The Personalist Project

A friendly behind-the-scenes dispute with a Linde reader on the topic of religious liberty has reminded me once again how widespread is the confusion about the nature of conscience in our day. Many take it to be nothing other than a license for religious and moral subjectivism. The duty to act according to conscience is twisted into a right to do whatever I want so long as I don’t see anything wrong with it.

So when a traditionalist Catholic hears someone (like me) claiming (as I do) that religious liberty is an imperative of human dignity, he thinks he is hearing a defense of relativism. When I say (following Newman) that conscience is the voice of God speaking in the human soul, he understands me to absurdly and dangerously identifying all sincere ideas and intentions with the voice of God.

My desire to clear up the misunderstanding sent me back to Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk section on conscience. In it Newman clearly distinguishes between a false and contemptible notion of conscience popular in his day (and ours) and the truth about conscience.

When [today] men advocate the rights of conscience, they…do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

If this is a person’s idea of conscience, it is no wonder that he thinks that the notion of religious liberty threatens the objectivity of truth! In fact, though, conscience properly understood, is nothing other than the subjective apprehension of moral truth and its implication for me as a free moral agent, answerable before God for my actions. Here is Newman again [my bold]:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding {247} the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.’”

So, as I put it to my traditionalist partner in dialogue:

The thing to do, when conscience is so widely and badly misconceived is to correct the misconception, not give in to it, and then treat conscience as something dangerous and doubtful and needing to be kept on a tight leash by authorities.

It is a great mistake for Catholics to think they can advance the cause of Truth by suppressing or downplaying or curtailing the rights of conscience. Only a laity with strong, free and clear consciences can possibly meet the emergency of our times. That’s why Vatican II made it so central a part of its teaching. A legalistic ethos that renders Catholics immaturely dependent on external authority will not answer.

Like Newman, my interest in freedom has everything to do with my interest in Truth and my interest in persons. Conscience is where Truth (highest, most momentous Truth) and persons meet, in the intimate interior of the soul. Hence, those who want to stifle conscience or limit its scope are—whether they realize it or not—calling for the oppression of persons—calling for them to be less intimate with God, less personally unified with Truth, more dependent on external authority.

You want consciences to be well and properly formed. Very good. So do I. But to do that we have to know what conscience is in the first place, viz. the voice of God in the human soul.

Comments (52)


#1, Mar 25, 2010 12:37pm

Katie (or anyone else who is well-educated on this topic and inclined to comment),

Can you elaborate on to tie what Cardinal Newman, Cardinal Gousset, you, and the Church mean by “conscience” with the passage that I posed to you in our sideline discussions from St. Paul in Romans 1:21-23 ?

‚Äú... for although they knew God they did not accord Him glory as God or give Him thanks.  Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.  While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.‚Äù

Since, as you quoted from Card. Newman that the Divine law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called ‘conscience’”, what are those areas in our “darkened” minds called, which St. Paul taught in the above passage?  Are those dark areas of our mind called something other than “conscience”? 

When via our free will we act out in ways consistent with those dark areas of our minds, what else can those actions be called besides “following one’s conscience”, even though they are in no way at all following the Divine Law?

Obviously, those who promote the “pro choice” agenda have their minds appreciably darkened wrt the Divine Law on the sanctity and dignity of human life - i.e. their minds have been grossly malformed, distorted, and/or deluded.  I’m sure that we will agree on that conclusion, right?

So, doesn’t the Church have the DUTY to teach that they (and anyone else who promotes such blatant and objective falsehoods) do NOT have the moral right to publicly spread their errors? 

This is what I and my “traditionalist” cohorts have been and still are struggling mightily with, in trying to reconcile with traditional Church teaching before Vatican II the seemingly ambiguous (at the very least to us) Church teaching on “religious liberty” in the Vatican II document Dignitatus Humanae.

Thanks SO much for your wonderful blog, and for making the effort to bring up this topic and discussion on “conscience” to your TPP forum!

Best wishes, and God bless,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Mar 26, 2010 7:00am

I hope others will jump in here too.  But I’ll at least make a start on an answer by saying that conscience is certainly not co-terminous with conscious thought.  No one who acts without regard for the moral law is acting according to conscience.  Conscience is precisely the faculty by which we apply the moral law to ourselves and our own acting.
St. Paul here describes exactly what happens when we don’t “accord God glory”, which, in the moral realm, means when we silence or ignore the voice of conscience and instead choose to follow inclination or ambition: viz., our minds become darkened.  Newman draws out this point.  As we attend to the voice of conscience, it becomes a better instrument: stronger, clearer, more sensitive, more reliable.  In other words, nothing brings light and clarity to the moral realm like habitual obedience to conscience.  Conversely, when we suppress it or ignore its dictates, confusion inevitably follows.  We have a harder and harder time distinguishing right from wrong.  (Note that this is the legal definition of insanity.)

The Church has a duty to proclaim truth, including truth about freedom of conscience.  She also has a duty to defend her members against error and falsehood.

But, as I’ve said in earlier emails to you, the expression “no one has a right to publicly spread errors” confuses the issue.  The right is not to spread error, but to follow conscience.  And consciences can be mistaken.  So can those in authority.  It has happened many times in the history of the Church that Catholics were silenced or disciplined for teaching what was thought to go against the teaching of the Church, but what was later vindicated as perfectly consonant with it.
Awareness of these two possibilities makes the Church reluctant to resort to force and coercion of any kind in delicate matters touching conscience.


#3, Mar 26, 2010 7:18am

Hi again Katie,

Ooops!  I just noticed, Katie, that you replied while I was drafting my next comment.  Sorry that I missed your reply before I posted this below….

I want to provide some compelling reasons why I think that my questions above are reasonable and crucially need an answer in this discussion….

Below is a quote from pg. 164 of a book that I have, “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber - A History of Vatican II” by Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen S.V.D., which seems to strongly imply that the definition of “conscience” you provided Katie from Card. Newman does not necessarily construe that it is the only one recognized by the Catholic Church. 

The following quote was from Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, who was the Secretary of the Holy Office during Vatican II - the equivalent of what today is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (for those of our readers - think of then Card. Ratzinger, before he was elevated to the Papacy) - speaking about the original but yet unratified draft of Dignitatus Humanae (emphases below are mine):

But the text was guilty of exaggeration in stating that “he is worthy of honor” who obeys his own conscience.  It would be better to say that such a person was deserving of tolerance or of respect and charity.  “The principle that each individual has the right to follow his own conscience must suppose that that conscience is not contrary to the divine law,” he asserted. 

Thus, what Card. Ottaviani said above seems to imply that there ARE two types of “conscience”:

A) an “enlightened” type - in which the human mind does correctly apprehend and conform to the Divine Law, and

B) a “darkened” type - in which the human mind does not correctly apprehend nor conform to the Divine Law.

I don’t know if that is “official” Church teaching, but that’s my take on what I read.

Note also that the concerns of Card. Ottaviani expressed above were NOT addressed in the final, ratified, and promulgated draft of Dignitatus Humanae!

As perhaps the most prominent Secretary in the Vatican Curia at that time, surely Card. Ottaviani would have had a clear and full grasp of what the Church could mean and teach by the term “conscience”, wouldn’t you say Katie?

For him to have had such strong objections to the language in Dignitatus Humanae, which ended up NOT getting properly clarified in the final draft of the document, seems to give proper weight and merit to the concerns that we “traditionalists” have long had with the ambiguous language used in Dignitatus Humanae….

What do you think Katie?  Where do we go from here?  We’re back to disagreeing on the definition of the term “conscience”.

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX


#4, Mar 26, 2010 7:44am

Paragraphs 1790 - 1794 of the Catholic Catechism seem to be the most objective and succinct means perhaps to clarify this:

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.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

1793 If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time “from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.”

  The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.


#5, Mar 26, 2010 7:52am

Hi Katie,

Although these paragraphs in the Catechism don’t explicitly use the terms “englightened conscience” and “darkened conscience” as I have, they do seem to substantiate my implications above.

For instance, it may well be the case that for you your conscience is 99.9% “enlightened” and only 0.1% “darkened”, while for yours truly mine is at 95% “enlightened” and 5% “darkened” - I’ll readily concede that you are more saintly than me, since you’re so charitably putting up with me in this discussion!  ;-)

For those who promote the “pro choice” agenda, perhaps their consciences may be only 70% “enlightened” and 30% “darkened”?  Certainly the balance would get worse, depending upon how “militant” they are at promoting their horrible agenda….

