I obviously must begin by explaining what I mean by a free conscience. To do so I would recall what conscience is; and (perhaps even more importantly) what it is not.

            Conscience is not an autonomous faculty of moral judgment, nor is it a sort of moral yes-man to one's personal whims, compliantly attaching the label 'right' to whatever one feels like doing (as for the label 'wrong', the "whimsy" conscience tends to reserve it in practice for what other people do).

            Conscience is that judgment of the mind as to the moral value (the rightness or wrongness) of one's own free actions. One can therefore only speak of conscience if one believes in values, in right and wrong, in personal responsibility, in free choice. And since lots of people don't believe in these things nowadays, the fact is that lots of people today who talk about conscience don't really believe in what they are talking about.

            After these preambula, I would express my thesis briefly in the following points:

            a) conscience is free if it is free to fulfil its functions properly, in other words, if it is free to be an accurate pointer towards right and an accurate protester against wrong. It is not free, therefore, if it is not free from error; if, for whatever reason, it points to what is wrong as if it were right; just as a compass is not free if, under the influence of some nearby magnetic field, it points to East of West as if it were North [1]. Again, conscience lacks freedom in the degree to which it is not free from doubt. A doubtful conscience does not feel free. It feels uncertain. A doubtful guide is not a free guide. One does not follow it freely. Further, conscience is not free ifs like a drugged or anaesthesized nervous system, it has lost its sensitivity to wrong.

            b) conscience is free - and feels free - in the measure in which it possesses the maximum certainty that it is functioning correctly, that its judgements are right.

            c) and conscience can possess such maximum - absolute - certainty only in letting itself be guided by the teaching of the Catholic Church, for only the Church teaches the truth - moral truth as well as dogmatic truth - infallibly. Therefore, the more conscience lets itself be formed by the teaching authority of the Church, the freer it feels, and the freer it is.

The Church on the defensive?

            Now, if I am told that modern man regards it as axiomatic that freedom and authority are irreconcilable enemies, and is therefore scarcely well prepared to accept unthinkingly a thesis which makes freedom of conscience depend on submission (as he would say) to authority, I would answer: Good, I am not asking modern man to accept this thesis unthinkingly. But I am asking him to accept it thinkingly. For I feel that if modern man will not readily accept the thesis just set forth, it is precisely because he is not thinking. And, since the thesis is true, it is vital to get him to think.

            Again if I am told that modern man questions any kind of authority; that, within the Church herself, modern Catholics are anything but unquestioning about Church authority, I would again say: Fine, let's turn all this questioning to good purpose. Far from hoping for less questioning, let's ask for more. Let modern man indeed question the Church about her authority, her credentials, her warrant for teaching, her claim to be the ally and not the foe of freedom, to be the support and not the oppressor of conscience. But let the questioning not be one-sided. Let the Church not be on the defensive. Let her also question modern man about his credentials, his certainties, his philosophy of freedom and his basis for it. And then, perhaps, modern man may begin to question himself, and to think.

            Let us direct a little of this questioning towards contemporary man who wants freedom (as I do), but who wants it without authority, who seems to believe that the mind is freer the less it has to accept any absolutes, and the conscience is freer the less it has to look to any given norm of conduct. We are here touching on two related concepts, that have been almost in the nature of battle crises for modern man: freedom of thought and freedom of conscience. Let us examine the first briefly, before passing on to the second which interests us more directly.

Freedom of thought

            What does modern man mean when he maintains - as he has been happily maintaining throughout recent centuries - that thought is free, that the mind is free? Is the mind free? Why, yes; up to a point. Is the mind free to think anything, or more specifically to think whatever it likes? Absolutely not; and it would be anything but a sign of freedom if it could think what it liked. It might like, for instance, to think that its owner is capable of floating out of the 10th floor window and wafting safely down to the ground. Or it might like to think that it is actually the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte recently escaped from exile in Elba...

