"The Rights of Conscience" is one of the main banners under which war is waged today on law. Most people, Christians included, see law and conscience in inevitable conflict. Moreover, if they are asked which stands higher - law or conscience - their instinct is to side with conscience; perhaps without reflecting that, as happens with law and freedom, one can too quickly see opposition between realities that are naturally meant to be in close harmony.
Nevertheless, the theme does seem to pose troublesome questions. Do many laws not represent an imposition on conscience? Does the administration of law not often violate the rights of personal conscience? Must one obey law, or is one free to follow conscience? ... With the ideas of the last chapter in mind let us try to throw some light on this theme.
"Conscience leaves a man free"...?
"Law binds; conscience leaves a man free" is a variation - frequently enough heard - on a phrase we considered in the last chapter. The phrase shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of conscience, and equally of its relationship to law. Conscience binds, just as law does. It binds even more intimately, for it binds from within. Conscience does not leave a man free, i.e. free to do "what he likes". Conscience says, "Do this; do not do that - whether you like it or not". Conscience does not "dialogue" with a man; conscience dictates. The very first right of conscience, after all, is the right to be obeyed. The man who listens to his conscience is not free to do "what he likes". He is bound - under moral compulsion, from within - to do what conscience tells him. He can ignore that moral command and disobey his conscience, but only at the cost of violating its rights; and at the cost also of abusing his human freedom and debasing his essential human dignity.
Conscience binds, just as law does, for conscience is in fact a form or reflection of law. "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: co this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged" (GS 16).
Conscience itself, then, is a law, an interior law. It is not, however, a law to itself. It is not man's creation, and is not subordinate to man. It is an echo of God's law: an echo which, as the case may be, interprets God's law clearly and faithfully..., or obscurely..., or even deformedly... But in any case it remains an echo of a law that it has not created, an echo of a law that is higher than itself.
If conscience is an inner law, can it not find itself in conflict with some external law, with some law of the Church or the State? It can; but it is not in the nature of things that this should normally happen. After all, both law and conscience are guides to human action - hopefully, to the right course of human action. Each is a signpost. Ideally, as signposts, they should both point in the same direction. If they do not, something is wrong.
If both law and conscience are sound, then one reaffirms the other. A good law gives clear light to a sound conscience; a sound conscience approves and welcomes a good law, and urges its fulfillment.
But there can be opposition between them. If this happens, there is bound to be a defect somewhere. Either the law is bad, or else personal conscience is deformed.
We have said enough about what makes laws good or bad. What principles can we establish about conscience?
Rules about conscience
There are two main rules about conscience to be kept in mind:
I) CONSCIENCE MUST BE FOLLOWED. If my conscience gives a certain judgment, commanding or prohibiting some action, then, according to Catholic teaching, I must obey my conscience. Examining this, we see that if it is to be obligatory to follow one's conscience, a double requirement must be fulfilled:
a) it is when the judgment of conscience is certain that it must be allowed. If conscience is in doubt, then there is no obligation to follow it. On the contrary, normally one ought not to act with a doubtful conscience;
b) it is when conscience commands or forbids that it must be followed. If conscience simply 'permits', then one may follow it, but one is under no obligation to do so.
If my conscience tells me, with full certainty, that a law is wrong and not to be obeyed - a racially discriminatory law, for instance, or an abortion law - then it is clear: I disobey, I am morally bound to disobey.
This can happen with laws of the State. Unfortunately it is in no way difficult to imagine state laws that are morally wrong, or a state constitution that violates justice and people's rights. Such laws, of course, are not laws in any true sense at all. Such a constitution lacks any inherent authority. A citizen may be compelled to submit to them, but they do not and cannot bind his conscience.
Can something similar happen with church laws? Can conscience find itself in conflict with the laws of the Church to such an extent that it feels bound to resist these laws? Here we should distinguish between (a) merely disciplinary laws (Lenten fast, Sunday Mass-going, etc.) and (b) laws that the Church presents as essential laws of faith or morals (papal primacy, the indissolubility of marriage, etc.).
Let us look first at laws that relate to merely ecclesiastical discipline. Can such laws be "wrong"?
Before answering, it is no harm to point out that we do not always use the word "wrong" in a very precise sense; that we often use it when we would do better to use a different word.
A church law can obviously be unpopular. This, when it happens, is easy enough to judge. Laws about fasting, for instance, are generally not very popular. But are we, on that account, going to say that they are wrong?
