January 18, 2014

Conscience and Post-Modern America

This post is a response, once again, to some writing that I found elsewhere on the internet. Specifically, I am responding to an article about conscience found HERE at the National Catholic Register's site. In it, the author, one Francis X. Cronin, argues that the American social acceptance of certain moral evils (he points mainly to homosexuality and abortion, but also mentions others) serves as "definitive and positive proof of the collapse of the West’s moral conscience." There are two things he could mean by this. First, he might mean that our consciences had "collapsed" from being well-informed to being poorly informed. If this is what he means, then I have no issue with his article, and would have written my own response unnecessarily. However, several of his points indicate a different idea of what the collapse of conscience means, in such a way that seems incompatible with my current understanding of Church thought on God, and our relationships to Him.

Mr. Cronin seems to think that conscience itself has largely disappeared or become inoperative within most Americans. Several of his statements indicate this. For instance, he begins a paragraph describing how our consciences were better years ago with the remark, "In the days when conscience was common and sensitive...", implying that consciences are now uncommon, and insensitive. Similarly, closer to the beginning of his article, Mr. Cronin states, "Because of modernism’s incursion into all facets of current society, we as a culture no longer have a conscience..." Confusion between modernism and post-modernism aside, Mr. Cronin's assumption that the attitudes and values of a modernist society can degrade our consciences to such an extent that they no longer exist seems evident. Thus, he paints a picture where we, the few still following our own beleaguered consciences, must point with despairing but superior fingers at those "modernists" who no longer benefit from God's gift of conscience.

I do not believe that our consciences work in this way. As this post continues, I will argue that we cannot lose our consciences because of God's provident design, and that, therefore, some other cause must be bringing about this "moral collapse." I will then briefly lay out a different way of thinking about why societies commit some sins but not others, which still allows for the presence of a conscience.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines "conscience" in its glossary like this, "The interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed." The CCC further discusses conscience in Part III, Sec. 1, Art. 6, where conscience is said to be "a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed." (1778) This conscience "must be informed and moral judgment enlightened," (1783), and there can be erroneously informed consciences which "one must therefore work to correct." (1793) Thus, it seems correct to make the following statements about conscience: The conscience is responsible for all judgments of the morality of one's own moral actions; Consciences can be well or poorly formed depending on many factors, such as past action, cultural norms, and good or bad instruction; and Consciences must be continually formed to be "enlightened by true faith." (1794)

Nowhere within the Catechism is there mention of an inoperative or vanquished conscience. Erroneous judgments are instead attributed to consciences being misinformed, or ignored due to concupiscence. However, the Catechism does not state this explicitly, since it cannot cover every facet of the faith, being far too short to do so. Thus, I will present an argument that every person has an actively-used conscience, in some state of being well or poorly informed. First, I would like to point to the author of the conscience: God. As stated in Romans 2:15, "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness..." God, as the perfect author and creator of human life, designed us with certain powers and capacities such that we could ably seek Him. Among these powers are reason, memory, and, here relevant, conscience. Because God is very good at what He does, He did not create these capacities haphazardly or in a fragile state. Just as it takes significant trauma or psychosis to remove reason from a man, it would take a similar amount of force to remove the ability to decide whether one's own actions are morally good or bad. Because such cases of severe trauma or psychosis are not widespread, it does not seem to me plausible that a whole American culture could be suffering such a misfortune. Instead, God's provident care, which gave us our consciences in the first place, continues to sustain our ability to make moral judgments, even if those judgments do not conform to God's own law.

Second, as stated above, any moral judgment, whether that judgment aligns with God's commandments or not, is the function of conscience. A good judgment, which accurately describes an act as good or bad, is the fruit of a well-formed conscience. A bad judgment, conversely, is the fruit of a poorly-formed conscience. Further, all human beings constantly make moral judgments, and thus constantly use and form their consciences. As we go about our lives, we construct our habits of action based upon our perception of the good, as both Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. I) and Gaudium et Spes (see P 16) attest. The act of deciding which acts are good, which we should do, and which are bad, which we should not do, is an act of conscience. Because all men constantly order their actions toward their perception of the good, and since all such judgments of which actions are good or not are an action of conscience, all humans constantly use their consciences.

As such, I do not think it is right to maintain, as Mr. Cronin does, that we Americans, as a result of modernity, have "lost" our consciences. Instead, as the Catechism teaches, our poor choices and misguided ethics are the result of the widespread state of poorly-formed, but active and present, consciences. This is apparent in how a secularly-minded person would react to the statement that homosexuals should not marry each other. This person would be surprised and shocked that a basic moral premise of our culture - radical egalitarianism, all men are equal - should be ignored, and would tell us that OUR moral judgment was in error. That person, using their reason and their knowledge of the good, would judge that homosexual marriage was permissible, because heterosexual marriage is permissible, and homosexual people are not less good than heterosexual people. Thus with their poorly-formed conscience, they would reach the conclusion that Mr. Cronin finds so mystifying and damnable.

