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Levels Of Conscience

August 18, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

In last week’s opening exposition on the role of conscience in the Christian moral life, it was stated straightaway that “conscience” is a term that is often misunderstood and misapplied in contemporary times. Frequently equated with one’s personal opinion or position, this entreaty to subjectivism is ready justification for nearly every conceivable immoral and aberrant behavior that is in vogue in the secularized “spirit of the age” in which we live.
In an excellent article entitled “Christian Conscience” (The Catholic Faith; volume 2, n. 4; July/August 1996), John O’Connell perceptively states that “this spurious appeal to conscience stems from an ignorance or a rejection of the proper nature and office of the conscience” (p. 18).
Not unlike the analysis of Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ from Fundamentals of Catholicism that was cited last week, O’Connell denounces false notions of conscience that prevail in our culture: “Conscience is not an emotional sensation about a particular ethical situation. Nor is conscience how we subjectively feel about a certain ethical issue” (ibid.). He goes on to explain that moral values are not created by conscience, but rather that its role is to apprehend truths of the moral order and apply those norms to the concrete situations one encounters in life.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a description of moral conscience that summarizes much of what was covered last week:
“Moral conscience, present in the heart of the person, is a judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins him to do good and to avoid evil. Thanks to moral conscience, the human person perceives the moral quality of an act to be done or which has already been done, permitting him to assume responsibility for the act. When attentive to moral conscience, the prudent person can hear the voice of God who speaks to him or her” (n. 372).
As expressed by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
Conscience can be understood on different levels.
In fact, in the second edition of his work entitled An Introduction to Moral Theology (IMT), a long-trusted text on the Catholic Church’s teaching on moral theology that is used widely in colleges, universities, and seminaries, Dr. William E. May identifies three basic levels of “conscience” that can be distinguished when the term is used to designate a person’s awareness of moral truth.
To develop and support his designations, Dr. May draws primarily from two Vatican II documents (Gaudium et Spes [GS] and Dignitatis Humanae [DH]); he also relies on Pope St. John Paul II’s momentous encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS).
The remainder of this column, then, will be dedicated to unpacking the three “levels of conscience” as identified and explained by Dr. May with an overall objective of gaining a fuller grasp of the Church’s overall teaching on conscience.
Taking into account the analysis of noted Scottish theologian John Macquarrie in his work entitled Three Issues in Ethics (TIE), Dr. May identifies the first level of conscience as “a practical judgment terminating a process of moral deliberation” (IMT, p. 58).
The Vatican II fathers use conscience in this sense in Gaudium et Spes when they state, “The voice of conscience…speaks to [man’s] heart: ‘do this, shun that’” (GS, n. 16). At this level, conscience “does not refer to one’s ‘feelings’ of approval or disapproval, nor to some mysterious non-rational agency; rather, here . . . the judgment of conscience is the result of a person’s reasoned and thoughtful evaluation about the morality of a particular course of action” (IMT, p. 58).
Dr. May designates this aspect of conscience as “particular moral conscience.” It is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) refers to in stating that moral conscience “judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil (cf. Romans 1:32)” (CCC, n. 1777).
Similarly, it is what Pope St. John Paul II refers to when he states: “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do [antecedent conscience], or which assesses an act already performed by him [consequent conscience]” (VS, n. 59 § 2).
Dr. May places emphasis on the fact that conscience at this level of moral awareness is “an act of the intellect.” It is not a mere subjective feeling or emotional reaction to a situation; therefore, concern for truth is essential. While taking care not to downplay the importance of feelings and passions in the moral life, Dr. May affirms that “intelligent judgment, not non-rational feelings or preferences, should direct human choices and actions. A person is obliged to act in accord with his or her conscience precisely because one of the central meanings of conscience is that it is one’s own best judgment about what one ought or ought not to do (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate [DV], Q. 17, art. 3)” (IMT, pp. 58-59).
The second level of conscience designated by Dr. May, which he refers to as “general moral conscience,” is characterized by “one’s personal awareness of basic moral principles or truths” (IMT, p. 59). It is the sense of moral awareness the Vatican II fathers convey when they speak of “the divine law — eternal, objective and universal — whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe. . . . Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging” (DH, n. 3 § 2).
General moral conscience is an awareness of moral truth that Gaudium et Spes alludes to when it states that men have a law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15) by God by which they will be judged (cf. GS, n. 16).
As explained in The Didache Bible, this refers to “the natural law [that] is inscribed in the mind and heart of every person . . . which is a sharing in God’s eternal law. This enlightenment gives us a natural sense of good and evil. . . . . Because of this innate knowledge, even a nonbeliever can lead a virtuous life and keep the Commandments even if never introduced explicitly to the Ten Commandments” (p. 1512).
The Catechism refers to this level of conscience as synderesis, or the “perception of the principles of morality” (CCC, n. 1780). The term came into use in medieval times and appears prominently both in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (STh) and De Veritate (see STh I, Q. 79, art. 12; DV, Q. 16, art. 1-3).
In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, provides a succinct definition of the term, the etymology of which comes from the Greek synteresis: “The habit of knowing the basic principles of the moral law; the knowledge of the universal first principle of the practical order” (p. 529).
How, then, do these two levels of conscience relate? As observed by Dr. May, St. John Paul II skillfully describes their association in Veritatis Splendor:
“[The] first principle of practical reason is part of the natural law; indeed it constitutes the very foundation of the natural law, inasmuch as it expresses that primordial insight about good and evil that…shines in the heart of every man. But whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation” (VS, n. 59 § 2).
The third level of conscience specified by Dr. May, which might be called “transcendental conscience,” is “a special and very fundamental mode of self-awareness — the awareness of ‘how it is with oneself’ ” (TIE, p. 114; as cited in IMT, p. 60). It is the level of conscience referred to in Gaudium et Spes as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man [where] he is alone with God” (GS, n. 16). Dr. May describes this level of conscience as “a mode of self-awareness whereby we are aware of ourselves as moral beings, summoned to give to ourselves the dignity to which we are called as intelligent and free beings” (IMT, p. 60).
The Vatican II fathers are referring to this when they declare that “all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth. . . .[They] are bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth” (DH, n. 2 § 3).
“It is the summons, deep within our being,” says Dr. May, “to be fully the beings God wants us to be and to make ourselves be, by our own choices and actions, lovers of the true and the good” (IMT, p. 60).

Objective, Moral Truth

As Macquarrie states, “Although we commonly think of conscience as commanding us to do certain things, the fundamental command of conscience is to be” (TIE, p. 115).
Great care is required to ensure a correct understanding of this sense of conscience. For example, Dr. May refers to an author who “seems to make it [transcendental conscience] completely autonomous and unrelated to the other meanings of conscience that have already been considered” (IMT, p. 61). Objective, moral truth can never be compromised in pursuit of a “dynamic thrust toward self-transcendence” (ibid.).
Such a “creative” understanding of conscience, in fact, seems to be precisely what St. John Paul II firmly repudiates in Veritatis Splendor (see VS, nn. 54-56).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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