A church law may indeed by unwise or inopportune. This too can undoubtedly happen, although the judgment that a particular law is unwise is not always easy to make; and, after all, how is one to know that such a judgment itself is wise? Further, supposing that I do judge that a particular church law is unwise, does this mean that it is wrong? Does this mean that it is wrong enough for me to be entitled in conscience to ignore it or to disobey it?...
We should allow for such imprecisions of language, but we still have to answer our question: can a merely disciplinary law be wrong? The answer of course is that a merely ecclesiastical law could be wrong in the strict sense; i.e. in the sense that to obey it would be sinful and to disobey it becomes a duty in conscience. But, frankly, I cannot think of any existing church law anywhere that falls even remotely into such a category. One can imagine such a case, of course, e.g. a bishop going mad and decreeing that all the people in his diocese must sign a declaration acknowledging him to be God, and agreeing to turn over all their personal property to him. But, outside of such imaginings ...?
Yet it is a fact that some people today maintain that merely disciplinary laws do not bind in conscience, and they disregard them. And the laws they are disregarding are not outlandishly imaginary laws, but real universal disciplinary laws; e.g. laws relating to worship, to the administration of the sacraments, to priestly celibacy.
Their justification for ignoring these laws is often the fact that they are precisely "only" disciplinary laws, and therefore can change; and "therefore" don't bind. I am sorry; the last conclusion does not follow. They do bind.
Laws that relate to merely ecclesiastical discipline - such as are, for instance, the law of priestly celibacy or the law of fasting - are certainly reformable laws in the sense that they could be modified or abolished. But - reformable or not, popular or not, wise and opportune or not - as long as they are in force, they bind each Christian; and they bind in conscience.
The laws of any society bind its members unless some law in a particular case is clearly shown to be contrary to the norm of justice. St Paul, speaking of rulers and authorities, says we should obey their laws, "also" - he adds - "for the sake of conscience" (cf. Rom 13:5). He is referring to civil laws; church laws call for at least equal conscientious obedience. All true laws, civil as well as ecclesiastical, bind in conscience; the virtue of justice - what we owe to God and to others - calls on our conscience to obey them. As we shall see in a moment, church laws have a further warranty, besides justice, behind them.
Levels of conscientious difficulty
But can a Catholic not feel "in conscience" that a particular church disciplinary law should be changed? He can feel it, in conscience (although conscience should be an area not of feelings, but of reason). He can advocate it (provided he avoids scandal). What he cannot do, in conscience, is to disobey. If he does, he sins.
Some persons "exempt" themselves from obedience to a church law because - they say - that law "makes no sense" to them, or seems "unimportant", or "outdated" or "restrictive" . But such personal feelings or appreciations in no way annul the binding obligation of the law. Otherwise no one would be bound to obey any state or church law that simply did not appeal to him.
It is not enough that a person says he does not see, in conscience, why this or that particular law should bind him. "Not seeing" the point or the justice or the application of a law does not justify disobedience of that law. Disobedience is justified only if one is certain of the law's injustice, certain, in other words that to obey it would be wrong in the strict sense, i.e. that it would be sinful.
Recalling the principles given above, we can observe that the reasons the person in question alleges for disobeying are not that his conscience prohibits obedience or commands disobedience, but that it simply "permits" him to disobey. But, as we saw, no one has a duty to follow a conscience that simply permits. To this we must add that no one has a right to follow it if this means going against other existing serious obligations (including the obligation not to give scandal).
Only an imperative conscience ("you have to disobey") justifies disobedience. A simply acquiescent or permissive conscience does not justify disobedience, least of all if such disobedience can in any way harm the common good or the rights of others (Cf I Cor 10:24, 28).
When a person disobeys a state law - e.g. on abortion or sterilization - his conscience tells him he must disobey, and that to obey would be a serious sin, would be seriously displeasing to God.
It is not easy to imagine anything even remotely similar occurring in the case of disobedience to a church law; to imagine, for instance, a priest's conscience telling him that he must disobey the Church's law requiring celibacy, that God would be seriously displeased if he were to obey it.
The point made above is worth repeating: it is not enough for a person to say, "I do not see, in conscience, that this or that church law applies to me". The fact that one "does not see" is not a sufficient level of conscientious difficulty to justify disobedience. Nothing less than what one does see as an obligation before God, to disobey, can justify disobedience to the law (cf. Acts 5:29).