But how could so many consciences be malformed, and on such a wide-spread scale that enough Americans disagree with the truth to enforce laws contrary to God's plan? Unfortunately, I do not have the space here, or the time, to flesh out a full-bodied explanation. Instead, I'll offer a brief theory, informed by ideas of St. John Henry Newman. In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman presents the concept of a culturally-held idea. By talking to each other as a culture, we develop and share certain thoughts and ideas. For instance, the American usage of the word "Democracy" is different than the dictionary definition, but our understanding of it has grown to be what it is over time, because it means something to us as a culture and thus is frequently discussed and referenced. Similarly, the Catholic idea of "Tradition" has been discussed and held by Catholics over a very long time, growing and developing over the years as we read and use again the ideas of our forebears.

Our ideas of right and wrong also go through such changes. As an example, sexual ethics in the United States have changed since our Puritan founders sailed across the Atlantic. The Puritans thought of sexuality as carnal and banal, not worthy of true Christian life. This idea seeped into the general American consciousness, creating widespread shame about the topic. This strong cultural idea of sexual pleasure as illicit continued through the 1950s (more or less), when a generation of post-war economic boom parents attempted to pass the same values on to their kids. However, the presentation of one illicit pleasure amongst a sea of other socially acceptable ones did not hold well with the youth, leading to the 60s slogan of "How can something that feels so good be so wrong?" Once this generation matured, their acceptance and permissiveness of sexuality was applied to their culturally divided worldview, where gays, blacks, and the poor were still excluded. A further generation, however, applied the American value of equality to this idea of sexual permissiveness, creating the mess we have today. As such, a whole generation of young children grew up in a society where the ideas of sexual freedom and egalitarianism combine, causing the exclusion of the homosexual and others to be deemed unjust and morally wrong by public opinion. This tracing of the American idea of sexual ethics across our history has been, admittedly, too short and poorly substantiated, but it hopefully serves the purpose of giving a short example of how a way of thinking, a cultural idea, can change over time, affecting the consciences of a generation.

So, now we have a better understanding of what a conscience is, and why its eradication cannot be the cause of our "moral collapse." Further, I offered a preliminary concept of changing cultural values over time, which could explain why some acts are commonly thought wrong, and then change to become commonly thought right. So, Mr. Cronin, while I agree that homosexual marriage and abortion are grave moral evils, which have and will continue to cause great damage to our society, I cannot agree that their presence is "proof" of a lack of conscience in the secular American public. But, some might argue, this is a minor point - since we both agree about the moral problems of our age, can't we simply work together to fight the moral wrongs, without petty squabbles about what a conscience is? Aren't you just getting stuck on a minor issue, Ambrose, and failing to work together on the bigger picture?

The nature of the conscience is actually not a minor issue, and our thought on the matter greatly influences how we act toward the wider, secular culture. A position like Mr. Cronin's, where the secular agendas have eroded and destroyed the consciences of countless millions, creates a bleak and hopeless world for us. While it might inspire the few and faithful to fight for morality in broader culture, it engenders a pugnacious and uncompromising attitude at best, and a "closet Catholicism" at worst. If we fear for the moral degradation of ourselves and our children, we may hide in Catholic subcultures, and be unwilling to present Christ to our countrymen for fear of losing our own souls in the process. This "closet Catholicism," which Pope Francis has spoken out against at length in Evangelii Gaudium, prevents the evangelization of the many, because it does not see hope for the conversion of someone whose conscience has been destroyed. Instead, a view of the conscience which sees the sinner as poorly formed allows for missionary action, and for radical change and conversion. It allows for the "street Catholicism" which Pope Francis both laudably practices and repeatedly calls for. It challenges the faithful Catholic, with a well-formed conscience, to reach out to his brother whose conscience is poorly-formed, to participate in Christ's work of spreading the fire of the Gospel. Just as we must not break the bent read, or smother the flickering candle, so we must not write off our American brothers and sisters as eternally lost. Although their consciences may be poorly-formed, they can be reformed by the love of Christ, whose mission and sacrifice for all mankind still has as much transformative power now as it did two thousand years ago at the birth of the Church.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Cronin's article was saying the same thing you are here, just using different words to mean the same thing, like your example of the word "democracy". At least I took his article that way. But I already knew the CCC definition and the difference between a well and poorly informed conscience. So what do I know.

January 18, 2014 3:41 PM  
Blogger Michael McCabe said...

Well said, I didn't know much about the conscience argument but I love your argument. Especially at the nend about how we should not look at other brothers and sisters as falling into evil without a consious, but rather as being poorly formed morally, and our opportunity to reveal the power of chirst!