I do honestly think that in the “Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat” in Matthew 13:24-30 it would not be unreasonable at all to infer that it could be directly applicable to the wheat being the “enlightened” portion of our conscience and the weeds being the “darkened” portion of our conscience.

Your serve!  ;-)

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Mar 26, 2010 8:11am

I don’t find Cardinal Ottaviani persuasive here, given the light Newman has shed on the nature of conscience as the voice of God in the individual.  (Apparently the council fathers also didn’t find him finally persuasive.)  It makes no sense to suggest that we can obey anything other than our own conscience, just as it would make no sense to say we can give rational assent to ideas we think false.

For apprehending ideas we have only our own intelligence.  For apprehending the moral law we have only our own conscience.

My body may be robust or sickly, but it’s the only one I’ve got.  If I want to live in the world, I have to live through it.  If I want to live well, I’ll take care of my health. My intelligence may be sharp or dull, but it’s mine.  No one else can think for me.  If I want to think well, I will get educated.  My conscience (thanks to good parents and teachers) may be well-formed, strong, clear and sensitive, or (because of a bad background and bad habits) weak and uncertain.  Regardless, it’s the only one I have, and if I want to act morally well, I have to act according to what light it gives.  I can’t act morally well by ignoring my conscience, anymore than I can think well by ignoring my intelligence or become robust by ignoring my health.

(If I am off in these analogies, I hope others will show me!)

“surely Card. Ottaviani would have had a clear and full grasp of what the Church could mean and teach by the term ‚Äúconscience‚Äù, wouldn‚Äôt you say Katie?”

No, I wouldn’t say.  Why should I?  If the greatest minds in the history of the Church—such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure—can passionately disagree with one another on important points of doctrine and philosophy, if no human person can comprehend the mind of God; if even great and devout thinkers have from time to time been found wrong; if the teachings of the Church grow and develop over time as the faithful live and pray and ponder, then there is no scandal at all, nothing even strange, in a given Cardinal—even a highly placed, highly educated and well-meaning Cardinal—having an incomplete or uncertain grasp of a particular aspect of Catholic thought.  Not every Cardinal is a great philosopher or theologian. Not every Cardinal is even particularly clever.  But even if I considered Card. Ottaviani a intellectual giant and great scholar, I could still find him no match for Newman when it comes to elucidating the nature of conscience.  (As it happens, I think this is the first time I’ve heard his name.)

Scott Johnston

#7, Mar 26, 2010 8:21am

Tally Ho!

I want to interject a thought here. I think it may be the case that there is confusion about the meaning of conscience caused by the use of the idea that conscience is a “voice.” Even the Catechism (and Vat II in Gaudium et Spes) uses this terminology. However, I would suggest that when the Church uses the “voice” terminology for conscience, it is using it more as a figure of speech, or using a certain rhetorical, poetic mode of speaking (e.g. in Gaudium et Spes) than as an idea to be taken literally.

I say this because as I understand it, conscience for Aquinas is not a literal “voice” of God in the sense of a direct, supernatural illumination into the human mind from without. Properly speaking conscience is a natural thing—not supernatural. Yet, it comes from God, was created by God as an integral part of our human nature.

First, we have our basic (natural) inclination to do good and avoid evil (because we sense that this is integral to our fulfillment and flourishing—i.e. the attainment of our own purpose as individuals and as a society—as human persons). This basic orientation to prefer good to evil is sometimes called by the Greek term synderesis (the Catechism mentions it). Then, we have our (human, natural) judgment in regard to particular, concrete human acts (whether past, present, or future). Our judgment puts together synderesis with moral principles about what is right and wrong (e.g. the Commandments), compares among possible acts, and chooses which particular act is the best in the particular context—the most morally commendable.

Insofar as God inscribed into our being both the desire to do good as well as a universal awareness of certain moral principals (more or less supported within different human cultures), we can say that conscience is the “voice” of God. But this is to speak analogously. It is not the “voice” of God in the sense of a supernatural illumination sent into our mind from without whenever we need the judgment of conscience. In other words, conscience does not entail God giving us new knowledge about right and wrong in regard to possible actions as we consider them, like a friend whispering advice into our ear. Now, God of course can give supernatural illumination in regard to a certain situation, but this would be a divine gift that is something different from conscience.

So, we can speak of conscience as a “voice of God” in a figurative, analogous, poetic sense. But we get into trouble when we start thinking about this “voice” in a too-literal way. I think it is quite different whether or not we regard conscience to be a natural thing (created by God to involve an orientation to the good and making possible the determination of the best course of action in concrete circumstances) or a supernatural thing (thus not part of our created nature).

In speaking of conscience, the Catechism, and Vatican II, do seem to blend together elements of a more careful, exacting language with more figurative language, perhaps assuming that the reader recognizes the different modes of speaking.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Mar 26, 2010 10:01am

I agree with you mostly, Scott.  There is definitely a danger in thinking of conscience too literally as a voice.  But I don’t quite like to call it a strictly natural faculty either.  Later in that letter to the Duke of Norfolk Newman distinguishes two senses of conscience.  One is the more usual, commonplace meaning of our moral sense.  The other is imperious commander.  It is in this latter sense especially that we experience it as the voice of God.

Scott Johnston

#9, Mar 26, 2010 10:12am

I wonder, Katie, how the interplay of nature and grace in the operation of conscience in the baptized enters in here. This probably must remain somewhat hidden in mystery to us. But the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit certainly have an impact on the operation of conscience, especially the gift of counsel (which Aquinas pairs with the virtue of prudence).

Jules van Schaijik

#10, Mar 26, 2010 10:37am

I think there is much more to the “voice” quality of conscience than you, Scott, or St. Thomas think.  What makes conscience unique among our faculties, as Newman points out, is that in our experience of it we have to do with more than just ourselves.  It is not just a combination of our inclination to do good with our rational judgement as to where the good lies in a particular case.  Rather, the experience includes an element of “being held to obedience” by another.  The following lines from Veritatis Splendor are therefore not just poetical:

Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.

I agree that conscience is a natural faculty.  It belongs to the essence of human nature.  It is not a miraculous, divine intervention in the ordinary state of affairs.  Still, it is unlike any other natural faculty, because in and through it the person, in some mysterious way, encounters God. To overlook this is to deprive conscience of its unique depth and imperative character.


#11, Mar 26, 2010 10:51am

As a Franciscan I might suggest there be more to the idea of natural illumination, that is, a greater emphasis of the relative and not absolute autonomy of the natural order in respect to man.  Scotistic thought would follow this route. G.M. Hopkins loved Scotus, e.g., because he realized that the subtle doctor would have appreciated his theory of aesthetics, which attributed more than a purely “natural” dynamic to poetic inspiration.

The question is what is it if anything that stands between nature and grace, and in what way are such things explained and acted upon, when the relative autonomy needs to be preserved without canonizing subjectivism.

I believe this is part of what the Council attempted to address when speaking of religious liberty, and one of the reasons why the question is so problematic.

Scott Johnston

#12, Mar 26, 2010 4:35pm

Hi Jules. If by voice character you mean that it is possible to conclude, with careful philosophical reflection upon the interior qualities of the experience of conscience, that it must have a divine origin, and that this origin must be one and personal, I would agree totally. In fact, my own conversion from agnosticism to accepting wholeheartedly that God is real and that He is one and that He cares for us and is involved with our lives, was largely based on reflection upon (helped greatly by C.S. Lewis) the interior moral experience of human life, beginning with what (to me) is the unexplainable character of the worst human evil acts on a purely natural order.

It seems to me that if conscience is indeed a natural faculty, then when we speak of voice in regard to conscience we have to do so in a way that does not slip into making the conscience a direct supernatural illumination. If “voice” can be used in such a way that it does not take conscience out of the natural and put it into the supernatural sphere then I’m fine with it.

I think that being careful to exclude a direct, supernatural illumination from without into the individual human person in regard to conscience is very important because if our thinking permits such, we end up degrading the dignity and personhood of human beings. It becomes a moral epistemology (can I say that?) wherein the ability of each person to individually ascertain the sphere of moral values and moral obligations is too removed from human nature and too dependent on God for supernatural intervention in the ordinary course of daily life.

And in saying this, I also still agree wholeheartedly that there is something special about conscience as a privileged place where man meets God, that sets it apart from other natural faculties.