            Such thoughts might be no more than fancy-free day dreaming. But if the mind really began to think these thoughts seriously, such thinking would be the sign of a deranged rather than a free mind. If one wishes, a madman, is the freest of men. He is in no way bound by the laws of logic or truth. But he is only free to think absurd and irresponsible thoughts (within the 'truth' he has invented); and to pay the consequences (and at times these are very costly) of the unreality of his thoughts if he acts upon them...

            A mind that falls into error every couple of minutes is hardly a free mind. Who would say that a child's mind is free because it has never been taught that there exist certain laws of mathematics or physics, etc.: that 2 plus 2 add up to 4, or that a live electricity cable can kill, or that it is dangerous to step on thin ice?

            We may possess the freedom to think incorrectly or ignorantly, but we are not freer for so doing, for we are no longer moving within reality. And freedom that does not move within reality is obviously unreal freedom. All education, after all, is based on the principle that ignorance or error is an enemy of man's development and freedom, and should be dispelled by education or information.

            The mind. in short, is made not to think anything, but to think the truth. It doesn't always manage to do so. It is, I repeat, free to fall into error. But it is not freer for falling into error.

            And so in moral matters. A man is free to do wrong, but he is not freer for doing it. He is less free still, if he has no means to distinguish wrong from right. And perhaps he is least free if he has no concern to make this distinction.

Freedom of conscience

            Here let us examine the concept of 'freedom of conscience'. If the expressions 'freedom of conscience' or 'free conscience' have any meaning, they cannot possibly mean that man is free to do what he likes. 'To do what one likes' is an aim or an attitude that may possibly be worked into a philosophy of freedom (however poorly understood). But it is one that is absolutely excluded from any serious philosophy of conscience, for the most elementary notion of conscience implies a call to do at times what one does not like...

            To profess belief in conscience means to profess a belief in some standard of right and wrong. It likewise means to profess a belief in freedom, in one's capacity to choose according to conscience (which is to do right) or, in the same instance, to choose against conscience (which is to do wrong).

            So a man is free to act against conscience, but he is not freer for so doing, nor does he feel freer in his conscience if he acts against it. His conscience does not feel free, it feels violated. Conscience is not free if its rights are not respected. We hear so much today of the rights of conscience. But perhaps we hear very little of the most important of these rights, which is the right of conscience to be obeyed; i.e. to be obeyed by the person whom it speaks to from within, to be obeyed by its own owner [2]. And the greatest violation of the rights of conscience occurs when it is not so obeyed.

            The most important threat, therefore, to the freedom of one's conscience comes not from outside but from within. A first condition for having and maintaining a free conscience is to obey it. The refusal to obey one's conscience threatens its freedom, and then the only way to overcome and remove the threat is to acknowledge the deviation and to rectify one's course. Otherwise insincerity will begin to take over, a man will try to ignore what his conscience tells him is right, he will try to warp its voice or force its judgment in another direction. And he may succeed in his attempts: subjecting his conscience to his whims, passions or prejudices. A conscience so subjected is no longer a free conscience. It is inoperative and enslaved [3].

Two conditions of a free conscience

            In any case, a moment's reflection makes it clear that 'to do what one likes' is no adequate formula for real happiness, for fulfilment or for freedom itself. Unthinking happiness is not real happiness and is certainly not likely to be either deep or lasting. Man - thinking man - is happy (and therefore feels free) not when he does what he likes, but when he knows that what he does is right; i.e.

            a) when he knows that he is following his conscience; and

            b) when he knows that his conscience itself is correct;

            I would suggest that these are the two conditions of a free conscience. Sincerity - listening to and following one's conscience - is the first condition. And it is a vital condition of a man who wishes to have any claim to possessing a free conscience. But some comment must be made about sincerity. In the first place, sincerity is not an easy virtue [4].

