Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Being Guided By Your Conscience: A Sunday Rumination

Before we begin: It’s been a while since I last wrote one of these, and I can’t quite say why. A number of Gentle Readers have written to suggest that they be a regular feature, but I found that I couldn’t commit to that. I need to be inspired by my subject and some particle of insight into it. A Rumination undertaken without that foundation would feel improper, possibly even blasphemous.

Among Catholics, the subject of conscience and how far one can trust its guidance is a contentious one, for a simple reason: The Church tries to “have it both ways.” On the one hand, current doctrine is that an individual’s conscience is his proper guide; on the other, it asserts that it must be a “properly formed” conscience to be reliable in moral and ethical matters. Given that what constitutes a “properly formed” conscience varies with the religious authority to whom one appeals for clarification, it’s no small matter to sort it out.

The traditional touchstone for a properly formed conscience is the Ten Commandments and what they imply. For example, the Fifth Commandment, Thou shalt not murder, doesn’t explicitly forbid aggressive interpersonal violence that falls short of lethality. However, even so it would be wrong under the auspices of the Commandment, because:

  • It’s animated by hatred;
  • It’s uncertain of effect – i.e., it could lead to murder;
  • It creates an “occasion of sin” in which murder becomes more thinkable.

This isn’t the time or place for a minutely detailed exegesis on the implications of the Commandments. I merely wanted to note that there are such implications – some stronger than others – and that therefore, we must not be excessively literal about the scope of the Commandments or their binding force. Behind the Ten stand the Two Great Commandments:

  • Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul;
  • Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Herein lies the foundation of all Christian thought. The Ten are implied by the Two. Indeed, without the Two the Ten would lack all force. More, the Two are supported by a stronger pillar yet: the Law of Nature, specifically human nature.


We are creatures embedded in a matrix of Time and Natural Law. Each of these gives the other its significance.

One of the differences between humans and animals is that animals learn solely through conditioning. They form no abstractions, and therefore no generalizations. A psychologist friend notes also that to an animal, an object not within its perceptual field does not exist, even if the animal clearly perceived that object only moments before. These differences free the animal kingdom from all laws save those embedded in each creature’s flesh. They simultaneously put Man over the animals: he is privileged to do with them as he pleases, barring only cruelty and waste.

(A brief etymological tangent: privilege == privis plus lex, or “private law.” Think about it.)

Humans, by contrast, can and do form abstractions and make generalizations from them. The abstraction human is the most critical of all: it expresses the commonalities that can be found in all men, otherwise known as our nature.

Human nature is the source of the moral-ethical laws that apply to us all. Those laws are not like the ones made by human legislatures; violating them doesn’t necessarily incur an indictment and trial. Rather, they express processes that play out over time:

  • (1, 2) One who sets himself, or any other “authority,” above the laws of the universe will come to grief for it.
  • (3) One who takes no time to express gratitude, specifically for having been born human and more generally for the laws that make it possible for men to survive and flourish, will be intolerable to others and a hazard to himself.
  • (4) He who is faithless toward his benefactors will suffer comparable betrayals when he finds himself in their position.
  • (5) Aggressive violence makes one a danger to all others and will elicit violent reprisal.
  • (6) He who breaks his promises will find no constancy in others.
  • (7) He who disrespects the property of others will receive no respect from them for what’s his.
  • (8) To harm another with deceit is as grave a matter as to strike him and will earn the same comeuppance.
  • (9, 10) Covetous envy – the desire to harm others even if net damage accrues to oneself – erodes the soul and renders one incapable of positive action.

A healthy human being, not warped by hatred nor burdened by despair, will absorb and internalize all the above from simple observation. They’re “the way things work” among men. They flow from our natures as temporal creatures that learn through experience, abstraction, induction and deduction. They would apply to any sentient creature that shares those characteristics, no matter how many eyes or limbs he might possess. They are the inevitable implications of time, our natures as creatures of volitional consciousness (Ayn Rand), and the universe in which we live.

They are the Ten Commandments.


Our human nature expresses the commonalities among us, but it fails to address our range: the extent to which one can differ from others while still being indisputably human. Aristotle’s thoughts on essence versus accident are of value here, yet neither they nor any other treatment of human range can exhaust the subject. The subject is of intense importance, for it brightens the line that divides the “natural” from the “unnatural,” which is critical to distinguishing between reliable implications of the Ten and fancies that some theologian cooked up after one too many cups of mead.

