A superb, slightly dated essay by Carl A. Anderson on Catholic conscience and secular society seems more and more urgent reading these days as “things fall apart” (recall Yeats’s prophecy?) and the center shows signs of collapsing. Mr. Anderson is the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. The essay was published in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.
Reverence for conscience, the essay argues, is part and parcel of America’s political founding. President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 wrote that the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment constitute the “expression of the supreme will of the nation [on] behalf of the rights of conscience.”
Jefferson goes on to recall and explain the significant Ursuline Convent incident in New Orleans at the beginning of the 19th century. After the United States purchased the Louisiana territories, the Sisters were anxious that their charitable work would be halted by America, then a largely Protestant, Anglo-Saxon giant. Jefferson’s famous reply read, in part, that the “principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee” that the Ursuline Convents would be free to govern themselves without interference from civil authority, and that the very Constitution and government of America constituted a “sure guarantee” of such freedom.
Recently, however, the situation has disintegrated. Today, Mr. Anderson accurately observes, “there is growing hostility to conscience protection from professional associations and advocacy groups.”
Conscience, Vatican Council II reminds us, is the ultimate subjective norm for ethical action; by its very nature, however, it rests upon an objective norm. (See Gaudium et Spes.) This objective norm is Sacred Scripture as read within the Church.
Mr. Anderson reaches back into antiquity to cite (as others do) Sophocles’s drama, Antigone. Here the protagonist, Antigone, dares to bury her brother despite the tyrant Creon’s edict forbidding the same, based on a “theology proclaiming the duty of the individual to follow his own conscience against unjust mandates of the State.” This circumstance accents the Natural Law, which, as Neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain explains, actually establishes freedom of conscience as “a natural, inviolable right.” Didn’t the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rely on Natural Law?
A major problem today regarding the Natural Moral Law and conscience formation was outlined by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his 1991 keynote talk at the tenth Bishops’ Workshop organized by The National Catholic Bioethics Center. Therein, the Cardinal argued that the conscience of postmodern man is viewed as entirely subjective (i.e., generated from within the person) while deemed infallible in judgment. Moreover, this “subjective conscience is also self-justifying, setting itself in opposition to any outside authority.” The result? It is that this type of conscience operates “not as a window through which one can see outward to that common truth,” but rather as only a “protective shell, into which man can escape and there hide from reality.” Doesn’t this in turn mean that postmodern conscience is “vulnerable to prevailing society opinions”?
Thus truth – objective, perennial truth – is discarded, at least as a key reference point. Instead, tragically, so-called “progress” is forced into the picture. What matters the most is power, and the strong are enabled to dominate the weak. (Pope John Paul II analyzes this situation in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.)
Persons of courage can, of course, correct this shaky and useless pathway to the perception of truth – persons like Cardinal John Henry Newman or Thomas More.
At the moment, however, any sincere, solid effort to safeguard conscience protection is being thwarted by aggressive secularism within the professions; e.g., law, politics, medicine. If more Christians could stand up more consistently and wholeheartedly against attempts to secularize, perhaps a wider recognition of conscience based on the Natural Law could once again prevail in the public forum, thereby aligning the body politic with the divine will and the dignity of each and every person.
In essence, all of the above pertains to the Gospel imperative about Christians’ being the “leaven” of a Godly world order. As one atheistic philosopher who dialogued with Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004 – before the Cardinal was elected to Peter’s Chair – said: “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy…. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”
Following our Catholic conscience, concludes Supreme Knight Anderson, “in obedience to the natural law and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can be difficult. Yet our dignity lies in doing so.” (Italics added.)