            In the second place, sincerity - however important - is not enough. It is not enough because, after all, it is not difficult for a sincere man to know whether he is acting according to his conscience or not. He knows he is following his conscience when his will chooses what his mind tells him is right. And he knows he is disobeying his conscience when his will chooses what his mind judges to be wrong. The difficulty for a sincere man does not lie in knowing whether his will is acting in accordance with his mind, or not. The difficulty lies in knowing whether his mind is thinking in accordance with the truth or not...

Following one's nose?

            It is not enough, though it is essential, to follow one's conscience. To follow one's conscience may be the moral equivalent to following one's nose. It is easy enough to be sure one is following one's nose. It is not so easy to be sure that one's nose is going in the right direction. And this is really the heart of the matter.

            After all, when a man is at the crossroads of choice and the mind tells the will, 'My reading of the signposts is that, if we want to get to our destination, we've got to take the road to the right', there is little difficulty in knowing whether the will is prepared to follow the mind's reading of the signposts. There may be some difficulty in knowing whether the mind has read the signposts correctly; but that can probably be checked without outside consultation. The real difficulty lies in knowing whether or not the signposts are correct [5], whether one has cause to trust them or not; and this depends on one's trust in who posted them, and one's confidence that they have not since been moved or altered.

            So, the big question with conscience is: can we trust it only as we trust our nose, or can we trust it more? How can we be sure it is pointing in the right direction? This brings us to the all-important question of the reference points of conscience. For conscience - if it is to have any value at all - must relate to something fixed and outside itself. Some people today would deny this, but I think their position can be shown to be untenable.

            A man only refers to his conscience just as he only refers to a compass because he has a goal, because he knows he may miss it and he wants to get there. And he consults his compass or his conscience because this enables him to relate the steps he is contemplating to certain fixed external points or standards: North and South, Right and wrong.

            A compass is of use because it relates to an external fixed point. An albatross - or a vision of angels - flying round a boat is of no more use to a sailor in planning his course, than are the longings of his heart to reach port. He needs to be able to steer by something fixed.

            Similarly one can guide oneself by one's conscience only insofar as one's conscience relates to some external fixed standard. A conscience that relates to nothing external or fixed is utterly useless as a guide. No man, in his right senses, would consult it. Why should he? The only sensible thing to do with such a conscience is to throw it out the window, or to stop calling it conscience - just as one would throw away a compass whose needle automatically pointed to the traveller's heart. Of what use is it to a man lost in a desert to be told where his feelings are, or where his heart is, or his brain or some other organ. What he wants to know is where is the nearest oasis. And if he has a hunch that the nearest oasis is to the South, he needs to know where North is. He needs reference points. Otherwise he is just going to wander round in circles until his heart and brain dry up and the whole of him parches to death.

            A compass whose needle points this way and then that, or goes racing round in circles, is a compass gone mad. The explanation of such compass craziness is no doubt that it is under influences - one or several magnetic fields - that make it incapable of relating any longer to true magnetic north. But one thing is certain: as long as its needle keeps spinning round and pointing to the nearest field of attraction, it is utterly useless as a compass. And so with conscience. A conscience that points to nowhere or to anywhere, or to some constantly shifting point (like public opinion), is no system to be guided by [6].

Trusting Magnetic North

            We are now fully at grips with the kernel of our problem, which is the inter-relationship of three elements: conscience, freedom, and an external fixed norm of right and wrong. From what we have said one thing should already be clear: that the widespread modern notion that conscience is freer when it accepts no external objective moral standard, and conversely that its freedom is restricted in the measure in which it 'submits' to such standards, is simply a prejudice. It is not a properly reasoned judgment, and does not stand up to any test of reason. It is false. It enunciates the opposite of the truth.

            Bet us take the case of the man who relates his conscience to no external and objective standards of right and wrong. Such a man, far from being guided by a free conscience, is not being guided by his conscience at all. He just does not know what conscience is. He has either:

            a) forgotten the ideas of right and wrong completely, and is simply being guided in his choices by his moods, preferences, passions or convenience. Such a man--and he is frequently found today - is not really being guided by his conscience, but by his feelings; or

            b) set up his own mind as the standard--the very origin--of moral truth. He regards what he calls his 'conscience' not just as a pointer to right and wrong, but as their originator, which is like regarding a compass as the creator of Magnetic North. Such a man - and he too abounds today - is not really being guided by his conscience, but by his pride.