Perhaps it is helpful just for clarity to recall that conscience in the most basic sense, is something that all human persons have, believer and non-believer alike, and this is the same faculty in persons both before and after the coming into the world of the grace of Christ. In other words, conscience does not need sanctifying grace to be itself. Although, since saving grace has come into the world, the grace of Christ, for sure there is assistance given by this grace (such as the 7 gifts) that enables the natural powers of conscience to operate more surely and with more confidence. And of course the healing and elevation that grace works in us also clears away obstacles to the healthy functioning of conscience.

I think we can very much hold to conscience being unique and unlike other natural faculties without needing to use language that would have it become very supernatural-like. My concern with the term “voice” is that the usual connotation of voice is very direct, immediate, one-to-one, often uniquely interpersonal. When I hear a voice, I am hearing something from without, that is not internal to me at all (unless I speak of my own internal voice). And I think that the usual connotation of hearing a voice makes speaking of conscience literally as a voice of God certain to make most people imagine it as a direct supernatural illumination that is special and particular to oneself. Indeed, God can give a special, particular revelation of a moral sort to a particular person. But this would not be conscience, but rather a special grace.

And may I say, if you will indulge me, I don’t think I fully embrace a solely Thomistic epistemology of the human person. As came up on this blog at some point a while back, I am intrigued and fascinated by Bonaventurian (natural) illumination. Not sure how this impacts (if it does) philosophizing about conscience.

Jules van Schaijik

#13, Mar 26, 2010 4:56pm

I agree, Scott, with what you say about conscience being an integral part of human nature. All persons have it, not because they are believers or in a state of grace, but simply in virtue of being human. It is crucial to insist on this.

But I continue to think that the term “voice” is very appropriate and descriptive. It captures what is so unique about the experience of conscience: the sense of not being alone, of being watched, addressed, and held accountable by another. These elements, I think, are part of the immediate experience of an awakened conscience. But you write as if it can only be inferred from that experience: “it is possible to conclude, with careful philosophical reflection upon the interior qualities of the experience of conscience, that it must have a divine origin, and that this origin must be one and personal.”

It is on this point, it seems, that we still differ. On my view it is much more literally true than on yours, to say that conscience is a “dialogue of man with God” or that it is “the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgement penetrate the depths of man’s soul” (Veritatis Splendor, #58).  These phrases represent, in my view, a more deeply personalist view of conscience than can be found in, say, St. Thomas, whose perspective is, to use Wojtyla’s term, much more cosmological.

One more point, just to be clear:  I don’t mean to say, of course, that in conscience we encounter God as clearly and directly as we encounter one another in conversation.  Nor, I can only suppose, is the experience of conscience anything like an interior locution such as some saints have received. But neither is it just an inference.  I therefore call it a sense or a feeling.

Scott Johnston

#14, Mar 26, 2010 5:05pm

Thanks for your patience, Jules! I must confess, in writing my last comment or two, I wanted instinctively to use the term “voice,” for conscience but then deliberately avoided it because of this discussion.

I don’t think, Jules, we are very much in disagreement, only slightly, and more as to a matter of emphasis than on fundamental principles. I’m sure you are right in that there are some ways in which “voice” is really the best term to use, though it still has drawbacks.

Because I have more recently studied St. Thomas than Newman on this subject, I am more in the mode of wanting to be careful to preserve the full nature of the human being as created by God, as distinct from and prior to the action of saving grace and anything like an inner locution/supernatural illumination/miracle. I would probably be more eager to embrace your perspective if I went back and read more Newman.

I don’t have the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. Is it contained within another work? I do have Grammar, Apologia, Idea, and 15 Sermons. Could you direct me to where in these I might refresh my reading on Newman’s thoughts on conscience?

That being said, I do recall from some class or other that Newman and St. Thomas don’t quite see eye-to-eye about conscience, and that it can be debated whether, if Thomas’ anthropology is correct, Newman doesn’t perhaps go a little too far in how he speaks of conscience as a voice. I am certainly not qualified to lay this out. But it is a very interesting and subtle topic.

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Mar 26, 2010 5:47pm

Happily, all of Newman’s works are online at the Newman Reader.  You can find the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk linked in the post that got this discussion off the ground.

Jules van Schaijik

#16, Mar 26, 2010 7:49pm

Hi Scott,
The first 20 pages or so of chapter 5 of the Grammar of Assent are by far the most relevant to the issue we have been discussing.
In the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, it is especially chapter 5 that is of interest.

Scott Johnston

#17, Mar 26, 2010 9:39pm

Thanks to you both!

Scott Johnston

#18, Mar 26, 2010 11:21pm

Along with my comment about 30 minutes ago, of some interest may be a series of three articles on moral conscience written by Fr. Thomas Berg (former Legionary now diocesan priest) in 2008 and published at the web site of the Westchester Institute.

Part I
Part II
Part III

I think Fr. Berg does an admirable job of holding to Church teaching and being in continuity with Catholic theological tradition while also speaking in a way that is accessible to a personalistic approach.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Mar 27, 2010 12:59am

If he went deep into the study of conscience, it is no wonder he left the Legion.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Mar 27, 2010 1:30am

I’ve just seen your quotes from the catechism.  I agree with them.  I don’t say conscience is always objectively right.  I say it always has to be followed, and that following it is the best way to bring into better line with the objective moral law.


#21, Mar 27, 2010 5:10am


I agree with your analogies - we have only one conscience - but I think that the Catechism seems to strongly infer that it has “enlightened” aspects and “darkened” aspects.

Let’s take a radical example - a person who has “sold their soul” to the Devil, and who worships him.  While it’s commonly said that that kind of person “has no conscience”, I’ve also heard it said that that kind of person “has an evil conscience.”

Using the definition you are touting for “conscience” - i.e. that it isonlywhat I am calling the “enlightened” part - what part of their personhood does that inherently evil person follow when they act out their evil intentions and wholeheartedly follow the voice of Satan?  WhatISthat called? 

I would call it a an “utterly darkened” or “completely blinded” conscience - the most extreme degree of what is stated in paragraph 1791 of the Catechism.

We’d best not go off on a bunny trail with our discussion arguing over the subjective philosophical/theological status of which Cardinals we each consider as great, as giants, or as barely more than competent.  That will get us absolutely nowhere.

All I was trying to imply wrt my discussion of Card. Ottaviani was that he expressed some of theVERYsame concerns that we “traditionalists” do about the imprecise and ambiguous language used for “conscience” and “religious liberty” in Dignitatus Humanae.

Note that in Dignitatus Humanae it:

1) never even explicitly defined what it meant by “conscience” before it started using the term all over the place (it assumes that the reader already knows, or can figure it out for themself - which is a pretty ridiculous assumption, especially when your target audience is primarily non-Catholics!), and

2) that it never differentiated either about which religions it was talking about.

Does “religious liberty” apply just as equally to Muslims as well as Christians, even though in the religion of the former they believe absolutelyradiallydifferent things wrt Divine Law?  Does every religion get to determine for itself what they consider Divine Law to be, in determining what “conscience” is?  This too is a glaring oversight, and in my opinion a woefully negligent deficiency, of Dignitatus Humanae….

All we “traditionalists” are asking for is a much more explicit and clear pronouncement on what the Church truly means and teaches by “conscience” and “religious liberty.” 

Are we ‘traditionalists” beingREALLYall that unreasonable to urgently make this request, especially now when Islam is a such dominant force in the world right now???

I, and many other “traditionalists” too, areVERYthankful that the doctrinal discussions between the Vatican and the SSPX are working toward that end.  On top of all the above reasons, the dissenters within the Catholic Church have misconstrued Dignitatus Humanae to their advantage long enough already, and thatMUSTcome to an end!!!

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Jules van Schaijik

#22, Mar 27, 2010 5:18am

About your radical example, Steve.  I would say that a person who has sold his soul to the devil is not following his conscience at all.  His fault is not that his conscience is darkened, but rather that, such as it is, he has rejected it.

I strongly suspect that most abortion advocates are in the same position.  They are not following a badly formed conscience, but rather set it aside for things like money, power, prestige, and such like.


#23, Mar 27, 2010 5:29am

Hi Jules,

Thanks for jumping into the discussion!

WRT my radical example, whatwouldyou use for a term to describe what this radically evil person is following?

If not the term “conscience”, then what?

I’d be fine with calling “conscience” what I have up to now been calling “enlightened conscience”, if you, Katie, Fr. Angelo, or anyone else could find an alternative term or definition for what I am calling “darkened conscience.”  I just don’t know what else to call it, or what the Church would call it - a radically evil person has to be following something inside of them too, the counter opposite of what you, Katie, and Card. Newman have been calling “conscience” for those of us with good will and good intentions.

