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Conscience in Catholicism

Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Policies

Brian Green

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics recently hosted the conference "Conscience in Catholicism: Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Policies." Scholars from around the world gathered to speak about the connection between Catholicism and conscience, and how it relates to their local contexts. Several key points came up in the discussions.

First, the discussion of conscience varies from place to place in the world. In some places, the concept of conscience is deeply connected with controversial issues concerning the diversity of viewpoints within the Church, while in other nations it has much more to do with protecting the rights of belief of those within the Church from those outside the Church. Additionally, topics varied by country. African nations are very concerned about condom use to prevent the spread of HIV, while in other nations the concerns include conscientious objection (of soldiers, health care workers, etc.), distribution of wealth, access to and use of contraception, and/or same-sex marriage.

Second, conscience has a relational dimension. Just as relationships can promote people to have a change of conscience, they can also suppress changes in conscience. Likewise, just because someone has a change in conscience does not mean that it is for better. And since conscience involves such fundamental questions about right and wrong, better and worse, people will no doubt disagree as to whether changes in conscience are for the better or worse. These deep disagreements that are firmly rooted in conscience present a genuine difficulty for decision-making in a pluralistic society. The problems are not only moral ones but also epistemological ones - problems of knowing what right and wrong are. Sometimes cultures can make deep moral mistakes, such as permitting racial discrimination. But these mistakes can be revealed by the work of activists who share the stories of those who are victims. Additionally, one participant noted that it is difficult to compromise when one feels that one is losing, which could be a source of some of the reluctance to compromise we see in current cultural debates.

Third, several participants wondered if Catholic universities were good places to discuss conscience. One mentioned that what Catholic universities did was teach students how to get rich and still have a good conscience. Another participant said he felt good about the role of Catholicism in the lives of his students until a student noted to him that he only saw the engaged Catholic students in his classes - the majority of students were not interested in studying or practicing Catholicism. Another participant wondered why there are books on ethics for doctors and lawyers, engineers and politicians, but not for those who work in universities. It would seem natural for ethics researchers at universities to want to probe their own institutions, and yet they do not. He wondered if perhaps there is a failure of introspection and conscience among professors and university administrators.

Fourth, one participant pointed out that conscience is connected to remorse, not only individually, but also culturally. People who regret their mistakes develop their consciences and become more humble, as do some cultures, while people who do not admit or regret their mistakes possess poorly developed consciences and lack humility, as do some cultures. This has relevance for addressing not only personal but also social sins. The concept of purity was added to the debate, purity not exclusively as a sexual issue, but also purity as the biblical idea of purity of heart, a willingness to love everyone. A pure heart has an active conscience, which is sensitive to remorse, admits mistakes, and sincerely attempts to not err again - even if that means conscientiously objecting on issues which are subject to strong social pressures. Following one's conscience and opposing the crowd takes courage, but individual courage is a prerequisite for trying to correct and heal social sins.

Over the next several months, papers from the conference will be edited by David DeCosse (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and Religious Studies) and Kristen Heyer (Religious Studies), and be published by Orbis books.

Brian Green is assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Oct 1, 2014