This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Freedom and conscience

We are now capable of addressing the issue of the relationship between conscience and freedom. This relationship is of particular importance in our present political context, where debates frequently erupt regarding what pertains to the private judgement of the individual’s conscience, what behavior can be coerced by a social authority, and what authority is capable of decided on such things. These debates sooner or later lead to the invocation of phrases such as the “primacy of conscience,” or complaints that a particular issue is a matter for “prudential judgment.” These two concepts are distinct in themselves, but tend to become confused when converted into political slogans—but always they pertain to freedom and are invoked under the pretense of defending a valid freedom. We will discuss each of these at a later point, when we come to the subject of Catholic morality in particular,[1] but for now we should pause to mention that the conscience itself, while it must always be respected, can never be imagined as something operating arbitrarily, as if it has no limits or obligations external to itself. Its freedom must be considered in the same fashion as in the preceding sections. The proper view can be summarized in the words of John Paul II:

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties’.[2]

Although a lengthy discussion could be carried out with respect to what this means in practice for political and religious authorities, those points will be elaborated elsewhere. Here we will merely mention that the most important duty of the conscience is to be properly formed, and formed by that teacher who is most competent to instruct it, which is the Church:

…the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.[3]

[1] See section 4, parts 1c and 4g.

[2] VS, 34.

[3] VS, 64.

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