As far as the abortion advocates, I would completely agree with you Jules that the prominent culture of death “brokers” do advance that cause for things like money, power, prestige, etc. 

However, I don’t think that is necessarily so for their “clientele” - I believe that these pursue it much more because their consciences have been “darkened” by society to such a degree, that they have been severely duped into following the COD “brokers.” 

That is why I also believe we who promote the culture of life can by our efforts still reasonably reach many of the COD “clientele”, but that reaching most of the COD “brokers” borders on requiring direct Divine intervention….

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Mar 27, 2010 5:34am

I hope Jules will jump in again later, Steve.  His dissertation was on this theme.  Just now he’s out biking in the glorious early spring Chester County countryside.

Basically those who disregard the moral law in their acting are acting in a fundamentally different wayfrom those who act according to conscience.  They do not weigh their actions on a scale of right and wrong; they are thumbing their nose at right and wrong.  You could say they follow passion or inclination or ambition or self-will as the case may be. 
To follow conscience is to act to deliberately according to our honest apprehension of the moral law—which is according to what is morally right.  It is almost impossible to imagine that a person who commits a murder does it because he is sincerely convinced it’s the morally right thing to do.  If a person does think that, he can plead insanity in a court of law.

Jules van Schaijik

#25, Mar 27, 2010 6:46am

It does not really matter what you call it.  St. Paul speaks about the spirit as opposed to the flesh, or of the two laws at war within him, the law of God vs. the law of sin.  Philosophers often use the contrast between reason and passion, and theologians oppose love to pride and concupiscence.

Conscience is the “organ” in man, which challenges him to be good and to live up to his high calling.  But it is not infallible. It can make mistakes.  Even when it does so, however, and this is the important point to see, “conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely” (Veritatis Splendor, 62)


#26, Mar 27, 2010 9:13am

Ah, Jules!

But that quote you have from Vertiatis Splendor is speakingONLYabout an error of conscience which is the result ofinvincible ignorance- not in general about about an erroneous conscience as a whole.

If I may quote theentiretyof that portion of section 62 of Veritatis Splendor:

The Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable,
conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.”

So, despite my thorough enjoyment of the discussions on “conscience” and its corollaries (prudence, modesty, etc.), I would like to get back to the original theme from which this topic of “conscience” originated - i.e. “religious liberty” as promulgated in the Vatican II document Dignitatus Humanae.

In Dignitatus Humanae, two things are incontrovertible:

1) the Council Fathers neither clearly defined exactly what they meant by “conscience”,

2) nor did they qualify “conscience” at all (erroneous vs. correct) in a person’s pursuit of “religious liberty”

Fr. Angelo stated:

“Steve is correct in saying that an erroneous conscience, when it flies in the face of the divine law, has no objective right.”

Thus, one could readily conclude, based upon Fr. Angelo’s conclusion above, either that the Council Fatherswronglytaught that “religious liberty” is anunqualifiedmoral right of each person, based solely upon his/her inherent human dignity, or that out of negligence & ambiguity they implied it.

Either way, there areseriousproblems and/or deficiencies with with what the Council Fathers taught about “religious liberty” in Dignitatus Humanae.

That isexactlywhat I asserted from the very beginning in my discussions with Katie, when we “traditionalists” claim that “religious liberty” as taught by the Council Fathers in DH is at the very least ambiguous, and on face value appears to be clearly inconsistent with the traditional, pre-Conciliar, teachings of the Catholic Church.

As I have already stated before, IMHOTHAThas played asignificantif not dominant role in the widespread dissent of religious belief currently plaguing the Catholic Church on awhole hostof issues.

So, in this discussion, we’re literally right back to square one now - an incredible “ride” it has been, I must admit, but which took us virtually nowhere.

After this sometimes-head-spinning discussion, I amVERYglad that the Vatican and the SSPX are hammering out the details to, hopefully, completely clarify Catholic doctrine on this contentious matter!

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Jules van Schaijik

#27, Mar 27, 2010 10:03am

It is true, of course, that it makes an importance difference whether the errors of conscience are invincible or culpable.  But I don’t think that that issue changes the point I tried to make above.  It just adds another issue to the mix which, for clarity’s sake, I decided to leave out.

In a nutshell, however, here is how I see things:  A person who has a culpably erroneous conscience is precisely a person who is not sincerely seeking to follow his conscience.  Such a person, as the encyclical describes him, “shows little concern for what is true and good, and [his] conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin.”  He may even say to himself that his conscience is clear.  But he is not a morally serious person.  To quote the encyclical again:

before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience, we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: ‘who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults’.  There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light.

But think now of a man who has lived a morally unserious life and whose conscience, as a result, is weak and malformed.  Imagine that he has a genuine conversion and wants to turn his life around.  What should he do?  His conscience is in bad shape, and he is largely to blame.  Should he set it aside and live according to someone else’s?  Should he, for instance, follow his confessor’s conscience instead of his own?  Many people are inclined to think that he should.  They say that a person has a duty to follow his conscience as long as that conscience is properly formed.  But I think they are wrong.  (I was going to say why, but I would only repeat myself.  And it’s past my bedtime.)

As to Dignitatus Humanae, I cannot agree with you that its teaching is unclear or problematic at all.  But I don’t know what more I can say on that score.


#28, Mar 27, 2010 11:53am

Hi Jules,

Thanks for the further commentary. 

Thank goodness also for Google in helping me to track down exactly fromwhichencyclicals you were quoting!  I’ll chalk that up to your commenting so late in the evening…. ;-)

However, when you have to refer to twoOTHERencyclicals - Gaudium et Spes (paragraph 16) and Veritatis Splendor (section 63) to clarify what the Council Fathers wrote in Dignitatis Humanae about “conscience” - well, I think that too merely justifies what I’ve already said - namely, that DH wasITSELFwritten with a woeful lack of clarity and precision wrt traditional Catholic teaching.

And, Veritatis Splendor was written almost 28 years AFTER Digitatis Humanae, for heaven’s sake!  That wasplentyof time to allow the liberals’ “seeds of dissent” to fester and grow in the way that they promoted “religious liberty”!!!

As I’ve already said, Dignitatis Humanae qualifies “conscience” not in the least - IMHO, that is its greatest shortcoming. 

And quoting morefullyfrom Gaudium et Spes paragraph 16 (emphasis mine):

Hence the moreright conscienceholds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

So, as I have been asserting all along, even Gaudium et Spes contrasts “right conscience” from “erroneous conscience” - all the more reason that DH should have qualified the term “conscience”! 

Thus, a more complete quote from GS 16 makes my arguments even stronger - i.e. what I was calling “enlightened conscience” is synonymous with what GS calls “right conscience”, and what I called “darkened conscience” is what GS calls “erroneous conscience”.

Having to “jump through hoops” sifting through multiple Church encyclicals to explain what Dignitatis Humanae REALLY meant - I mean, c’mon, how many Catholics have EVER heard this stuff taught, or have read enough Church encyclicals to figure it out on their own? - is proof positive that DH’s declaration on “religious liberty” needs someseriousclarification and augmentation.

And, as we speak, that ispreciselywhat the doctrinal discussions between the SSPX and the Vatican are working on doing. 

So, whether or not either of us is right about the clarity of teaching, or lack thereof, on “religious liberty” in Dignitatis Humanae, I have no doubt whatsoever that the ongoing doctrinal talks between the Vatican and the SSPX will result in some sort of document being issued to the faithful that will make it much moreexplicitlyclear.

And that, Katie and Jules, isALLI and other “traditionalists” are asking for for aLONG, LONGtime - further official Church clarification on “religious liberty”, to close the loophole we “traditionalists” believe was leftWIDEopen in Dignitatis Humanae that dissenting Catholics have been exploiting to their advantage and to the detriment of the Church for nearly 45 years….

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Scott Johnston

#29, Mar 27, 2010 1:57pm

Steve, I offer these additional points to the mix here:

1. The Church always seems to accept on background that man’s freedom (free will) is genuine, and that the exercise of this freedom is proper to being human and thus a part of God’s desire for mankind.

2. Not everyone is born (in geography or in time) into a situation such that they have the opportunity to hear the explicit gospel message. Such people can still be saved, implicitly, by Christ, through a sincere and honest seeking after truth and a genuine effort to live according to the truth as they know it.

3. Non-Christian religions possess, in smaller or larger measure, at least some portion of the fullness of truth about the world and the human condition. In keeping with no. 2, being born and raised in a non-Christian religion, even though it be objectively false in some serious ways, does not necessarily preclude an individual from salvation. Even the partial truth they have through their (false to some degree) religion, their life experience, their human conscience, makes possible an implicit embrace of Christ, though He be not known explicitly, clearly, by name.

