1. In Church Tradition conscience is a very rational and intellectual aspect of the human person. We may have been used to thinking of it as emotional—like “my conscience disturbs me”. If we look closely at Church Tradition—like in the Thomistic tradition—conscience is not exactly a “feeling” and “emotional” component. In conscience we really think.
2. St. Thomas Aquinas sees three levels in conscience. There is level one which is “habitual conscience”. (St. Thomas Aquinas uses the term “synderesis”…but let us not go into that technicality.) This is “habitual conscience” because…well, it is “habitual”. It is innate in us to want what is good for us and we innately avoid what is bad for us. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his optimism about the human person, thinks that we really desire for the good.
3. Levels two and three are what St. Thomas Aquinas calls as “practical conscience”. Why is it “practical”? We put into practice what we see in level one. Level two therefore is the discerning aspect of conscience. If we have the innate tendency to go for the good, then we make the effort to discern how to realize that. We discern. Now, once we “see”, we decide. We act. This is level three.
4. Conscience therefore involves what is innate in us and our propensity to be clear about what we should do. Decision making is part of conscience but decision is done with effort and a good amount of thinking.
5. So when we make a moral action we are guided by conscience. We need to be guided by conscience. We cannot just decide and act impulsively. We need some amount of hard thinking. We need to “pause”. In modern language we say, “We reflect”. We weigh what we should do.
6. Conscience is God’s gift to us, according to Church Tradition. When God made us he also gave us conscience. There we go face-to-face with God. We are accountable to God in our conscience.
7. Before St. Thomas Aquinas there were already the insights of St. Paul. Conscience is where we dialogue with God. We consult God in conscience (and thus there is the role of prayer). Interesting in St. Paul is the vigilance about the effects of what we do when we follow conscience. We may think that our action is ok and we have well consulted God. But then we need to look at others. Will we scandalize them in our action? If yes, then it is better not to do that action. Conscience may guide us but we must be careful about the effects we will do on others. Never let other fall. Conscience will then have to remind us of this. We just do not do anything.
8. Vatican II, with its Gaudium et spes and dignitatis humanae, has interesting ideas about conscience. Conscience is a “sanctuary” in us that puts us face to face with God. There we unite with God and with others (especially because others have conscience too). We need to be adjusting to conscience because it will help us avoid being blind and impulsive in our moral choices and decisions.
9. As we adjust to conscience we stay vigilant about God’s will and about Church teachings. Conscience is therefore not purely “subjective”. Conscience always has an “objective” pole. When we discern we always have to consult. We consult Scriptures, we consult Church teachings. We need “objective” references. It is not enough to rely on our “gut feelings”. We need to consult. This is why there is the requirement to form conscience. To form conscience is to see how it adjusts to objective reality. This looks healthy because when we have something “objective” to hold on to, we can avoid impulsive moral behavior. Of course we do not delete the “subjective” side. We accept that there can be an affective component. But we need to be vigilant about reality—there is objectivity in it.
10. Pope John Paul II teaches, in his Veritatis splendor, that conscience is our immediate moral guide. We must obey conscience always. Of course this means that we form our conscience. We just do not go for gut feelings. We weigh our options. We study our situations. We look at effects on others. Obeying conscience presupposes efforts. But, still, conscience can make mistakes. Ignorance can be one factor that makes conscience err. We just do not have full access to all that happens.
11. Conscience is therefore constantly cultivated—it is constantly “recharged”. (Obviously we need to be regularly well-informed about many matters.)
12. The formation of conscience demands humility on our part. We avoid being too full of ourselves. We want to “revere” what is out there (remember Von Hildebrand).
13. We form our conscience by studying. We in-form ourselves. We look at the wisdom of our cultures and generations from the past. More importantly we stay vigilant about natural law. Remember that natural law is that moral law that is proper to our nature as human. It is in our nature then to do good and avoid evil. We do good and avoid evil by conserving being—or life. We do not destroy life. We do good and avoid evil by promoting being—promoting life. We share life, we share growth, we educate others. (Religious people do not make babies, so life promotion involves things like vocation promotion, religious education, values education, etc.) We do good and avoid evil by seeking the truths about the world around us; we study our world. We also live with others and so we live with them in truth.
14. Of course, as Catholics, we form our conscience with the Scriptures and Church teachings. We inform ourselves with insights from Revelation.
