Conscience and Truth

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

- Flannery O’Connor

In this day and age, it seems that the fashionable and modern approach to morality involves invoking the word “Conscience” with a confident frequency and righteous vigor. “My Conscience guided me.”, “I listened to my Conscience.”, “My Conscience is intact.” Conscience is equated with that quiet voice inside that tells us that something is either right or wrong. We do well, we are told, when we heed its warning and poorly when we ignore it. Conscience, it is argued, is holy and unimpeachable. Conscience is Truth.

While this concept of Conscience is comforting, it is also convenient and, at times, perilous. One of the greatest threats of the modern age is the threat to Truth. First, the argument is made that while there may be a right to “admit a truth”, there is no right to believe that your truth is superior to mine. To believe this, it is rationalized, would be parochial at best and bigoted at worst. A second argument soon follows that if you have a truth and I have a truth with neither superior to the other, then perhaps this is no such thing as truth after all. If there is no truth whatsoever, then everything is relative – including and especially morality. Pope Benedict XVI (4/18/05) eloquently articulated the dangers inherent to this worldview:

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

Read that last sentence carefully one more time:

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

And so we enter the modern idolatry of and manipulation of the word “Conscience”. The current notion of Conscience serves two purposes: 1) It vaguely spiritualizes the “small voice within each of us”, thus rendering the modern Conscience sacred and holy, and 2) It conforms to the stylish precepts of moral relativism where your Conscience is yours and yours alone – unimpeachable, inerrant, and self-satisfied. Conscience, in effect, is free-floating, without reference point, and ultimately deliciously serves “one’s own ego and desires.”

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I have no doubts about the existence and value of Conscience – just not this modern conception of it. Pope John Paul II wrote a brilliant encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of the Truth), where he grapples with the notion of Conscience. As he wisely articulates (and as I roughly paraphrase), there is an Absolute Truth which is the Word and Will of God. This has been revealed to us through the Biblical Law, the writings of the Prophets, the teachings and example of Christ (God Incarnate), and the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit within each of us (the Law written on our hearts). It is possible for us to apprehend God’s Truth through study, prayer, and receptivity to the Holy Spirit. Conscience, by Pope John Paul II’s definition, is the tool within us that assists in bringing us as close as possible to God’s Truth. This reasons (and quite stark when juxtaposed against the modern definition) that 1) Conscience is a means to bring us to an Absolute Truth (and is not holy in and of itself), and 2) Conscience as a means or tool needs to be shaped or molded to recognize what the Truth is, otherwise it is stunted, deformed, and fails in its fundamental responsibility as trustworthy guide to the Truth. In Pope John Paul II’s words:

“When God’s truth is obscured, human consciences are also deformed, if sin is denied, God is also denied…Human conscience goes astray if it is neglected and deprived of the truth…Conscience has an inalienable right to the truth and it is most intimately related to human dignity…Therefore human dignity requires that a person orient his conscience in accordance with the lawful order established by the Creator.”

This struck me as brilliant. Conscience is a means to an end (the Absolute, Objective Truth of God), not an end in itself. Conscience ill-formed and poorly cultivated in the Truths of God can be deformed and lead us astray. Without the true formation of Conscience to recognize God’s Truth as the infallible reference point upon which our actions are judged right or wrong, Conscience becomes rudderless. And when Conscience becomes rudderless, everything is relative. Yet relativity is a vacuum that ultimately must be filled with something. That something is our own selfish ego and desires. The very Conscience that was designed to lead to  God has led you away from Him. A deformed Conscience will ultimately abdicate its role of leading to God’s Truth and will, in fact, follow fashion and appetite. And we convince ourselves that if we simply heed our Conscience, all will be well.

If one were to think this is a complex, pedantic theological exercise of little true relevance, you would be amazed at how many bright minds have grappled with our propensity to follow a deformed Conscience away from God when His Truth is standing in front of our very eyes. The tempting of man away from God and towards self-satisfaction is not new. In fact, it is the oldest trick in the Devil’s playbook. Truth matters. And we need a reliable Conscience to guide and correct us when we are in error. As several bright minds have reflected:

“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

- Saint Augustine

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

- George Orwell

“Right is right, even if no one is right. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is wrong. “

- Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” 

- G.K. Chesterton

“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

- Winston Churchill 

God’s Truth stands alone. It endures. It is incontrovertible. And in spite of attacks, “there it is.” Conscience is not Truth. Rather, it is a tool. And if this tool is well-formed and well-heeded, it can bring us to Truth. It can bring us to the loving brilliance of God. Indeed. And what a wonderful place for us to be.