4. The teaching of the Church on the freedom of religion does not by any means therefore accept that the fundamental moral code given to all mankind by God can therefore be dispensed with. The free exercise of religion is not an excuse from a Catholic point of view to violate the universal moral law. For example, human sacrifice can never be permitted regardless if a religion advocates it. A non-Christian religion may have certain rights to freedom in a Catholic context, but that freedom does not extend to the point of permitting the violation of those basic moral principles that the Church also claims are present in some way in the hearts of all men. So, stealing, lying, etc., are not to be accepted no matter the religious viewpoint on these. So, you might be allowed to say that your religion does not oppose human sacrifice, but you better not try to actually do it. So, the freedom I think the Church is talking about is freedom of belief and to express what you believe to others. But in anything regarding human actions (including worship), the common moral law always is to be upheld.

5. I would think that because no. 3 is true, the freedom of a non-Christian to openly communicate the content of his sincere belief even within a predominately Christian culture is actually a pre-requisite to then assisting that person to a genuine conversion to Christ. For in order to have a dialog that fully respects the human person in his autonomy, as one who truly possesses what he has embraced as his own philosophy of life, first requires that he be truly free to state what he believes. But this, in the Church’s view, is a precursor to conversion. Because it is first by openly listening to what a person truly believes that one can discern what aspects of his belief are indeed true and in accord with the authentic truth about life as revealed by God, and what aspects of his belief are objectively false. The path to conversion might then be opened by focusing initially on what the non-Christian and the Christian already hold in common; what aspects of the Truth do they already share? Then, the Christian might build upon that to manifest how the rest of the Christian vision of life fits much more fittingly, harmoniously, and beautifully with that portion of truth which the non-Christian already accepts. This sort of open dialog is necessary for a conversion that does not denigrate the dignity of a person’s self-possession. And for this openness of dialog, the society at large must allow for (qualified as above in regard to actions) freedom of religious belief and communication of such. Without this, a dialog that is truly open to the fullest possible depths of an individual’s personal being—to seeing the real person as he genuinely is at that point in his life—cannot take place. And the Church wants to dialog with people as they truly are—in all their honest depth, including the objectively erroneous along with the objectively true. A Catholic context in which a person who holds a false religion were not free to fully express what he believes, would be a context in which such a person’s conversion to the Catholic faith could not be embraced with all of the full force and freedom of that individual’s complete and total humanity. And the Church has confidence in advocating this, because she has ultimate confidence in the desire of every human soul for the true faith—for Christ. She has learned in the course of history that it is better to convert the whole person, as completely as possible, as freely as possible—heart, mind, and soul—to the true faith, than to convert only a part of a person’s life because open dialog was not possible.

Scott Johnston

#30, Mar 27, 2010 2:03pm

Steve, you quoted from veritatis splendor62,

The Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable, conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.

I think I can shed a little more light on this. I’ll try, at least. No guarantees!

How can JPII say that conscience (an invincibly ignorant one, that is) continues to have something good about it, something still worthy of respect, even when it allows human actions that are contrary to the objective moral order?

I think it is helpful here to recall that JPII was familiar with the work of St. Thomas. He must have known how Thomas explained the good (and the role of conscience with respect to it). For Thomas, “the good” (i.e. as manifest in morally good human acts) is called good because it is that which, when done, leads the human person more and more to the fulfillment of his nature as a human being. In other words, man’s life has a purpose built into it by God. Man’s free actions contribute to going farther away from, or, closer to, his purpose. And it is man’s conscience which enables him to judge and to choose which course of action in concrete circumstances will move him further along the path toward greater attainment of that for which he was made.

Every human being naturally seeks the fulfillment of his nature. This, he understands as the good. God Himself inscribed into mankind the innate drive to fulfill his own purpose, to seek to bring to perfection and completion that for which he was created. Conscience is integral to how in the daily details of life, man does this as a free creature.

So, even though a person be invincibly ignorant and his conscience be miscalibrated to accept in part things which on the objective moral order are not truly capable of fulfilling man’s purpose, such a man is still, in some way, trying to do what God created him to do. How? He is trying to honestly abide by his conscience. Simply by trying to genuinely heed one’s conscience, a person implicitly embraces the call put into him by God to move toward his own full flourishing through his freely chosen acts. Following one’s conscience, even if it be (non-culpably) ignorant, always means that such an individual is embracing the call placed into his nature by God to try to act in such a way that he move closer toward the fulfillment of his own nature as a human being. And this reveals an implicit desire to accept God’s will, even though objectively he be acting contrary to authentic moral values.

I think this explains in part why I have heard anecdotes that when missionaries go to places (some, at least) where the gospel is not known, some people (perhaps only a few), even though their lives are in some ways objectively immoral, when they hear the good news, eagerly embrace it, almost as though they have been waiting for it. Some others do not. What might explain the difference? One reason is that those who readily embraced the gospel had already been in the habit of living honestly in accord with their conscience, and thus already were in a position to want to follow the orientation God had placed in them to seek their own highest flourishing (even though it was misguided). When it was revealed to them a more clear and perfect understanding what the constellation of moral values looks like that truly and always move the person toward his own perfection and fulfillment according to God’s plan, they are eager to reorient their moral compass, though they need help in overcoming habits that place obstacles in the way to living out the Christian vision of life.

Contrasted to this, those who do not readily embrace the gospel, might not (in part) have done so because they already had become acclimated to a patten of life in which they no longer cared to heed their own conscience. Such persons would not be much interested in a more perfect vision of the objective moral order, for they had already allowed to grow cold the flame of desire to follow God’s plan as they knew it in the urgings of their conscience.

Katie van Schaijik

#31, Mar 27, 2010 3:19pm

Steve, to your point 2 above:
As I’ve said before, the document wasn’t speaking about religions, but about human dignity.  Hence, it applies to everyone.

I’ve just re-read a great essay by John Crosby on this subject, which I link and excerpt in a new post.


#32, Mar 27, 2010 4:55pm


I will look forward to your new post that will excerpt John Crosby’s thoughts on this topic.

I think we agree that conscience and human dignity are ultimately built upon the foundation of Divine Law. 

That being the case, isn’t it crucial that Church to say something definitively wrt which religion gets the final say in what the Divine Law IS, not to mention what “conscience” is???

It seems utterly lacking from my point of view that DH made declarations wrt “conscience” and “religious liberty” without clearly explaining them in light of traditional Catholic teaching.

But then again, in reading the above mentioned book on the history of Vatican II, that’s exactly what many of the Council Fathers wanted - i.e. to merely make a declaration without doctrinal elaboration.  That seems to be a VERY poor prudential decision….

Perhaps someone new can step into this discussion and help steer it in a direction which is helpful?

Thanks again for all your efforts, despite the deadlock we seem to have reached.

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#33, Mar 27, 2010 5:32pm

Incomplete new post now saved as draft.  I am slow.  Sighhh.  It’s just that Crosby’s article is so rich and great it’s hard to limit myself in excerpting.  Look for it tomorrow.


#34, Mar 27, 2010 6:24pm

Hi Katie,

It‚Äôs been a while.  I thought I would jump in on this one because it touches on something I have discussed with you in a different context.

I believe one must remember that Vatican II was addressing religious liberty in a historical context, one in which the history of religious persecution against Catholics was real and ongoing.  It was also dealing with the progressive secularization of civil society, even in Christian Europe.  This process has been nearly completed in our own day, e.g. in the new secular super-state that is the European Union.

One can argue as to whether Vatican II and documents like HD contributed to the secularization or addressed it.  We know the arguments from the different camps on the matter.  My purpose here is not to resolve that problem.

In any case, as we know, Vatican II‚Äôs primary purpose was pastoral and its fathers did not shrink from some fuzzy definitions in order to address, for better or worse, many pastoral problems.  In the end we have to fall back on what P. Benedict has called the hermeneutic of continuity in order to make sense of it all.  But this does not always resolve the pastoral problems.

One of those problems is the question as to what do we do about the secular states that are persecuting Catholics if we do not defend religious liberty, which is, as you say, based on the obligation to follow one‚Äôs conscience.  Steve is correct in saying that an erroneous conscience, when it flies in the face of the divine law, has no objective right.  However, the question always remains on matters concerning human judgment, how do we get from the principle to the application.  There is a real distinction and while we may and should agree in terms of practical principles, the application of those principles are sometimes more complex and more debatable.  For example, what is to be our policy relative to religious liberty when in secular states that no longer take the Church seriously Catholics are being persecuted and the same states are bending to the will of Muslims to impose sharia law?