            If a man constitutes his own self not only as his compass and guide, but as his very North and destiny, he may still claim to be free. But he is only free to travel in egocentric and ever-narrowing circles round and round himself. His situation is actually much graver than that. The man who treats his conscience as if it were, for him, the ultimate source of right and wrong, looks on his conscience as the supreme value in his life. He looks up to nothing higher. This is idolatry, for it is to worship, as supreme, something other than God. It is the worst form of idolatry, for it is self-idolatry: the worship of self or a part of self as one's highest value.

            Now let us take the case of the man who does genuinely try to relate his conscience to some external given code of conduct. In his case we can say that his conscience is free, and feels free, in the degree to which he believes that code or norm of authority to be trustworthy, to merit confidence.

            It is not enough for a man to be able to trust his compass, to feel sure it is free from other magnetic influences and is really pointing to Magnetic North. He has to trust Magnetic North! And he has to trust it to be fixed and immovable. If he couldn't - if he felt his compass were pointing to an ever shifting object - then he would have nothing really to guide himself by, and could only feel free to drift, not to go somewhere.

            Magnetic North merits confidence. A man feels that it is part of the natural order of things; that it has been checked and relied on by navigators throughout the ages and has not been found shifting [7]. And so the modern sailor or pilot trusts it.

            Most of us are not sailors or pilots. We are probably no more than just ordinary motor-car drivers. So much the better, to illustrate our purpose. When do we feel freest in travelling? When we have left our road-maps at home? When the sign-posts have been blown down by a storm? Just the contrary. We want maps. We need road-signs. We feel lost without them. We feel freer for having them and following them. This means that maps merit confidence, in our estimation, and the more they merit our confidence, the more readily and freely we follow them.

            But roadsigns are not exactly like Magnetic North. They are not part of the natural order. They have been placed there by other men. So, in trusting the signs, we are really placing our trust in others. We believe that the Local Authorities or the Automobile Association are not deceiving us and have signposted the roads accurately. We also believe - or trust that no one has shifted the signs. It is a further act of faith.

            This underlines one of the many truths of life so often forgotten nowadays: that freedom is in function of trust. Freedom at the crossroads is useless unless we know which road to choose. And we cannot know this of ourselves. We have to look for outside guidance. We have to trust something or someone. If we can, we feel free. If we cannot, we feel blind. Freedom, we repeat, is in function of trust.

Big Ben

            And so it is with conscience. It is not intelligent (nor is it safe) for a man to check his actions against his conscience unless he can check his conscience against something truer than itself. After all, we acknowledge the force of conscience - its authority - when we sincerely try to adjust our actions to fit its indications (and the more this adjustment goes against the grain, the more we show our sincerity) [8]. But we also acknowledge the weakness of conscience - its fallibility the possibility that it is guiding us mistakenly - when we sincerely try to adjust conscience itself to some higher and more trustworthy norm of conduct (and the more this adjustment goes against the grain, the more we show our sincerity).

            What is that higher norm which by we should guide and form our conscience. What is that 'truer' Truth to which we should adapt it? The sincere man - who takes conscience seriously - will be anguished to the extent to which he cannot check his conscience against something truer than itself.

            A man to whom it is important to be punctual in his appointments, checks and adjusts his watch regularly for he realizes that it is not infallible, that even the best watch in the world can tell him the wrong time. But he doesn't just shake it to see if it is still ticking. He checks it against some timepiece in which he has greater confidence.

            Each one is obviously entitled to his preference in this question of time standards. Personally I confess to my own naive belief in the quasi-infallibility of Big Ben (and I also confess to a certain irritation when I hear Greenwich Time described as 'Mean' when seldom if ever has such a reliable British commodity been broadcast so generously to the entire world...).