Let us turn to a different category of laws, laws that express fundamental points of the Church's dogmatic or moral teaching. The question again arises: could the conscience of a Catholic tell him that laws are wrong, and therefore should be rejected or disobeyed?
No. Clearly no; not at least if his conscience as a Catholic tells him, as it ought, that Christ stands behind such laws and teachings. To suggest that the Church's law is wrong in any such matter is to suggest that Christ is wrong; it is to suggest that he has failed in his promises to his Church: "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" (Mt 18:18), "whoever listens to you listens to Me" (Lk 10:16).
It may happen that, in some such matter, my conscience (my mind, really) does not "see" the logic or the human reasons behind the law. But my mind, if it is a Catholic mind, tells me that Christ is behind it. If Christ is behind the law (my mind should go on to conclude), then the law must be right; and it must also be right, it must be Christ's Will, that I obey it. But, of course, if the law is right and if it is right for me to obey it, then my conscience - which "argues" against the law or against its acceptance - must be wrong....
Is conscience infallible?
"My conscience is wrong!" For some people today this seems to be the one possibility that they will not admit - which of course means they are ready to attribute to their own conscience the very quality of infallibility that they deny to the Church's teaching....
Obviously, if conscience could not be wrong, then there would never be any reason to look for outside moral guidance at all. God's Revelation, Scripture, Tradition, the Church - all would be functionless. My personal conscience would infallibly decide everything.
No. My conscience is not infallible. It can be wrong in its judgments. And then of course it becomes a bad guide, pointing away from the truth instead of pointing towards it.
Conscience can be wrong. That is why, to the first major rule we gave about conscience - that conscience must be followed - we need to add a second:
2) CONSCIENCE MUST BE FORMED. Conscience can be mistaken in the judgments it gives me about the moral truth. Therefore it needs to conform to a higher law, to be adjusted to a more accurate rule of truth.
A simple comparison helps. Think of a watch. I follow my watch, so as to be punctual. But I don't regard my watch as infallible. It may be telling me the wrong time. Therefore I adjust it by some more accurate timepiece....
Is there a more accurate standard of truth, some higher law, according to which man can adjust his conscience? For a non-Christian, it seems not - unless he knows and accepts the Natural Law.
For a Christian, Christ is that standard: "I am the Truth" (Jn 14, 8). Protestants too hold this. But they hold that the Truth of Christ can be known through the Bible alone. And in applying the principle of private judgment, they make the Truth of Christ subject to their own personal conscience. They do not look up to the Truth of Christ; their conscience stands higher. Their conscience reigns supreme. They believe in the infallibility of their own watch.
For Catholics, Christ speaks to us in the Bible ...; and in Tradition ...; and in the Magisterium... And these three precisely form the one living and harmonious Voice of Christ through which he communicates his Truth to us (cf. DV 10). The same voice of Christ communicates his Will to us, speaking to us not only through the Commandments of Scripture, but also through the laws and discipline of his Church. Both the Truth of Christ and the Will of Christ call for our free response.
We look up to Christ's Truth as the highest and ultimate guide: the objective, audible Truth of Christ as taught in the Bible and believed in by Christ's Church through the ages. And we look up to Christ's Will, as to the greatest good - love for which must be shown in deeds. Christ's will comes to us in and through the law of the Gospel and the laws given by those who, in his Name, rule the Church .* * *
Another facile but misleading phrase merits a comment here: "each one has to look up to his own conscience". It is not very properly expressed. You look in to your conscience; you don't look "up" to it. It is within you; it is part of you; it is not higher than you.
It is not your conscience that you look up to; it is the truth. For the truth is indeed above you and higher than you.
* * *
Conscience then remains our guide; but subordinate to the law. That is why the textbooks tell us that conscience is the proximate but not the ultimate rule of right and wrong. It is not the wisest guide we have, nor the highest Court of Appeal we can look to. It is not higher than Natural Law; it is not higher than Revelation; it is not higher than God's Law.
And that, finally, is why we cannot say that conscience stands higher than law. It is not higher than any law which one has reason to believe is a true law. It can only stand higher than a false or unjust law - which then is no law. One refuses to obey such a "law" precisely because one feels obliged to follow a higher law. It is the higher law which not only authorizes but commands our conscience to disobey.
Our conclusion, then, remains firm: law, true law, always stands higher than conscience.