The cover story of the June-July issue of First Things is J. Budziszewski's “The Revenge of Conscience,” a look at the perversions of thought that have caused America's moral decline and their likely result.
Budziszewski, a rising young philosophy professor attuned to the Catholic natural law tradition, opens with a catalog of society's moral capitulations — to abortion, euthanasia, sexual immorality, and perversion — and then asks, “Why do things get worse so fast?” He disagrees with the view that “conscience is weakened by neglect,” or that the moral law, written on our hearts, is rubbed out by repeated wrongdoing. Instead, he maintains that “By and large we do know right from wrong, but wish we didn't.... We aren't untutored, but ‘in denial.'We don't lack moral knowledge, we hold it down.”
Abortion is a prime example of the self-deception and contorted reasoning that the suppression of conscience lets us in for.
“If it doesn't kill a baby it is hard to see why we should be uneasy about it at all.... We restrict what we allow because we know it is wrong but don't want to give it up; we feed our hearts scraps in hopes of hushing them, as cooks quiet their kitchen puppies.”
When we act against the natural law, while attempting to deny that we are doing it, we are not breaking through the bounds of conscience but distorting it in ways we will eventually pay for — individually and as a society.
For example, Budziszewski recounts the ways modern Americans cover up their separation of sex from marriage:
“Because we can't not know that sex belongs with marriage, when we separate them we cover our guilty knowledge with rationalizations.... One common rationalization ... is inventing private definitions of marriage.... Yet another ruse is to admit that sex belongs with marriage but fudge the nature of the connection. By this reasoning I tell myself that sex is OK because I am going to marry my partner, because I want my partner to marry me, or because I have to find out if we could be happy married.”
And so on.
He then returns to abortion:
“Think what is necessary to justify abortion.... We must deny that the act is deliberate, deny that it kills, deny that its victims are human, or deny that wrong must not be done.” By far the most promising tactic is the third, but “no one has been able to come up with a criterion that makes babies in the womb less human but leaves everyone else as he was.”
If the personhood of the unborn is called into question, because the fetus has not reached our own level of emotional or intellectual complexity, then what about children, the very old, the disabled, the eternally immature? Humanity becomes a very slippery concept:
“No [you protest], the progression is too extreme. People are not that logical. Ah, but they are more logical than they know, they are only logical slowly. The implication that they do not grasp today they may grasp in 30 years; if they do not grasp it even then, their children will.”
This is why, once society seriously began to diverge from traditional moral teaching, its rate of descent seemed so precipitous.
“We can't not know the preciousness of human life — therefore, if we tell ourselves that humanity is a matter of degree, we can't help holding those who are more human more precious than those who are less.”
What can save us from the natural consequences of our crimes against conscience? Budziszewski ends on a religious and almost mystical note:
“Nothing new can be written on the heart, but nothing needs to be; all we need is the grace of God to see what is already there. We don't want to read the letters, because they burn; but they do burn, so at last we must read them.... ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before thee ... a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.‘”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.For more information about First Things, write to: P.O. Box 3000, Dept. FT, Denville, NJ 07834