            Well then; who - or what - will play Big Ben to my conscience? That is the question that the thinking man needs to answer.

            The non-Catholic has no real answer. He does well indeed to listen to his conscience. He does well to shake it - or better still to shake himself - to ensure that it is still in working order. But when he asks himself if it is accurate, if it is a guide to be guided by, he really has no answer to give, for he knows nothing more trustworthy to check its accuracy against.

            Who will act Big Ben to my conscience? The answer, for the Catholic, is clear. Who? Why, the Church's Magisterium: the constant and authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church! This is the unfailing norm of moral accuracy, the standard against which I need to check and adjust my own conscience if I wish it to be a trustworthy guide, one to be guided by in all freedom.

            Now, despite all that has been said so far, it is probable that some people will still baulk at the idea that the Church's Magisterium can be the support and not the mortal enemy of moral freedom. The idea is just too much for them to swallow. What more can we say to convince them that the idea is true and that the swallowing should reasonably be done? [9]

A fail-safe mind?

            Let us take up again the point of certainty. It is only natural to want to be sure about the consequences of a decision before taking it. People seldom prefer taking decisions in the dark. It is true that at times they may have no alternative. All they can then do is to act blindly and hope for the best. But since history teaches that people hoping blindly for the best have often run right smack into the worst, the average man in any matter where he stands to lose or gain--tries to figure out as accurately as he can what are the likely consequences of his decisions.

            Modern technology has made it possible for men to extend the area of their certainties, to cut down the risks of miscalculated decisions. It has provided them with machines capable of almost fail-safe calculations, however complicated these may be. The business magnate relies on the company computer, and the schoolboy on his mini-calculator, to relieve them of complicated thought processes. Their trust in this computerised information is well-nigh total, and they gladly appropriate it, integrating it readily into their own minds and willingly making it their own.

            If only such short-cutting thought processes could be applied, not just to business or mathematical operations, but to personal moral decisions! If only one could acquire a computer-like mind - thoroughly fail-safe and incapable of error!...

            One such mind - and one only - has existed in the course of human history: the mind of Jesus Christ. And Christ has left that mind to his Church: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to observe all that 1 have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age' (Mt 28: 19-20); 'Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me' (Lk 10:16).

            Therefore, when we think in accordance with the Church's mind, on points of faith, and act in accordance with the Church's mind, on points of moral conduct, we are following the mind of Christ. And Christ's mind is fail-safe.

            In other words, when the Church has signposted the roads, there can be no mistaking the roads; there is no room for doubt or uncertainty, for it is Christ, through his Church, who places and protects the signposts. "If we are deceived, Lord", says St Augustine, referring to the Church's teaching, "it is by you that we are deceived. As the Founder of Opus Dei writes, We can have our doubts about men. But we have no right to doubt God. And to doubt the Church, to doubt its divine origin or the saving effectiveness of its preaching, is to doubt God himself" [10]. We have no right and no reason to doubt God; and every right and reason to trust him. Hesitation and lostness if we doubt him. Certainty and freedom if we trust him [11].

Mental immaturity?

            Now I know that some people maintain that the longing for moral certainty is a sign of mental immaturity [12], and they suggest it is comparable precisely to the longing for political or social security which can make a people sell their freedom to a totalitarian system. Their comment on my line of argument might well be that there is little difference between looking for a Big Ben to rule over one's conscience and looking for a Big Brother to rule over one's entire social and political life.

            The objection is easily rebutted, for the analogy simply does not hold. There is no parallel between that fear of personal decision-taking which makes a man prefer to have someone else decide for him, and the determination to take one's own decisions - but not to take them in the dark. There is no parallel between the preference for being told what one must do rather than having to think for oneself, and the determination to be guided by one's own conscience - but not by an unreliable conscience.