Christ and the Church have rights that rise far above the assertions of states and politicians, but the Church no longer wields secular power.  So the question remains, if an erroneous conscience has no objective right, what should be the limits of secular or ecclesiastical power to coerce the offender, when the common good is at stake?

My own view is that sometimes this problem is treated flippantly and sometimes with oversimplifications.  I also believe that the fathers of Vatican II were trying to deal with real problems, but that their success in the matter can be debated.  In the end their work dealt with very important theological principles and suggested a manner of application to complex problems in which misinterpretation was almost inevitable.

And this brings me to the reason why I decided to jump in the problem of conscience is tied closely to the virtue of prudence, and this seems to me to be one of the most, if not the most neglected virtues.  The Council really did not concentrate on definitions and principles as much as point a direction in which prudence might be exercised with some measure of liberty in a world which was becoming ever more complex and dangerous.
Some would say that no such liberty should have been granted.  Others say that anything that is not tied down by dogma is a matter for unfettered speculation.  I disagree with both, and BTW, as I am sure you know, Ven. Newman‚Äôs seven notes on the development of doctrine absolutely demolish the idea that undefined matters are wide open for speculation.

I think the problem is that while the council indicated a direction, the necessary formation of the faithful that was needed to help them make good faith judgments and progress in making better judgments by sound spiritual training and by learning from their mistakes was never provided.  So people just claim the freedom and act arbitrarily or never learn from their mistakes, or both.

So, IMHO, we have the side of liberty that clamors for soft evangelization and for syntheses of Christianity and secularism (pardon me, TOB ala West), and some traditionalists that promise a restoration if we just tighten the reigns once again and repudiate the last 40 years. (Katie and Steve, I am not suggesting anything about your own positions.)

Actually, I am all for tightening the reigns a bit.  Let‚Äôs say we just enforce canon law.  I would be happy with that.

The fact is no virtue can be practiced without prudence and prudence is impossible without freedom of conscience.  There is a real distinction between principles and their application, goals and strategy.  Where no such distinction is in play it is the responsibility and duty of the magisterium to intervene.

Chesterton once remarked that ‚Äúthere never was a time in the whole history of the human race when it was more necessary to defend the intellectual independence of man that this hour in which we live.‚Äù  I agree.  And I believe that right now we do need the intellectual freedom to devise creative solutions to the immense problems we face.  But the context of Chesterton‚Äôs remarks concerned ‚Äúculture and the coming peril,‚Äù which he defined as ‚Äúvulgarity.‚Äù  Guess what?  The peril has landed.  The problems that the traditionalists face squarely, to debatable effect, are not going away any time soon.  What we need is liberty at the service of the hermeneutic of continuity.

This is, BTW, why I so strongly disagree with Christopher West, in spite of the good that he does.  IMO, He does not really respect liberty of conscience, because he pretends to know more or less how mature purity will look in the average person, when in fact his views are based on his own personal speculation, not that of John Paul II.  He extrapolates right and left from the writings of the pope, going way beyond anything the pontiff actually said, and then pretends he knows when a person is being modest and when he or she is being a prude.  Of course, in case of any doubt, his presumption is the latter.  It seems to me what he is really doing is suggesting that we should follow his conscience.  I, for one, dissent.


#35, Mar 27, 2010 6:51pm

Hi Fr. Angelo,

Thank you also for joining this discussion.

I would like, however, to make a clarification in this discussion wrt to my stance as a “traditionalist” Catholic….

In all truth I feel myself “caught in the middle”, so to speak, between embracing the “best” things of the pre-Conciliar Church and the “best” things of the post-Conciliar Church - in my mind at least, what Pope Benedict touts as a “hermeneutic of continuity.”

Just the fact that I’m even willing to truly engage with you, Katie, in this discussion on “conscience” and “religious liberty”, hopefully that says a lot wrt my not being what you might typically think of a “traditional” Catholic, eh?  Although, perhaps my doggedness and reluctance to concede a point too readily perhaps do?  ;-)

I have come to embrace many of the things so well promoted by the Church since Vatican II - e.g. TOB (albeit not the Chris West version of it), daily prayer & Scripture reflection, a “personal” relationship with Christ, etc. - although I can also see the serious harm that many of the post-Conciliar reforms have caused to the faithful. 

As well, I have come to clearly recognize the absolute beauty and treasure that the Church has had all along in the Traditional Mass, traditional forms of piety, its much stronger emphasis upon spiritual discipline, and what I consider a more balanced liturgical emphasis upon the sinfulness of humanity, God’s Justice, and our utter dependence upon him to remain faithful, vs. God’s Mercy towards us.

I, unlike many “traditionalists”, DO NOT advocate at all any notion to completely “repudiate the last 40 years” as Fr. Angelo so aptly put it. 

In brief, I see myself more and more each day as what I would term a “von Hildebrandian” Catholic, who embraced the positive effects of Vatican II, but who also continued to warmly embrace and appreciate and promote the traditional pre-Conciliar spiritual heritage of our Catholic faith….

I do think that you, Father, have articulated so well that prudence is perhaps THE issue most in need of promotion thoughout the Church today.  I do believe that Dr. DvH would strongly support you in your perspective.

However, given as you said Father that catechesis is the foundation needed for putting prudence into action, and speaking from only my own experience, we “traditionalists” do get regular catechesis at least from the pulpit (and we’re strongly encouraged also to pursue growing in the faith further on our own time). 

At least in my own diocese, and I strongly contend that mine is not unusual at all here in the USA, regular catechesis is unfortunately not found routinely anymore at most typical (i.e. non-traditional) Catholic parishes.  I would say that that issue alone (although not the only one) compelled my wife and I to fully invest our family in a “traditional” FSSP parish 30 miles from home, rather than continue participating in our former run-of-the-mill parish a mere 6 minute drive away.

Sorry to diverge this conversation a bit with this personal relection.  But, I just wanted to toss out a bit of perspective on how I see the Church today, and why I see these issues of “conscience” and “religious liberty” as utterly intriguing and as topics of vital importance in which fair-minded and orthodox Catholics of all persuasions need to come to agreement - especially since they directly impact how our faith “hits the road”, so to speak, for how we should evangelize our faith to the entire world.

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#36, Mar 28, 2010 1:19am

Speaking of slow, dear Father…
just this week I pasted another quote into the draft of my reply to you on TOB.  I trust it will see the light of day eventually.
More on your contributions to the discussion here when I’ve had a chance to absorb them.

Katie van Schaijik

#37, Mar 28, 2010 3:53am

Okay, re-reading your comment, Father, I have a few preliminary thoughts in reply.

1) I do not see Vatican II quite as you do, viz. as mainly a response to the problem of persecution of Christians.  I see it much more as a response to modernity in toto—an articulation and appropriation of its central achievements.

2)  I see the “pastoral problems” addressed in the council as organically related to the philosophical problems thematic in the modern period.  Problems of human rights and dignity, and their relation to objective truth, freedom, authority, and so on.

3)  “Continuity” of course does not preclude (indeed it suggests) development.  This is a point I will take up with you again later vis a vis TOB.

4)  About the dearth of due formation of the laity post-Vatican II, I could not agree more.  I fear it will take much more time and suffering before the Church shakes off entrenched habits of paternalism and clericalism.

5)  I am for a certain tightening of the reins.  But I would not be satisfied—not at all—with enforcement of Canon Law.  I’m looking for more conformity to Christ, less law enforcement.

6)  Give me liberty in the service of love and truth.


#38, Mar 28, 2010 7:18am


Here is my reply point by point:

1.  I could have been clearer. My remark about persecution concerned the question of religious liberty and the way in which it touches the human person in the context of modernity.  I was not referring to Vatican II as a whole.  However, there is whole gamut of issues that are involved with religious liberty, not just the matter of the persecution of Christians.  In any case, the Council dealt with these questions in a way that was fundamentally ordered to produce practical solutions.

On the issue of modernity, I agree with you up to a point, but I would add to the ‚Äúarticulation and appropriation of its central achievements,‚Äù a correction of its aberrations as well.  This is an essential point, and sifting through the differences in regard to policy and pastoral practice no easy task.