15. Assume therefore that effort is done for forming the conscience. Assume that we do our best to do good and avoid evil and we do our best to see the truths of the world around us. Yes, we have limits, but we are not lazy. In situations where we must morally decide, we obey conscience always. We condemn ourselves if we do not. Conscience will condemn us if we disobey it. It will always trigger in us the demand to seek for the good. (Remember level one of St. Thomas Aquinas.)
16. If ever we are in error in deciding and acting, we stay dignified in conscience. We never lose dignity. It was never in our desire to choose bad…we just happen to have made a mistake. We however stay responsible for the mistake. We admit it and we face the consequences of the mistake. That is matured and healthy, right?
18. In discerning what to do, we follow conscience. Here are some guidelines. We first look at the general universal principles. Morality is what all humans should do. So if we make an action, we need to situate it in terms of what all human should do. We have a vision of a good life—a fulfilled life as promoted by Revelation. So an action must not lose touch of that universal life. If I have to cheat in business, for example, I ask: DO I WANT CHEATING TO BE THE OPTION OF ALL HUMANITY? Note the universality here. IF I CHEAT WILL I BE USING SOMEONE AS MEANS? Will my action be something that can assure the Beatitude and Happiness of all humanity?
19. Then we can consult the particular moral norms and rules. We might want to look at the rules in our cultures and societies. More importantly, as Catholics, we need to consult Church rules and laws. If I want divorce, what does Church say about it?
20. Still, in the end, we decide in the unique singular situation. I might cheat and it is cheating in this singular situation. I might want to divorce my wife or husband…and it is about this singular person. So in this very concrete situation, what do we do?
21. Note that before we decide, we must have at least consulted the universal principles and the particular laws. This is what effort requires. This is what matured and healthy conscience discerning requires.
22. Over the centuries, some experiences have helped moral discernment. Those experiences have helped establish guiding principles. What are these?
23. There is the principle of the UNCONDITIONAL. Some actions really should not be done and they are OBVIOUSLY wrong. Rape and torture are clearly wrong. They seriously violate human dignity.
24. There is the principle of the “LESSER EVIL”. At times we might have to really do something wrong—like harm a thief who is straggling a woman in the street. We ask what lesser harm we might have to do.
25. There is the principle of “totality”. We might have to look at the total picture and total situation. An action might be done to a part—but will it destroy the whole? A doctor might have to amputate a part of a patient’s body, for example, if he or she is to save the whole patient.
26. There is the principle of “equity”. This happens in cases when we might have to break laws and rules. The spirit of the law has to prevail. A man might demand for his right to hold his own gun…but if he will use it to murder his wife, then the gun should not be returned to him.
27. There is the principle of the “double effect”. We might have to do something that has GOOD AND BAD effects. How do we decide? This happens in the case of a medical doctor who has to decide on surgery with a uterus. The mother is pregnant; to save her the doctor will have to slice the uterus. But that will kill the baby. It is good that the mother lives, it is bad that the child dies. Now the doctor might have to decide on NOT slicing the uterus. The baby will live but the mother will die. A good and a bad will happen. This is tough.
28. To help discern here, we can ask: Do we really intend to do bad? Do we want a bad result? Do we want to do bad so we get a good result? Whatever decision we shall do, is it really for the good? Note the style of questioning. It is about the intention. If never do we intend anything bad…then jump into the decision, we cannot be held “immoral”. We admit our limits, we do what we can, we really want good.
29. Morality is not about black and white. It is about grey and grey. As Catholics we need to rely on Revelation—Scriptures and Church Sacred Tradition—and we need to pray. Pray. For religious people this is obvious. No religious belittles the role of prayer in moral discernment. As St. Paul says: “Pray without ceasing” (1The5/17). In simpler terms, “Pray always”.
Annex: On “proportionalism” or “consequentialism”: A contemporary issue
1. Many would propose that good and bad depend on results. We do good to bring about the happiness and well-being of others—as many others as can be. You can see this in your countries too. Maybe there are government decisions that might be unjust now but will bring good fruits later. Think of the global institutions. The IMF would advise poor countries to cut back on basic social services such as health care in order to maximize economic growth. The result of reducing services will be good.
2. In today’s moral discussions, this is sometimes called “consequentialism” or “proportionalism”. “Consequentialism” means that the “consequence” (or end result) of an action is most important. “Proportionalism” means that an action has value in proportion to the results or ends. Good action means “useful” action is in its results or end. Notice the general idea of all these. Let us call them “end-justifies-means-mentality”. Do what you want so long as the result is ok. The end outweighs the process.