            There is no parallel between switching off one's mind and letting oneself be brainwashed by a political ideology, and turning on one's mind so as to find the sources of truth that alone can satisfy one's mental hunger and thirst. To close one's eyes, disconnect one's mind, and accept a life-dominating ideology (especially such intellectually impoverished ideologies as humanism, communion and other forms of immanentism), under the pressure of public opinion or political propaganda, or simply motivated by a desire for unthinking security or drawn by the attractions of the apparently easy road, is indeed intellectually and humanly degrading. But there is no degradation in opening one's mind to the divine warranty behind a series of truths which are bound up with the highest human and supernatural ideals, especially when to accept them means to steel one's will to a constant uphill struggle against personal laziness, greed, sensuality, selfishness and conformism.

Those who don't prefer freedom

            If the mind looks for mental certainty, it is absurd to suggest that the conscience (which is simply a function of the mind) does not look for moral certainty. The mind, like the conscience, is made for certainty. It doesn't always find it. Whatever it experiences, when it doesn't find it, is not freedom.

            No one in his right senses thinks he is freer at a cross-roads because the roads are undetermined; because they go nowhere or because he doesn't know where they go... If a man at the cross-roads of moral choice 'thinks' that he can be free only as long as he doesn't know where the roads go, as long as he is not told where his choices may lead him, he is not in his right senses. He is not really thinking; he is simply preferring. He is preferring uncertainty to certainty, which is equivalent to preferring darkness - or at least mistiness - to light. One is free to prefer certain things to others, but certain preferences are not a choice for freedom nor do they show a love for freedom. One is free to prefer to stumble in the dark rather than open one's eyes to the light; one is free to be uncertain - though the grounds for certainty exist; one is free to prefer not to read the signposts - though the signposts are prominent and clear; or to prefer not to trust them - though they have been divinely guaranteed. A man, if he chooses, is entitled to such peculiar preferences. What he is not entitled to, if he makes them, is to be regarded as a freedom-loving person; nor even as a very free person. He shows every sign of being a very lost person, and may end up losing the very freedom he boasts of but uses so peculiarly. Every free choice is indeed a sign of freedom. But, to recall a point we have made at greater length earlier [13], not every free choice is a choice for freedom. Some free choices are choices for slavery (the free decision to read pornography, to take drugs, etc.). Some people prefer communism to democracy. They may be made more secure (too secure)? by their preference; they are certainly not made freer.

Intellectual surrender?

            There, then, is our thesis. Conscience is a guide, no more. And it is not an infallible guide. It is not failsafe, nor is it self-correcting or self-adjusting. If it is to be free to fulfil its function properly, and if we in consequence are to feel free in following it, it must relate itself accurately to some infallible norm; it must form and inform itself according to some absolute and unfailing standard of truth - which is (and can only be) the mind of Christ speaking through his Church.

            Let us make a final point on this, in case it is not yet clear from all that has gone before. I am not being asked to make an intellectual surrender, in accepting the truth of Christ as it comes to me through the Church. Nor, I repeat, am I being asked to relinquish my intellectual freedom, so as to gain moral security. It is a victory for the intellect, not a surrender, when it discovers and embraces the truth. And it is the highest (and the only intelligent) exercise of human freedom to embrace that truth once discovered. That much should be clear. But there is more to be said.

            Let us try to understand the greatness of God's purpose in leaving the mind of his Son to his Church, and the dignity he bestows on us in making that mind available to us. Available to us! - that is the key idea. Christ's mind is available to me, if I choose to avail myself of it. So it is not a question of renouncing my own mind so as to take up, in its stead, the mind of Christ (though that would, in itself, be no bad exchange!) It is a question of enriching my own mind with the mind of Christ. He offers me his mind so that, if I wish, I can make it my own: so that the inexhaustible treasures of truth, certainty and freedom of his mind can become part of the endowment of my own mind.

