'Follow your conscience': but what does that mean?

'Follow your conscience': but what does that mean?

Frank Mobbs

Frank Mobbs has been a regular contributor to other religious journals and was formerly a senior lecturer at what is now Australian Catholic University. He addresses the vexed question of conscience in the light of the recent Couchman Show on the Catholic Church.

Frequently I am told I ought to obey my conscience. Authors, preachers, confessors, tell me I ought.

For example, Father Norman Ford SDB writes, "The first principle we can state is that we must always obey a certain conscience" and "A conscience is said to be certain when the individual believes his judgment to be true without any reasonable fear of error" (Live Out the Truth in Love, p.55).

These days conscience is frequently invoked in the case of someone asking whether it would be morally right for him to practise contraception. Young people justify their receiving Holy Communion, after months of unrepented missing of Mass, by appeal to their consciences. The divorced-and-invalidly-remarried are advised to receive Communion, if that is what their consciences tell them to do.

I must say that I have not heard of consciences being invoked in cases where someone wants to know whether he ought to engage in sexual relations with children, or practise rape, or racial discrimination, or pay his workers sub-standard wages, or advocate the use of nuclear weapons.

There seems to be some partiality in the appeals to conscience.

The success of those who teach that morality is nothing more than obeying conscience was shown in some stunning examples of this advice were displayed on The Couchman Show on ABC Television, on 18 September 1991.

If someone came to me and said I've got marital problems, again the conscience is the most important thing. Hopefully my formation, my understanding of who I am, my understanding of humanity, just enables that person to come to the answer themselves [sic]," said newly-ordained Father Bill Peperkamp, still fresh from the study of moral theology.

On the same program, Father Bob Maguire added, "... the human conscience is the sovereign rule when it comes to making decisions between a man and a woman."

Former deputy-leader of the A.L.P., Lionel Bowen, showed he is well up with modem theology: "If you honestly think you are not committing a sin, it's not really a sin."

Josephine Byrnes, who played the beautiful, liberal-minded Sister Catherine in Brides of Christ, seems to have had her own 'Damascus experience': "One day it hit me that I had a choice and that I didn't need to feel guilty because I wasn't following someone else's rules. I did feel guilty because someone had told me that it was wrong and yet I knew in my spirit it was the right thing to do and so I went through this incredible dilemma - it took great strength of spirit that actually my conscience was OK." (Viewers could only guess what the "it" might refer to).

But is it true - ought I to obey my conscience? I don't think so. Let us see why.

First, we need to make it quite clear what it is to follow conscience. What would I be doing, if I were following conscience? If someone told me to follow my conscience, and I did so, what would I be doing?

I think that the answer is simple: I would be acting on the principle I ought to do that which I believe I ought to do. Surely nothing more is required of me in order to follow my conscience than to do what I believe I ought to do.

'The Conscience Principle'

But what is the point of such a rule? I take it that it is an answer to a moral question. For example, Mother is aged and losing her memory, and very dependent on me. I do not know whether she has provided for me in her Will. I judge that I could easily persuade her to make a new Will, leaving everything to me. Ought I to do so?

At this point I recall The Conscience Principle which so many authorities have urged upon me, the one which, so I have been told, is that of the Second Vatican Council no less, "Follow your conscience."

That means I have to do what I believe I ought to do. So I had better find out what I believe. This calls for introspection. I look into my mind to discover what my beliefs are. Do I have a belief about what I ought to do?

There are several possible answers. Perhaps I have no belief. Perhaps that is the trouble that has started me off on this business. If I had a belief about what I ought to do, then I would not be asking, "What ought I to do?"

But if I have no belief on the matter, then there is nothing I ought to do. For it is only when I have a belief about what I ought to do, that I ought to do what I believe.

Think about that. Put it to the test. Just try doing what you believe, when you don't have any belief.

But perhaps I have a belief about what I ought to do. I may be more inclined to believe I should induce Mother to change her Will in my favour than I am inclined to believe I should not. In this case, the moral question has been answered. I know what I ought to do.

The Conscience Principle assures me I have come to the truth of the matter. Not only do I know what I ought to do, but also I know infallibly. If I am following my conscience, then I cannot be mistaken. Any Pope must weep with envy at the sight of such a prodigal supply of infallibility.

At this stage the cognoscenti will object, "No. It is only an informed conscience that you must obey. You inform conscience by reviewing reasons for and against a moral proposal. Only after you have done this can you rely on conscience."

But why should I bother with reasons for a moral judgement? After all, The Conscience Principle guarantees in advance of making a judgement that it will always be the right one. It makes no difference what my reasons are. All I have to do is do what I believe I ought to do.

It seems, then, that I can make any proposal true by believing it. Which is truly marvellous, for I had always thought that not even Almighty God could make a proposal true just by believing it.

So what am I to think of The Conscience Principle? It turns out that it is vacuous and empty. I know that I ought to do that which I ought to do. But what ought I do?

It is as if a young man were to attend his first formal wedding and asked his father what clothes he should wear, and the father replied, "You should wear the clothes that you believe are appropriate for a wedding." The poor son is none the wiser.

Of course, I could take another tack. I could dismiss as nonsense The Conscience Principle, and hold that my moral judgements are reliable only if supported by good reasons (such as that God or his Church has taught me truths) and that it is never a good reason for doing anything that I believe I ought to do it - that my believing fails to count as a good reason.

Alas, this tack cannot be mine, for in taking it, I would show to the world that my thinking is 'pre-Vatican II', and that I have such an addiction to rationality as to render me unfit for consideration by those sensitive and forward-looking souls whose moral insights have led us to the present happy state of Christian morality.

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