2.  I agree with you.

3.  Again, I agree with you, as is suggested by my reference to Newman‚Äôs notes.  Specifically, in regard to TOB, there can be no question, in my mind that it is a development of doctrine.  However, I am not aware that anyone has made an attempt to show that the work of Christopher West is a development of doctrine.  Of course, West claims that he accurately interprets the pope and that TOB is, in fact, a development, but I am not aware of anyone having submitted West‚Äôs writings and conferences to the test.  I would love to see someone attempt to but West‚Äôs work under the scrutiny of the seven notes.  But this not likely to be done, because while it is claimed that TOB is a development, it is also claimed that it is a ‚Äúrevolution‚Äù and a ‚Äútime bomb.‚Äù  These are two very unfortunate terms, even if they do not mean what they suggest, which I do not believe for a second, because they are anti-developmental. A revolution is an overturning, and in doctrinal/moral terms that is upheaval, termination and rebuilding, not development.  Time bombs are planted to later explode and destroy what had up until then existed.  Again, anything but a development.  No, West‚Äôs work will not stand up to the seven notes.  I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.  I submit it is very unlikely that anyone in his camp will ever attempt the project.  Liberty in matters of theological speculation is never a wide-open field.

4.  Once again, as with the question of prudery, I do not deny for a second that clericalism and paternalism are problems, but I would say fatherlessness is a far, far greater problem, and I think it is indisputable that this particular problem has affected the Church.  Furthermore, there is, IMO, a verifiable tendency among religious people to presume, on the one hand, that freedom means freedom to be more or less arbitrary, and on the other, that licentiousness is to be countered all kinds of secondary and tertiary rules.  Why are there so many priest‚Äôs who are incapable of being fathers, or so many who lord it over the flock, and why is it that in spite of Vatican II, so many of the lay faithful have not been adequately formed?  Because the priests themselves cannot distinguish between the essential rules and matters of prudence.  They either are arbitrary or rigid.  They are imprudent and, therefore, incapable of teaching prudence, which teaching is their role as shepherds of Christ.  That is a generalization, but I think it is generally true.

5.  One of my very favorite spiritual writers is St. Francis de Sales, who was a vigilant bishop but who exercised authority without desiring to press for conformity when obedience could not be rendered out of love.  Even so, my mind goes to Archbishop R. Burke, who seems to me to be gentlest of men, but who knows, prudentially, where to draw the line.  I don‚Äôt want to go off on a tangent, but canon law exists for a reason.  I would hate to be responsible for anyone‚Äôs being lost because I did not use (if it were mine to do so) the Church‚Äôs God given power (literally) to discipline the incorrigible who are leading the little ones astray.  That is not paternalism; that is the work of a father.

6.  Or as St. Augustine says:  ‚ÄúIn certain matters, unity.  In doubtful matters, liberty.  In all things charity.‚Äù  Again, just to clarify by way of example.  In matters of modesty, for all I have to say about C.W., I certainly do not advocate the imposition of the norms of Pius XII or the reduction of a solution to preoccupation over external norms of any kind.  And this is precisely my point.  It does little good to define modesty, or on the other hand to advocate for liberty in charity and truth, if people are not given the tools by which they may learn to make better judgments.  West eschews almost completely any objective norms of modesty and continues to speak as though modesty were purely relative.  The result is necessarily arbitrariness and its defense is that anything other than what he advocates is prudery.  This is just sheer nonsense.  It is not liberty.  It is not modesty.  It is not prudence.  It is not good judgment, and it certainly does not spring forth from or lead to truth and charity.


#39, Mar 28, 2010 7:20am

Good morning Father,

I wanted to comment a bit on your ideas in point #6.

Generally speaking, I do agree with you and Katie that there is a dire need to properly catechize the faithful so that they can truly exercise prudential judgment.  As you say, the Church needs to give them “the tools by which they may learn to make better judgments.”

If I am understanding you correctly, Father, it seems that you are advocating a “both/and” approach in dealing with modesty:

A)  impose some “reasonable” and objective standards of modesty (albeit not as strict as those promoted by Pope Pius XII), and

B)  expend a concerted effort in the Church to catechize the faithful, especially in areas of modesty and sexual ethics (TOB, but not CW-style).

On my point A), I do believe that the Church needs to impose some kind of objective standards of modesty for the faithful, especially for what the faithful wear to Holy Mass. 

Now, again, I’m not pushing for Pius XII’s ultra-conservative standards, although I don’t think that they are necessarily bad - just that they seem more than a little over-the-top given our culture today. 

But, given that our primary purpose for attending Holy Mass is to focus our attention upon worshipping the Holy Trinity, then to help everyone to act out of genuine supernatural charity for our neighbor - i.e. to sacrifice of ourselves for his/her spiritual benefit - the Church needs to impose a reasonable and objective standard of modesty, so that the attire one wears does not itself cause undue distraction for others to actively participate and focus properly upon our Lord during Holy Mass.

This perspective that I have seems to also coincide with yours, Father, wrt rejecting out-of-hand CW’s complete dismissal of objective norms of modesty, and in making them purely relative/subjective.

Catechesis in the Church has a VERY LONG way to go yet in instilling Pope John Paul II’s authentic TOB teachings, which are desperately needed especially for teens and young adults in the Catholic Church today.  In the Church, we have barely started to re-instill in them a proper “conscience” wrt issues of modesty and sexual ethics, which is why my wife and I catechize our children entirely at home, especially wrt issues of modesty (which certainly must start LONG before the teenage years!).

I agree wholeheartedly with both you and Katie that we need to avoid imposing standards of modesty and sexual ethics that establish an ethos of “legalism and paternalism”.  Those objective standards need to also work toward generating a genuine and heartfelt desire for the faithful to WANT to live by those standards.

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#40, Mar 28, 2010 7:36am

I oppose the very notion of the Church imposing objective standards of modesty.  To do so would be in IMHO inescapably paternalistic.  Similarly, I oppose the re-instatement of the Index of forbidden books.  (This is a point on which Alice von Hildebrand and I disagree.)  I am all in favor of the Church condemning as false or heterodox or morally bankrupt books, movies, etc., that she finds to be so.  But I am against her forbidding us to read them.


#41, Mar 28, 2010 1:26pm

Hi Katie,

I suppose my choice of the word “impose” was a bit too strong….

What I really meant, was not “impose” per se, but something along the lines of allowing each pastor to objectively dictate for his parish minimum standards of modesty in clothing at least for attending Holy Mass - given that each local culture will play a huge factor in arriving at what those objective standards should be (e.g. Africa vs. India vs. the USA).

Maybe you do, but I don’t consider setting and enforcing objective standards of modesty as “paternalism”.  I consider that spiritual “fathering”, and I think that is the point Fr. Angelo was trying to make - just like I set objective modesty standards for my children, and through my parental discipline expect to have them followed, our spiritual Fathers need to do so also with the spiritual family under their care and direction. 

As I mentioned before in this discussion, IMHO efforts to encourage spiritual discipline have suffered greatly in the Church since Vatican II (and I’m NOT blaming the Council for this!), much to the detriment of the Catholic faithful.  Again, I look at this as a “both/and” approach - proper and reasonable amounts of objective spiritual discipline, with extensive catechesis to explain its intent, along with reasonable flexibility so as to not run the risk of real and stifling “paternalism.”

For example, for women to wear tight-fitting and provocative clothing to Holy Mass is IMHO most inappropriate - it can be, and often is HIGHLY distracting, especially for men. 

Setting an objective standard of modesty in women’s clothing to avoid that distraction from occurring during Holy Mass is quite important, especially in our culture today.  I think that this can be taught in a way that promotes it as purely an act of charity that women can exhibit toward the concupiscence that men naturally have. 

Promoting self-denial, especially in matters of modesty and sexual ethics, so as to promote greater charity toward the opposite sex, is not talked about nearly enough in the Church today (especially given our over-sexualized culture). 

Letting everyone “fend for themself” in practicing and dealing with issues of modesty has not been a good nor effective pastoral strategy since Vatican II, IMHO….

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#42, Mar 28, 2010 2:15pm

Steve, I agree with you entirely about the problem.  I would love to see much more modesty and decorum at Mass, and more instruction about what those virtues are all about. 

But the question of who when and how is tricky.  The laity are not simply children vis a vis the priest.  My father set standards for my dress when I was a child.  He has no right to do it now.  Nor would I take it kindly if he tried.

There comes a time when a father has to be silent and let the child choose for herself.  If the father has had habits of being too controlling—if the child’s resentment against him is already enflamed—he may have to be extra lenient for a time to compensate, or he risks permanently alienating his son or daughter.

I think that’s partly what’s going on now in the Church.


