Sam Gregg on “primacy of conscience”

Sam Gregg of Acton Institute has a great piece today at Crisis about the topic of “conscience”.  My emphases.

An Archbishop and the Catholic Conscience

Conscience is one of those subjects about which numerous Catholics today are, alas, sadly misinformed. Despite great Catholic minds such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman discoursing at length on the question, some Catholics speak of it in ways that have little in common with the Church’s understanding of conscience.

The latest Catholic to be embroiled in controversy about conscience is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago. While recently discussing the question of whether those who have (1) not repented of sin and/or (2) not resolved to go and sin no more may receive communion, Archbishop Cupich stated: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.” Referring specifically to people with same-sex attraction, he noted that “my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point.”

This isn’t the first time that Archbishop Cupich has raised eyebrows. Many will recall what some regard as the effective equivalence he made between Planned Parenthood’s selling of body-parts and problems like homelessness and hunger.

Then there was his more recent speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor. Alongside a defense of religious liberty, most of the Archbishop’s address simply reiterated Catholic social teaching about unions. Perhaps it wasn’t the occasion to say such things, but absent from Archbishop Cupich’s remarks was any reference to the numerous caveats stated by popes—such as those detailed by Blessed Paul VI (who no-one would describe as a gung-ho anti-union capitalist) in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens(no.14) and Saint John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (no.20)—concerning the very real limits upon what unions may do. Unfortunately, modern America is awash with examples of what happens when unions (in collusion with business executives who go along to get along) ignore those limits, as broken cities such as Detroit know all too well.

Aspects of Archbishop Cupich’s comments about conscience, however, will remind some of arguments made by various theologians in the 1970s and ’80s as part of their effort to legitimize dissent from Catholic moral teaching. Certainly, Archbishop Cupich stressed the importance of priests conveying the Church’s objective moral teaching to people who consider themselves marginalized by that teaching (presumably because it does not and cannot affirm some of their free choices). [NB] But a significant omission in the archbishop’s statements concerned why conscience is inviolable. As Vatican II stated in Gaudium et Spes, conscience draws its inviolability from its “obedience” to the truth, or what the Council called the “law written by God” (GS 16).

So where is this truth and law to be found? On one level, we discover it in the natural law. Saint Paul famously stated (Rm 2: 14-16) that this is knowable by everyone who possesses reason, including those who don’t know the Word of God revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For people, however, who also believe in Christ and accept that the fullest account of Christ’s life and teaching is to be found in the witness of the Catholic Church, the very same truths about morality are also expressed, confirmed, and enriched by that same Church’s moral teaching.

These simple points lead to profound conclusions. One is that conscience doesn’t create its own truth. Nor is it above truth. The oft-used phrase “primacy of conscience” makes no sense in Catholicism unless we accept that conscience’s authority is derived from every person’s responsibility to know and live in the truth encapsulated in the divine and natural law. In Newman’s words, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”

It follows that conscience cannot be construed as a mandate for us to depart from the truth whenever it clashes with our desires. Catholicism has never held that conscience is somehow superior to the divine and natural law. To claim, therefore, that our conscience somehow authorizes us to act in ways that we know contradict what Christ’s Church teaches to be the truth about good and evil is, at a minimum, illogical from the Catholic standpoint.


Please do read the rest over there.

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  1. juergensen says:

    “the conscience is inviolable”

    Does this declaration of inviolability apply to Hitler’s conscience? To Stalin’s conscience? To racists’ conscience? To rapists’ conscience? Or is it reserved exclusively for adulterers and sodomites?

  2. VeritasVereVincet says:

    “conscience cannot be construed as a mandate for us to depart from the truth whenever it clashes with our desires.”

    Oh, that’s excellent. Right on the nose.

  3. We’ve had a lot of word-related weirdness from this Episcopal Congress (that’s Latinate for “Synod”); from winking “cilia” to synodic “walking together” and the Cupich reading of “conscience” that sounds more like the gnostic idea of “gnosis”…

    What do they teach them in these schools?

  4. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I think the problem for some of these confused clerics is in conflating the fact that someone acting in “good conscience” out of lack of knowledge may truly have reduced culpability for a grave matters. There are two problems with this as a cover for permitting active homosexuals (Cupich position) or active adulterers (Kasper position) to Holy Communion. In the first place, are these individuals really ignorant of what the Church has always taught, what is in the Catechism, and what Jesus Christ says in the New Testament (clearly they know in almost every case if they are “Catholic”). Secondly, it is our Christian duty to instruct their ignorance if they lack knowledge and to admonish them in charity if they persist despite our instruction.

    There is a word for what drives someone to refuse to accept the Church’s teaching on a grave matter and to persist in grave sin with knowledge: Pride.

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Interesting read.

    I guess I don’t have an issue with natural law theory as a means of access to universal and inviolable truth. But who is the one observing nature, and who is the one distilling a set of principles from that observation? There is still an act of interpretation. This is where the subjectivity comes into the process.

    So while inviolable truth as a construct is agreeable, we don’t have a perfectly objective manner for determining it, at least not on the basis of human observation.

    Certainly magisterial guidance is a necessary component of that process but while most helpful in forming general principles the application of those principles requires data relative to the situation at hand to which the “official interpreters” do not have access.

  6. robtbrown says:


    I thinks it’s important in considering whether there is natural law (which includes whether it can be known) not to begin with the more controversial questions. Thus, can it be known from reason alone that it is not appropriate to human nature:

    – to take the life of another human without reason?

    – to steal the goods of another?

    – to have sex with a brute animal?

    – to have sex with a corpse?

    If so, then it can be said that knowledge of natural is possible.

    Also: There is the argument that a thief considers stealing good (thus, in some cultures theft is considered good). St Augustine refuted this by saying: If a thief thought stealing was good, he would want it to be done to him.

  7. robtbrown says:

    Should be:

    If so, then it can be said that knowledge of natural law is possible.

  8. The Cobbler says:

    Fr. Jim,

    Might I suggest that the application of a general principle to specific… “data”… wouldn’t be application at all if it flat out contradicted the principle in question? Or that, from this notion of non-contradiction, we might infer useful information in practice even though we can’t begin to list every possible application?

    I’d also like to suggest that your comments on subjectivity and objectivity are not all that objective due to depending on your interpretation and whatnot. Well, actually, I’d suggest not to confuse the presence of subjectivity with the absence of objectivity — which is to say, just because the individual trying to know things is fallible doesn’t mean his knowledge isn’t, error aside, valid. (But if I start talking about that we’ll be here all night… I’ll admit it’s a pet peeve of mine.)

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