            Let us recall again the examples suggested earlier: the computerised information, the travel guide's advice.,. When I freely and reasonably accept this 'outside' information, it becomes mine. It becomes part of me. The outside information becomes inside information, because I have freely welcomed it and taken it in. My scope of knowledge has therefore been enlarged. My mind is better equipped. It is more informed, and I act upon it more confidently and more freely

            I obviously do not give up thinking for myself when I trust the travel guide. I do not practise intellectual castration nor do I paralyse my own power of decision when I accept the computerised information. I rather make all that information mine, and my mind develops and strengthens as that outside information enters into it. The effect of this newly acquired knowledge is to allow for more accurate thinking on the part of my mind, and for more confident - freer - deciding on the part of my will. Its effect is that some possible mistakes have surely been eliminated; some greater truth has surely been guaranteed; some greater sense of freedom can surely be enjoyed. So at least I trust.

            If only all the mistakes - in thinking, in signposting, in wondering about the moral roads, in deciding between them - could be eliminated... They can! And what a new dimension of freedom is then achieved.

            This is how we should regard the gift of Christ's mind as it speaks to us through his Church. Outside information? No doubt. But it becomes inside information as soon as I accept it. It becomes mine - part of my mind. Moreover, I have every grounds for accepting it. And every grounds for feeling free as I act on it. For the mind of Christ thinks no error; nothing but the truth. And the truth - knowledge of the truth - remains the clear condition of freedom. This is our final conclusion. It was in any case a foregone conclusion, because he himself told us so, from the start: 'You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free' (Jn 8:32).

            * * *

I would add two Postscripts:

            a) these considerations are intended for those to whom freedom means something: means the power to choose, combined with the persuasion that choices matter. The man for whom choices don't really matter is scarcely interested in freedom. Going where one wants, and not caring where one is going, are two totally different things. The former poses a problem in the exercise of one's freedom; the latter does not. People with a goal ought to think; and generally want to. Drifters neither think nor want to;

            b) at the bottom of all possible debates on this subject lies the real question of whether one wants guidance or not. For the man who does not, the guidance of the Church will always be an irritant. If, moreover, he is in the absurd position of calling himself a Catholic - i.e. of being within the Church but resenting the guidance of the Church - then he has only two ways of resolving his self-created frustrations. He can either leave the Church - which, God help him, he is free to do. Or else he can learn to want that guidance - which he is also free to do, though he will only do it freely after thinking a lot more clearly and a lot more deeply. These notes may, please God, help him.


[1] That a compass be attracted by North is not a limitation of its freedom, but rather a condition of its freedom to continue being a compass. Similarly, that conscience be attracted by the truth by a true standard of right and wrong - is not a limitation but a condition of its freedom as conscience.

[2] This, in itself, implies that conscience has authority over its owner; that it in some way stands above him, that it represents some higher power or Author. It will be remembered that, for Cardinal Newman, this was one of the most convincing proofs of the existence of God.

[3] Man therefore, if he is to be truly human and truly free, must not subject his conscience to what he 'feels like doing', but must submit what he feels like doing to his conscience.

[4] Many moralists today have no time for objective criteria in morality. All they ask for is subjective sincerity; each one is entitled to 'do his own thing' as long as he sincerely believes in it... Further moralizing would seem unnecessary (and indeed illogical and impossible) once one has accepted this principle. Yet these moral philosophizers do continue to moralize with the particularity that their further moralizing would seem to be based on the firm assumption that the great majority of people are generally quite sincere.

            However attractive this philosophy may appear to the superficial, it Is surprising that seemingly intelligent people hold it and fail to realize that each man doing his own thing--each man a law to himself is a sure formula for moral, human and social chaos (what would happen on our roads, if the rule of good driving were that each driver should 'do his own thing'?).

            Those who are not capable of foreseeing the consequences of such a system could at least be more careful about its assumptions. To assume that almost everyone is always and everywhere sincere is no small assumption. It is justifiable? Is the majority of mankind sincere - in the precise sense that these moralists assume? Do people in general believe sincerely in 'their own thing'? One wonders. They may well believe that their own thing is smart or pleasant or highly profitable and well worth doing. But the only question morality is interested in is whether they believe it is right. Do the vast majority of people believe sincerely that their own thing is right? I don't know. I can't say. I am inclined to doubt it. I certainly would not easily assume it.