Why Pope Benedict XVI Matters to Me
Behold the Pierced One: Spending Holy Week with Benedict XVI
My Quaint, Silly, Ridiculous, Little, Lovely, Lovely Faith
Rediscovering The God I Had Forgotten About
  • Lids

    Well written, and so relevant in this day and age. I love the term Dictatorship of Relativism, because it aptly describes the current morality crisis in which our culture finds itself.

  • Dave from Minnetonka

    Wonderful post!

    This modern day elevation of conscience as each individual’s arbiter of truth is remarkably prevalent. It is constantly fed and expanded by the feel-good Oprah-like preachings of so many.

  • evehuman2013

    You are very right about the “deformed” conscience people make for themselves.
    But I do have a problem with the Winston Churchill quote.
    In my opinion he was one of the best examples for a man with a deformed conscience and somebody who goes after his own desires (in this case it wasn’t sexual desires, but desires for power.
    For him the end definitely justified all means.
    The fire-bombing of Dresden only to send a message to the Soviets is in my opinion not exactly a sign of a well developed conscience or somebody who respects truth.

  • Robert McDealer

    “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” – Saint Augustine

    I nearly fell out of my seat when I read this quote from Saint Augustine because essentially he is describing what occurs in all monotheistic religions, esp. in the various christian sects. This occurs mainly because of the ambiguous messages that exist in the bible (i.e. “Turn the other cheek” and “an eye for an eye”). The level of ambiguity allows for Liberation Theology in Latin American and Neo-Conservative Liberation Catholic and Southern Baptist Conservatives in the United States… all claiming to be “biblically based” and basing their “authority” on various passages in the bible.

    The “relativism” in christian thinking is pretty head spinning. A non-christian can talk with a number of christians and is usually very confused at what the basic tenets of christianity is. The levels of confusion in the larger christian body is extreme… especially since each sect usually positions themselves as been part of the “elect”. This false “absolutism” historically has lead to wars, blood shed and real tyranny… and was one of the reasons the Founders of the US want to put a wall between Church and State. (which is now actively being attack by right wing zealots).

    I find two things very ironic when reading and talking with catholics and christians… the first is that they do recognize that the words of Jesus Christ were corrupted when Christianity became a “State Religion” following it adoption by Constantine in 312ad and has essentially maintained that position in the West ever since. This was the main corruptor… shifting Jesus’s message away from compassion and the poor and to greed and the rich… as it shifted the responsibility of JC death from the Romans to the Jews just before and right after it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. (crucifixion was a roman style of execution and the lie of pilate’s washing his hands).

    What the opinion piece also seems to forget to mention is importance of “critical thinking” or making assessments based on the information and facts presented. By thinking about things and examining various religious, legal and moral positions/traditions, things like “Thou shall not kill” become easy to understand as moral “certainties” (except of course when the state decides to kill… but this tends to be supported by most state religions be them christian, jewish or islamic.) Most of the “certainties” have to do with how to citizens act towards each other. We also forget that many societies developed similar laws as christians ones… without ever having been influenced by christianity. China, India, Japan, Ancient Egypt, all other middle and near east ancient empires, Greece and Roman had similar (though not the same) systems of “right and wrong” that we have… We also forget that our current system of “right and wrong” is based on many of these influences… and that even “christian right and wrong” has shifted over the last two thousand years.

    Let’s look at “usury” and “coveting”. In the middle ages, christians could not lend money nor charge interest (as muslims still don’t). Jews filled the gap until Christians decided that they could lend money and charge interest (and then kill the Jews). In the United States, usury laws used to be in effect… until the 1980s(?), when all of credit card companies set up business in “Montana” because they didn’t have usury laws to get around all the usury laws in places like Rhode Island.

    Usury is not a good thing in the bible (think money changers at the temple).. and yet no church, no major religious figure and no christian/catholic sect has come out against it… even thought it is considered not ok in the bible… (you look up the text).

    But this is how the “christian” conscience has evolved over the last few decades.. or is it the same ol’ theme of established religions supporting the establishment. But maybe I am wrong, christian thinking has always been a bit relativistic since almost every point of view known can be supported by a biblical quote.