Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Erroneous Conscience

Are we called morally good or bad when in striving to follow our conscience, we err?

There is an interesting development of theological opinion on the question.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) , distrusted human knowledge and believed that the root of sin is ignorance. He emphasized the virtue of humility and adherence to the law. Actions contrary to the law and its teaching, even though done out of ignorance, were according to Bernard, bad. Thus if we accept that telling a lie is always wrong, Bernard would say if we told a lie, regardless of our motivation, we sinned.

Theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142), taught differently. He held that the will, in particular its consent, determines actions as good or bad. If we are in error, but we do not consent to it, there is no sin. Thus if we told a lie in order to protect the life of another, Abelard would call us and our action, good. Faced with the question whether the action from a sincerely erroneous conscience is a sin, Bernard says yes, and Abelard, no.

Upon the powerful influence of Bernard, who accused Abelard of 19 errors, the Council of Sens (1140) condemned Abelard, although his sentence was later lifted.

Later, Thomas Aquinas entertained the question whether a person is good when following an erroneous conscience. For Thomas Aquinas, conscience is the act of applying our knowledge of good and evil to what we do (or might do). So in order to know what is a good action or a bad one, one needs to understand how things are naturally ordered by God -- primarily what human nature is, and what things it needs and deserves. Thomas' question concerned sincerity and understanding regarding the error: Could one have known otherwise? Interestingly, Thomas did not call the person good who despite striving to know the right, followed an erroneous conscience; rather, Thomas argued that such a person is "excused" from blame.

By the 16th century, most theologians agree with Thomas, that a dictate of conscience must be followed under pain of sin and that an erroneous conscience in good faith is, at least, excused from blame. In 1690 Pope Alexander VIII condemned all those who taught that an invincibly ignorant conscience did not at least, excuse. Implicitly, Bernard's attack on Abelard is rejected.

We now see Vatican II upholding the dignity of the moral conscience, even when it errs from invincible ignorance. But it goes on to caution: "The same cannot be said of the man who cares little for truth and goodness, or of a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin" (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

Finally, Cathechism states:

1790. A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791. This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin."
In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

1755. A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting "in order to be seen by men").
The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

1756. It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

In conclusion, it must be noted that describing erroneous actions as "good", as contemporary relativists do, is rejected. Relativists rightly find goodness in the integrity of conscience, but they grossly overlook the need to evaluate what we do out of conscience and how we live. This simplistic description is favored by many in society today who praise people for following conscience but who refuse to measure the resulting activity; that each of us is considerably free from objective evaluation. A person who errs in good faith is a person who has struggled to find the right, has searched heart and mind, and in firm good faith and free will acted with conviction, albeit in error. This person is good, and what differentiates this person from another who strives in the same way but whose conduct is recognized as right is precisely the evaluation of the conduct as wrong. Calling the conduct wrong is the sufficient negative description for the activity of the erroneous conscience.

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