Monday, May 9, 2005

MH - The Inconvenient Conscience

The title of an excellent article by George Cardinal Pell in the May issue of First Things. It really should be required reading for people like Mario "our religion teaches you have to follow your conscience" Cuomo. Excerpts:
But while some see conscience as God's invitation to embrace His law as free subjects, others see it as a radical call to personal freedom. Indeed, for many people today, the word "conscience' suggests not law at all, but the freedom to judge by our own personal resources and the right to act as we each think best - a rejection, in other words, of the need for morality and creed; a claim that I should be allowed to live as I choose.

Of course, this view is often dressed up with the claim that conscience is a special faculty that speaks to us, rather like an oracle, and it may even be elevated to the status of a doctrine: the "primacy of conscience." But however it is presented, it stands in contrast to the view that sonscience is instead simply the mind thinking practically and morally. We think well when we understand moral pirnciples and apply them in clear and reasonable ways; we think badly when we ignore or reinvent moral principles, or apply them in ambiguous and unreasonable ways. "Good conscience," in this way of understanding, means a good grasp and a good application of moral truth - for it is the truth that remains primary, the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind.

But why, Cardinal Pell wonders, do people feel compelled to "oppose conscience to objective truth?" Partly because of a "distorted attitude towards the virtue of tolerance," or as many have come to see it, "never judging." Ironic how those who most talk about tolerance are often the least tolerant when it comes to opposing viewpoints. In effect, Cardinal Pell says, "the only things we must be tolerant of are people's sexual choices, or perhaps their choices about such life issues as abortion or euthanasia."

Why is this such a big deal? Why incorporate such dissent as a matter of "conscience"? "[I]t seems clear that most dissenters do not fear guilt if they obey the Church. What they fear is precisely the frustration of their unsatisfied desires."
There are many motivations for believing in a conscience against the Church. For example, people often project their personal dilemmas onto external bodies. So someone reared a Catholic might say, "I have a problem with the Church," when his real problem is a contradiction within himself. In truth, most real-life dilemmas are not between the inner person and external authority but between competing desires and reasons that the person has trouble reconciling. As a way of sidestepping the terrible tension a moral dilemma can create, people may identify one side of the dilemma with their own conscience and the other with an external power such as the Church.

As Cardinal Pell notes dryly, "It hardly needs saying that this may not be the most accurate way to represent our situation."

There's a lot more to this meaty article. Buy the dang magazine, already!

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