3. This mentality would propose that the foundation of morality is in the outcome.
4. In terms of conscience, this mentality will say that if conscience tells us to do bad now for the sake of a good result later, then follow the conscience. It is the conscience that will tell us the consequences. Anyway, we have good intentions.
5. So notice then the stand of “end-justifies-means-mentality”: we intend always the most effective means to bring about the good, fine, and so long as the good outcome outweighs any undesired evil.
6. There is, however, a problem here. We can never know always that what we do now will result in a greater good later. We cannot know with absolute certainty the future consequences. We therefore have to rely on something else. Our foresight is really limited. We cannot presume that we are all-knowing gods.
7. The premise of “end-justifies-means-mentality” is that we can always have good intentions. This is enough. The actual human act is morally neutral. The action becomes moral once it is linked with an intention for the good result. What I actually do is irrelevant, as long as the intention is ok. This is the “end-justifies-means-mentality” way.
8. In the Christian tradition—and in the Church—the dignity of the human person is absolute. The human is image of God. The human person can never become a means to an end. The “end-justifies-means-mentality” makes the human person a means—do something wrong now…anyway the end will be ok later. “end-justifies-means-mentality” would say that human rights can be violated…anyway later all will be ok. But, for the Church, human rights should not be violated at any moment.
9. So in our Catholic moral theology we have absolute norms. We have to stick to some absolute realities that will tell us, at each moment of a moral action, when we are still doing good or already doing bad.
10. In the New Testament we have seen this struggle with “end-justifies-means-mentality” thinking. Remember that the religious authorities and the romans were worried about the popularity of Jesus. So “it is necessary that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11/47-50). Jesus must be killed—it is a “means” to protect the life of the nation. This thinking helped the Romans put Jesus to the cross. It was a form of “end-justifies-means-mentality” thinking.
11. As we said at the start of our semester, an action has plan or intention, steps and the attitude we have to the conditions we are in. If any of the three is bad, then we drop the whole action. A good plan, for example, does not always make the steps good. Cheating is immoral. Maybe I cheat because I need to pass the exam for a good future. The physical act—the steps—in the carrying out of the plan is wrong. So do not cheat at all.
12. Moral decision is not easy, but conscience alone is not enough. Result is not enough. For Catholic moral theology, we need to consult absolute norms. Not everything can be determined by a single standard. Because we are a Catholic school, we need to look at our Catholic moral tradition. But, right now we need to say: Does The End Justify the Means? No, not in Catholic Moral Thinking.
CASES in Proportionalism:
13. Blondie was not able to study for her coming exams because she was so busy with many other things, so urgent. Her family needed her to do some errands that only she could do. She needs to pass the exam in order to finish school and then find work to help her family. Exam day comes and she cheats. She says, “I cheat for a good result. I will finish my college and then help my family. One day, nobody in my family will be forced to go hungry. So my cheating helps my family”. Is Blondie correct?
14. Popeye knows that Olive is a daughter of a rich capitalist. So Popeye visits her, he gives her flowers and chocolate candies. He gives her the impression that he loves her and wants to marry her. But deep within, he is really interested in the security and wealth of having her as his wife. Finally, he marries her after a year of courting. Is this ok?
15. A pregnant mother discovers that she has some cancer cells in her uterus. She goes to the doctor. The doctor says, “We have to abort the baby first to save the uterus”. The mother starts to think. “Well, if I save my uterus, then I can have more babies later. Abortion cannot be avoided…so I will say yes to the doctor”. Is the mother correct?
16. What is sin? It is what God forgives. Ok, that looks simple enough. But we need to clarify. First there is “original sin”. This is very often misunderstood. Our modern world is uneasy with it.
17. It is an experience. Our lives show the enormous difficulties we have with being one with God and having confidence with God. Our daily life experiences tell how we are so deeply wounded. It seems that our very human nature is wounded. Our will to do good and aoid evil is not firm and sure. How often have we hurt people? How often have we done harm? Hence we have an experience of fragility.
18. It is a condition in which we are in. Original sin is not a personally done sin. We have “contracted it”. The whole humanity has contracted it.
19. It is a mystery. We were created good. God is not the author of evil, nor of sin, nor of death due to sin. We say, with the Church, that sin is from us, the human. It is a mystery.
20. It is a consequence. Ok, we are wounded but this does not mean we have no healing. God comes to heal. God did come in Christ. The presence of Christ is victory over sin. If there is so much sin, there is also so much more grace (see Rm5/ 21). Redemption is so wonderful; it is the fullness of grace.