For example, in Shadow Of A Sword, I wrote:

    “Your Louis sounds extraordinary. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.”
    She nodded. “I miss him a lot. I owe him more than my life.” Her brow knotted. “Do you think he’s with God now? Even though he said he didn’t believe?”
    Ray paused to organize his thoughts.
    “We are taught,” he said carefully, “that no good man will be denied his just reward in the next life. Going by what you’ve told me, Louis was more than a good man, much more. I’m nowhere near that good, and I’ve never known anybody who was nearly that good. If he had doubts, they clearly didn’t keep him from living the faith in every imaginable way. And there aren’t many who can say that, even among the clergy.” He rose, went to the west-facing window and surveyed the day briefly. All was quiet beyond. He turned back to her. “If God is just, and He is, then Louis is with Him.”
    “What about...” She paused and looked away. “What about all the sex?”
    “Was he promised to anyone? Were you?”
    She shook her head, and he smiled.
    “A peccadillo, if even that. The commandments forbid adultery, which is the violation of the marital promise of fidelity and constancy. The physical love you shared with him strikes me as the only imaginable way the bond between you could have been expressed. I expect God would see it the same way. Have no fear for him, dear.”

Father Ray’s verdict on the sexual relationship between Louis and Christine got me some harsh criticism from other Catholics. Yet I can’t read the Sixth Commandment any other way. Indeed, it appalls me that so many other Catholics are willing to allow the Church to claim “plenipotentiary authority” over all sexual and parasexual conduct on the basis of the five words Thou shalt not commit adultery. Christ Himself never demanded any such thing. Nor did the power of absolution – “What you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19) – confer such authority on Peter or his successors. Otherwise, the pope would be empowered to repeal or nullify the Ten.


Probably the most reliable guide to exploring the valid implications of the Ten Commandments goes like this:

  • The Ten are founded on the Two, which are themselves derived from the Natural Law.
  • Therefore, any inferences from the Ten must be consistent with the Two to have force.
  • The First Great Commandment impels us to gratitude: a spirit of joyful acceptance of our common natures and our individual gifts.
  • Therefore, to resent God, the Giver of those things, or to deride or defame Him, is sinful. Merely to invoke any of His names is not, if proper respect is accorded to it.
  • The Second Great Commandment impels us to respect one’s neighbor’s rights and requirements as we respect our own. (Concerning which: neighbor == one who is near.)
  • Therefore, that which infringes upon one’s neighbor’s rights, or that disdains to succor him when he is in need through no fault of his own, is sinful. That would include aggressive violence, theft, fraud, deceitful testimony, indifference to his legitimate needs, the betrayal of a sworn promise to him, and any silent entertainment of his diminution, his destruction, or his downfall.
  • All else, as Chesterton has told us, is licit, though occasions of moral hazard, as catalogued by the Seven Capital Sins, are still to be avoided.

No doubt there are Catholics who will disagree. (There are certainly enough men in Holy Orders who’ll do so.) All the same, that’s how I approach the problem of the “properly formed conscience:” it must be rooted in the Two, which lead to the Ten, and thence to the implications I’ve outlined above. Outside that delineation, it’s hazardous beyond measure to grant authority to any person or institution, for there is no foundation in the Gospels or Natural Law for it.

I expect to return to this subject in the near future. For now: May God bless and keep you all. And do please remember to set your clocks ahead!

3 comments:

  1. Interesting topic. My wife is Catholic (I am non-denominational), and today we attended her church. One of the prayer leaders, and excuse me if use the wrong terminology -- again, I am not Catholic -- lead a prayer asking for corporate social responsibility. They should, she said, take leadership in charitable affairs and become more Godly.

    This is my greatest sticking point with Catholicism in general, speaking from the outside. There seems to be a tendency among many Catholics, present company excluded, to stretch Biblical laws and concepts to situations that weren't meant for them. I have never been comfortable with this sort of assumption of authority. To say people should be charitable to their fellows is perfectly harmonious with the text. Corporations are not people, however. They are composed OF people. The message was misdirected.

    "Indeed, it appalls me that so many other Catholics are willing to allow the Church to claim “plenipotentiary authority” over all sexual and parasexual conduct on the basis of the five words Thou shalt not commit adultery."

    This is the money quote from your rumination today. This disturbs me also and, dare I say, is the reason I remain non-denominational. I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, and I left that church for similar reasons. They pushed vegetarianism as a stretch of the Biblical prohibitions against shellfish and pork. It did not sit rightly with me. They were claiming an interpretational authority that was not given to them.

    That being said, sir, I respect your take on this and can only say that if more Catholics agreed with you on the matter, I and many others would be less hesitant to join it.

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  2. Isn't it amazing. If you hold true to the first two commandments, adherence to the rest must naturally follow. Hmmmmm...what other major cornerstone of )at least our) civilization/society, has a list of "inalienable rights" which does much the same? Take away the first two amendments to the Constitution, and all the others will fall like a house of cards.

    No, our Constitution, our fundamental underpinnings to the "rule of law" were not divinely inspired...not at all [/sarc]

    I was also reminded that the old "Thou shalt not kill"...was (intentionally)?) incorrect. That "murder" the purposeful/willful taking of another life via negligence or in concert with one of the other commandments, was the "real" sin. Perhaps it is not so much that one (including myself) is not incapable of violence, should the need arise, upto and including the taking of a life, but more importantly, that one takes no joy in doing so.

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