One of the most misunderstood of all Church teachings is her doctrine on the nature and operation of conscience.
This is most unfortunate because of the supreme importance that conscience plays in the moral life.
The best and most thorough treatment on the subject, as far as I am aware, appears in Karol Wojtyla’s The Acting Person.
Now, this book, which is a work of a remarkably gifted intellect, is, by common consensus, exceedingly difficult to read. Nonetheless, philosophy teachers are happy to play the role of intermediaries, building bridges between inaccessible texts and hungry students.
Consider cooking, which is also performed in the service of the hungry. A cook must first line up all his ingredients before he puts them together and prepares his gourmet dish. If he omits the ice cream, he cannot produce Baked Alaska; if he omits the eggs, he cannot produce Crêpes Suzette.
A good cook is faithful to his recipe; his recipe is nothing more than mixing all the ingredients together in the proper way. What, then, is the recipe for conscience? To begin, let us line up the ingredients, so to speak, that go into conscience, being careful not to omit any of them. What are the ingredients, then, that Wojtyla uses in cooking up his description of conscience?
First, there is freedom, then knowledge, truth, rightness, obligation and creativity.
Freedom is an essential requirement for conscience. We act from a center of personal subjectivity. When I think or act, it is I who thinks or acts. But the very word “conscience” (con + scientia), which means, by derivation, “with knowledge,” must link the subject with the objective order. This knowledge, however, is not mere factual knowledge like 2 + 2 = 4 or Paris is the capital of France. It is knowledge of the truth of what is known.
As John Paul II, Wojtyla refers to truth as possessing a certain luminosity (Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth), which makes it a natural and highly accessible object of the mind. In perceiving this truth, one immediately gains a sense of its rightness or, even, its goodness.
As Wojtyla avers, “Truthfulness and duty are strictly concomitant.” A mother holds her baby in her arms and perceives its rightness and goodness. This realization then gives rise to the duty or obligation to protect what she perceives. (Do good and avoid evil is the first principle of conscience.)
When we freely accept our duty or obligation, we become more complete as moral persons. Hence, we recognize the creative element of acting in accordance with our conscience. It is a commonplace misunderstanding of freedom that it is something negative and somehow becomes more itself to the degree that it is separated from knowledge. This is “freedom from” and is not the kind of freedom that Wojtyla is discussing.
Rather, by “freedom” he means “freedom in,” more specifically, freedom in the truth, since it is the truth that makes us free in the positive and perfective sense.
A practical illustration may be helpful: I am locked out of my house. My house key is on a keychain together with a host of other keys. I am free to try any of the wrong keys, but none of them will allow me to do what I want to do, which is to unlock the door and gain entrance into my house. This negative freedom has no practical utility, and there is no point in boasting that I am free to try any of the wrong keys.
Such rebellious freedom is perfectly impractical. By using the one true key to the lock, I enjoy freedom in truth and get in the house. Another common misconception is that conscience can operate alone, apart from objective truth. But conscience does not create truth, but discovers it. In this way, the proper activity of the conscience does not close us in on ourselves, but opens us to an objective order, a world of values that enable us to serve others effectively.
As Wojtyla states: “The opinion that man’s individual conscience could itself establish this order [the original sin of Adam] distorts the correct proportions in the relations between the person and the society, community and — on a different level — between the human creature and the Creator.”
Because conscience is linked with truth and consequently rightness, it inspires obligation. In this way, we establish our proper relationships with ourselves, our neighbors and God. Conscience allows us freedom to be ourselves and take our rightful places in the world. And, in doing so, we gain an even greater freedom: the freedom of personal fulfillment.
Conscience is a kind of network builder. We are, of course, free to use our freedom wrongly. But there is no profit in pursuing this kind of negative exercise. By employing all the elements (ingredients) of conscience, we follow a recipe that produces a more complete person. We must be ever careful not to omit any of the ingredients.
The cook’s gourmet meal will always contain all of its vital ingredients. Nothing less is demanded of conscience.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.