            This easy assumption of sincerity would seem to rest upon another assumption: that sincerity itself is an easy virtue. Now about this assumption I have no doubt whatsoever. It is completely mistaken. For sincerity - at least in its full implications and consequences; i.e. sincerity lived out to the full - is at times a most difficult virtue, for the simple reason that to listen sincerely to one's conscience often calls for conduct that goes very much against one's natural inclinations.

[5] It is not enough to have just a subjective certainty: 'I am sure I have read the signposts correctly'. To be able to travel with a full sense of freedom, a man also and particularly needs an objective certainty: 'I am sure the signposts are correct'. In other words, the mere ability to choose does not necessarily give a sense of freedom in choosing. A man feels freest, not when he is offered the maximum choice, but when he has the maximum certainty (or guarantee) that what he chooses is right, is worthwhile. A man doesn't feel free at a crossroads just because he has 5 or 50 roads open before him. He feels free when he knows which road to choose.

            I have known people who, as regards material goods, were literally in a position to choose anything; and simply didn't know what to choose. A man in the middle of a desert is free to travel in any direction. But that is anything but an advantage if he doesn't know which direction to travel in.

            That is why I would emphasize that conscience is freest, not when it thinks it can choose anything (i.e. that it is a matter of indifference what it chooses) and no conscience really thinks that - but when it knows that what it chooses is right.

[6] The terms 'free conscience' and 'independent conscience' are therefore not interchangeable. A 'free conscience' is a meaningful concept, as I am seeking to clarify. An 'independent conscience - in the sense of a conscience unrelated to (or not conditioned by) any external objective standards of conduct - is an absurdity, for the reason given, i.e. that it is utterly untrustworthy in its essential function, which is that of being a guide.

[7] An encyclopedic friend, on reading this, dismayed me with the information that Magnetic North does actually shift, however slightly. A little reflection dispelled the dismay, nevertheless. If Magnetic North is unquestioningly relied on, despite this minimal error, how much more unquestioning should our trust be in that Standard which we know to be absolutely free from any error however minimal.

[8] The height of insincerity is evidently the endeavour to adjust conscience so as to fit one's actions. It is hard to avoid the impression that some people today are heartily engaged in this endeavour.

[9] 'Digest' would be a better work than 'swallow'. One swallows prejudices - without digesting them, for they are indigestible. They resist, or at least resent, analysis; and if they are in fact broken down by reason, one finds there is nothing in them. It is on ideas, not on prejudices, that the mind needs to be fed. The mind will digest ideas; that is what it is made for. And, in the measure of the truth of these ideas, it will assimilate and be nourished by them. Some ideas - some truths - may be unpalatable to the mind or, more likely, to the will or the passions; but they can be digested. And they are often the very ideas that nourish most. Prejudices, on the contrary, can be palatable enough; and so are easily swallowed. But they are never digested. They may nourish passion or selfishness, but not the mind, for they are not proper food for the mind. They rather tend to poison it.

[10] Christ is Passing By, no. 131.

[11] It is important to realise that the sense of freedom in travelling comes more from the degree of certainty that one is on the right road, than from the degree of understanding of why exactly it is right; more from one's confidence in the clear-sightedness of the Guide one is following than from one's own ability to see as far as He does.

[12] Others would say that this desire for moral certainty is a sign of sanctimoniousness. They fail utterly to realise that there is an abyss of difference between a longing for a sense of moral certainty about the possible consequences of one's decisions, and a longing for a sense of moral righteousness about the merit of one's actions. Certainty about which is the right road does not always bring the conviction that one is travelling that road well, or that one has never stumbled on it or departed from it. Rather the contrary: the man who is certain about the right road - the road revealed by Christ - will be certain that his performance in travelling that road is seldom if ever up to scratch. But at least he knows where he wants to go and where Christ wants him to go - even though he goes there badly.

[13] Chapter 4.