Age of scholastic theology (the movement was therefore dubbed neo-scholasticism). Adopting a particular interpretation of natural law, they laid undue stress on an objective moral order set up by God himself and written on our hearts, an order of conduct which is absolute and which determines the morality of human acts. The task of conscience in this view is to ensure that we conform ourselves to this objective and absolute moral order and to the norms flowing from it.

Conscience is thus conceived as simply the bridge between individual persons and this order laid down by God. Only obedience to these norms can ensure that we have a right conscience. Freedom of conscience does not rate highly in this approach. Conscience’s only role is in the application of moral rules to particular situations. Largely because it was attributed, wrongly, to St. Thomas Aquinas, this position became quite influential in Roman Catholic circles and was spelled out in detail in the discussion paper presented by the Preparatory Commission to the Second Vatican Council in 1962. It was rejected by the Council Fathers in the treatment of conscience in The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of 1965 (Gaudium et Spes).

In response to Pope John XXIII’s challenge to contact the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel, this document shows that conscience is not something we have; it is the very person himself or herself in their inner depths, where they are alone with God, whose voice echoes within (n.16). It is a meeting of persons, not in the first place a confrontation with a law or a moral order. The sense of moral obligation experienced in conscience concerns more than particular decisions about doing good and avoiding evil; in the depths of conscience it is the very person who is experienced as under obligation to be a certain kind of person, that is, a loving, relating person. Conscience in the first instance is a decision about being, only in the light of that a decision about particular acts. The experience of particular decisions comes only gradually. This approach to conscience is not centred upon a moral order in the sense proposed by the preparatory working plan but on a law of love, on an order of persons in communion with one another and with God. Conscience renders testimony to our spirit whether in all our moral decisions we express our being in Christ the children of God our Father.

Finally the document makes the point that ‘the Gospel announces and proclaims the freedom of the children of God, rejects all slavery which in the last analysis derives from sin, and honours as sacred the dignity of conscience and its free decision. All this corresponds with the fundamental law of the Christian dispensation’, by reason of which ‘the rightful autonomy of the creature, and especially of the human person, far from being taken away, is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it’ (n. 41).

The 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document that Pope Paul VI considered ‘one of the major texts of the Council’, confirms and proclaims this principle of freedom. On the basis of their dignity as persons, it states, people should not be forced to act against their consciences, nor should they be prevented from acting in accordance with their consciences, within due limits. The Declaration says: ‘the usages of society are to be usages of freedom in their full range. These require that the freedom of human beings be respected as far as possible and curtailed only when and insofar as necessary’ (n. 7. Italics mine). According to John Courtney Murray SJ, one of the principal architects of the document, this statement of the principle of freedom (as much freedom as possible; as little restraint as necessary) may be seen as the most significant sentence in the whole document. He went on to explain that, ‘though the Declaration deals only with the minor issue of religious freedom in the technical secular sense, it does affirm a principle of wider import – that the dignity of man consists in his responsible use of freedom’ (Religious Freedom (1966), 673-4). In his view the Declaration, taken together with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has ushered in a new era of reconciliation with the modern spirit and opened the way to a new straightforwardness in the dialogue between the Church and the world.

Some, of course, take the notion of freedom of conscience to mean open slather, a licence to do what you want. It is true that many today, including Catholics, believe that one is entitled to make up one’s own mind without reference to any outside authority, either of church or state, and that one can do what one likes in matters of faith and morals, provided the rights of others are not trampled upon. Thus the individual is made completely autonomous in making personal decisions and truth becomes completely relative. The late Pope John Paul II was so alarmed at this trend that he tackled it head on. In his 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor he reacted strongly against this exaggerated exaltation of personal freedom and its offshoot, ‘a claim to moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty’ and make conscience a law unto itself (n. 35:3). On this basis the document criticised unidentified theologians, who, it claims, have distorted the true understanding of conscience ‘in relation to freedom and God’s law’ (nn. 55:1-56:2).

Strongly upholding the principle of freedom: as much freedom as possible; as little restraint as necessary, the Declaration on Religious Freedom is at pains to spell it out in some detail. ‘It is in accordance with their dignity as persons that all should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth’ (n. 2:3). Our exercise of freedom must be responsible, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. This means that in facing difficult decisions we are called upon to reflect deeply on what we propose and do our best to arrive at the right answer, taking into account all relevant aspects of the situation. Since our actions can often have an impact on others, we must always be careful that we do not encroach upon their human rights. As Catholics we should listen attentively to what the Church has to say about the issue – if it has spoken on it. And sometimes we may need to consult others wiser than ourselves for guidance. All this is implied in the Council’s explanation of the principle of freedom of conscience.

Clearly, then, there has been a development in our understanding of what it means to live as a human person in community, and so in our perception of the notion of freedom of conscience, understood in its full theological meaning and afforded its proper role in authentically Christian living. This theme of freedom of conscience is of great relevance to any dialogue between Church and the world, because it lies at the heart of numerous actual problems both within the Church, for example, the relationship between the teaching authority of the Church and its exercise and the freedom of believers (keeping in mind that there is an order or a hierarchy of truths taught and that all are not on the same level), and in society at large, for example, in regard to society’s treatment of its gay and lesbian members, its attitude to asylum seekers, racial intolerance and sectarianism, or by contrast its indifference or neglect in the area of social justice. However, the progress made in the teachings of Vatican II regarding the primacy of conscience and its legitimate freedom must not be seen as merely an attempt on the part of the Church to catch up with contemporary secular thinking; it is imperative to understand this progress in continuity with biblical revelation and our basic theological tradition.

Brian Lewis graduated from the Alphonsian Academy of Moral Theology and the University of St Thomas in Rome. He has written much on moral issues, and is now in retirement.

Vatican Council II:
--------(1965), The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), n.16.
--------(1965), The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).
Both in Walter M. Abbott (ed) (1966), The Documents of Vatican II. (Chapman: London), with the introduction Religious Freedom and the footnotes by John Courtney Murray SJ.
D’Arcy, Eric (1961), Conscience and its Right to Freedom (Sheed and Ward: London).
Duncan, Bruce CSsR, ‘The Significance of the Pope’s Proposed Apologies for Errors
By the Church’, Australasian Catholic Record, October 1999, 462-479.
Kelly, Kevin T. (1992), New Directions in Moral Theology. (Chapman: London), 76-85.

Further reading on Conscience: Compass vol. 37, 2003, no. 4