January 19, 2014 7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ambrose,
As the author of the article you are analyzing I thought I might write to you abou your post. As a writer I think it is kinda coll you took the time to ddo thisx. Thanks.
But, I think you may be misinterpreting or proof texting the article unfairly.
There was a quote you lifted from the article that was incomplete and is perhaps the place you went awry. You quoted the article "In the days when conscience was common and sensitive, because it was informed and applied routinely," your quote above ended just with "sensitive" and failed to include the "informed and applied" points so critical to the point you are making. Also, as a person who has spent a bit of time doing theology, you may want to remember to take in the sweep and essence of the written material you encounter before exegeting it too specifically or selctively. The references I used to sociopathy and nihilism were deliberate and should cover some of your concerns. Sociopathy is a characterological category of people to one degree or another that describes them as empty in an emotional way and moral way, though both of these are present simultaneously. This state is a little outside of the deliberate though often implicit nature of a nihilist. The idea there was to take into account explicit and implicit guiding philosophies and also to take into account other more psychological and characterological possibilities. At no point are these to be construed as 100% empty of conscience, but they do represent deeliberate and psychological moral lapses in perception in large areas of moral concern. Hence the use of "collapse" which also implies a broader cultural component and source that shows up in individuals influenced by the greater culture.
Wshile I think you and I could have a bit of fun over a beer or coffee discussing some of these finer points and others (modernism and post-modernism) I thiknk being mindful of the broader audience is critical lest the big question and issue be lost in nuances and finer
points. Thanks again and good luck with your studies in theology. Where are you studying? With whom?

January 22, 2014 1:27 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

Thanks for responding!
I agree with you in hoping that I am incorrect in my assessment. I think it is possible to read the article with an understanding of conscience that is correct, but I worried that it could also be misunderstood. Looking at the comments on the Register's page, I am afraid that some, rather extreme, responders there may have misunderstood in the way I described, and so I was trying to help clarify at least in some small way, because, as I hope I explained in my original post, I think it is a very important distinction which changes how we act towards those whose consciences seem to be poorly formed.

Thanks! People do consciously commit evil actions against their consciences (I know, because I've been guilty of that myself), but I agree that it's important to have hope, because Christ definitely does have the power to change hearts!

Frank Cronin:
Thanks for responding here! I had hoped you would see it, but knowing how it can be dangerous to read comments on the Register's site, I am honored to read your response.

I'd like to start out by apologizing a bit: I intentionally took an extreme reading of your article in order to highlight the distinction I was trying to make, because it seems to me to be an important distinction. This caused me to be rather harsh towards you, perhaps unnecessarily, and also to be rather narrow in the passages I drew from your article, and for that I am sorry.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I had hoped that I was misreading you, and I am now glad to find out that, indeed, I was.

I did see your discussion of sociopathy and nihilism, and that inspired my own discussion of "severe trauma or psychosis" was, indirectly, a further development of that issue. And, further, I agree that materialism and nihilism have contributed to the downplay of certain virtues within our culture, leading to confusion and poorly-informed consciences within the young in our country. However, I might also contend that the same cultural trends that led to the downplay of sexual ethics, for instance, have had good effects as well: a more inclusive and community-oriented understanding of authority, for instance.

I agree that a discussion of the matter over a beer of coffee would be very fun and enlightening, but I would also argue that a correct understanding of conscience is not a minor issue or a nuance. I think that this is an issue which not only some people in the comments on the NCR site misunderstood, but which, as I attempted to point out in my post, can cause significant problems for our methods for and attitude toward evangelization. I will, however, admit that the post-modernism vs. modernism debate is ancillary and unnecessary tot he current discussion. I only mentioned it because it was a pet peeve of mine.

Thanks for your well wishes! I am currently working towards at MA in theology at the University of Dayton, with Drs. William Portier and Dennis Doyle as my advisers. I'm set to finish that Master's this summer, and then I am finishing my application to the Archdiocesan seminary in Cincinnati.

January 22, 2014 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time again. Glad to hear you are applying to seminary. No apologies necessary. We're all on a journey and I have yet to throw a even a perfect twenty minutes, let alone a perfect day. One final thought: Conscience is substance, is no small matter and as you said you pushed things a bit far to make a point. Maybe next time just make the point, elaborate on the essence or general flow that way some of your observations will indeed have the evangelistic effect you so rightly note in your second comment to me. One of the things I am so amused or befuddled by is when I say things and people just use that to make some point that unlike your's, they simply use the article as a catalyst to say things I haven't said or to take things in a direction that a plain and straightforward reading of the text doesn't really support. And, that is why your willingness to be engaged and to spend the time writing can really augment any writer's intent and case and bring the evangelistic hope and substance more to the fore. God bless you as you pursue his calling.

January 22, 2014 11:34 PM  

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