#43, Mar 28, 2010 6:41pm

Steve and Katie,

It seems to me we are more or less in the same place, though our primary concerns may be different.  Very clearly, I hold that modesty is objective, but that not all men of good will are going to agree in every application, and they should be free to disagree. 

As both JPII and DvH make clear, modesty is not only exterior on the part of the woman (usually) but also interior on the part of the man (usually).  The burden is not entirely on the woman.

I am of two minds concerning objective norms.  On the one hand prudence can be aided by means of the use of rules of thumb, but they need to be understood as such, otherwise they easily become wooden and get imposed as moral law.  The real key is the ability to govern, and the particular kind of prudence that is necessary for that job is even more rare than the generic kind. I have found that dealing with matters of modesty can indeed by tricky business, and have never experienced any good effects from high-handed manners, unless you consider the thrill of some of those in the pews who have been waiting for the hammer to come down a good effect, which I do not.

Much can be said on this topic, but I will limit myself at this point to say that when those who govern are kind and not afraid or insecure of their authority, and of course are prayerful and humble, and where in general the state of catechesis and spiritual formation is good, that moral standards, including modesty, go up.  In addition, if the pastor is encouraging souls who are trying to live a spiritual life, to focus on their own conversion and be of good will and hospitable toward others, that more good is done than by means of coercive tactics in matters of modesty.

I have found that a gentle written reminder in a vestibule, combined with a general atmosphere of reverence and consistent catechetical preaching goes a long way.


#44, Mar 28, 2010 7:36pm

Katie & Fr. Angelo,

Excellent comments all around!

I would like to comment on a couple of points that you each made….

Katie, when you said:

The laity are not simply children vis a vis the priest.  My father set standards for my dress when I was a child.  He has no right to do it now.  Nor would I take it kindly if he tried.

I mildly disagree.

After all, we ARE the spiritual children of our Priests, since that is why we give them the title “Father”!  So, it IS imperative that we act as their spiritual children, and that we truly treat them with respect as our spiritual Fathers.  Sadly, that is an endemic problem in the Church today….

I do agree with you, Katie, that parents do need to mature to the point that they treat their grown children like adults, i.e. relate to them more as peers.  But, our faith compels us to humbly accept criticism which is given to us out of charity.  To respond merely out of pride to a parent in such a case is not at all proper.

Father Angelo, when you said:

As both JPII and DvH make clear, modesty is not only exterior on the part of the woman (usually) but also interior on the part of the man (usually).  The burden is not entirely on the woman.

You are absolutely right that the burden of modesty is not all placed upon the woman.  In the CW discussions last Fall on the Linde, I believe Katie made that very point - something along the lines of no matter how modest a woman dresses, a man can look at her with an immodest heart. 

Many men, like me, will almost always need to turn away from looking at an immodestly dressed woman, since that is often our best course of action to exercise what Christ instructed us in Matt. 5:30.

In general, our Priests NEED to bring up modesty for discussion periodically, and to teach from the faith on the topic.  I REALLY like the idea of having modesty “reminders” in the narthex/vestibule of the Church, so that the discussion is infrequent and doesn’t come across as nagging or “paternalism.”

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik

#45, Mar 28, 2010 11:57pm

I like rules of thumb.  I like, too, the idea of “reminders” in the bulletin.  And I agree with Fr.‘s point that a kindly, gracious (as opposed to high-handed) priest can do wonders in terms of instruction.  There was a dear Franciscan friar at FUS in charge of liturgies during our time there.  His whole personality radiated love and humility.  We would take anything from him.  I remember his making a friendly announcement in a sweet tone before Mass one Sunday that we should all maybe refrain from clapping and chatting after the recessional hymn (as was our normal practice at the time) “out of respect for those who might like to stay and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving before the Blessed Sacrament.”  Instantly and uncontroversially, the communal habit changed.  We were glad and grateful for the help in understanding the Mass better.  Not only did we cease clapping and chatting, we all adopted the practice of kneeling in silence to make a prayer of thanksgiving after the Recessional—conscientiously reserving our chatter for later, outside.

On the other hand, to the point about “good governance” I have a caveat. 

I fear the situation is not so simple (as if good governance is simple!) as that, since one of the fundamental questions at hand here is, precisely, where the governing boundaries lie.  Paternalism practically consists in governing beyond right boundaries.

It’s true that priests are our spiritual fathers.  But the relationship between father and children is differs dramatically depending on the maturity level of the child.

Just a week or two ago I found Sunday Mass a torment.  The pastor preached as if the entire congregation was composed of fourth graders. Inane jokesy anecdote followed by painfully simplistic and reductive homily.  It was unbearable.  I could practically feel the contempt temptation afflicting my highly intelligent 15-year-old son.  I wanted to tear my hair out in frustration, and yell, “Hello, Monsiegneur, we are not CHILDREN!  Speak to us as adults, if you please! Rely a little on our practical good sense and intelligence.  And on our competence in our own zones.”

One of the challenges facing the Church today is the challenge of finding the right limits of our authority, and respecting it.  Learning not to cross lines; not to condescend; not to intrude where we’re not warranted to go….It’s not so easy.


#46, Mar 29, 2010 1:10am

Hi Katie,

On your finding “Sunday Mass a torment”....

For all the reasons you listed, and more, a couple of years ago we initially started driving more than 45 miles EACH way to attend Mass at a parish where the liturgy was exceptionally reverent, with a Pastor who truly made an effort to teach the faith and shepherd his flock, respectfully, yet firmly.

It ended up being a spiritual oasis on our journey to eventually becoming “traditional” Catholics at the FSSP parish here in the Dallas diocese.  Sermons (not homilies) are never dumbed down, yet there is usually a message that the faithful of all ages can take home with them.

Honestly, I think what Fr. Angelo said earlier today about the abdication of fatherhood happened in a considerable way specifically with our Priesthood after Vatican II - too often, they became facilitators, rather than leaders - an abdication of their spiritual fatherhood. 

Thankfully, our young Priests today are coming out of the seminaries properly formed again to be strong spiritual leaders.  I think this is the main reason why the “traditional” seminaries are growing so rapidly (i.e. men naturally WANT to be strong leaders), why they typically have LONG waiting lists for new seminarians, and that they even have to turn away a lot of possible candidates simply because of logistical and economic limitations….

When you said “finding the right limits of our authority, and respecting it”, I automatically think - we just need to take the best of what the Church has had, both from before the Council, and after - in other words, Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity”.  “Both/and” is almost always a better solution than “either/or”....

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B
Plano, TX


#47, Mar 29, 2010 7:54am


My remark about “good government” contains the very same caveat.  Hence, my insistence on prudence; such boundaries in practice are influenced by conditions in which our counsels are not certain.  No pat answers will work.  No imposition of rigid norms as though every person, place and situation were the same.  You’re argument is precisely an argument for the necessity of prudence, to which there is absolutely no substitute.  This is precisely what I mean by “good government.”

Katie van Schaijik

#48, Mar 29, 2010 9:21am

Father, in reply to your last:

1)  Yes.  Appropriating the achievements of modernity most definitely involves correcting its aberrations.  And there are an awful lot of those in modernity. 

3)  I don’t consider CW’s work a development of doctrine.  I agree with you about its shortcomings on several points. 

4)  No disagreement there.

5)  I am all for enforcement of Canon Law.  I only meant I wouldn’t be satisfied with only that.  And I do not want to re-establish an ethos of law enforcement, which goes hand in hand with an ethos of legalism and paternalism.  I think persons thrive best when laws are kept to the essential minimum, and, as you say above, we are formed to be prudent.

6)  I agree with you on the general point.  (I withhold agreement regarding its application to CW, since I do not know enough about his view of modesty.)


#49, Mar 29, 2010 9:38am


Nice to see that for the most part we agree.

5) What I meant was that in regard to “reigning things in a bit” I would be satisfied with just enforcing the existing canons.  I am not looking for a reactive police state in the Church, nor do I have any affinity for the philosophies behind them.

That would mean we basically agree on all points!

Katie van Schaijik

#50, Mar 29, 2010 10:16am

That is nice, though I fear it will be short lived.  I mean short lived if I ever manage to make good on my promise to answer your critique of CW.  Even then, though, I have good hope that, on the whole, we will find ourselves generally much more in agreement than otherwise.


#51, Mar 29, 2010 10:22am

Bring it on!  ;-)


#52, Apr 27, 2010 11:21am

Hi Katie,

I realize from your most recent post on TPP that you are either currently occupied with, or preparing to give, a public presentation. 

I’ve already offered prayers that all goes exceptionally well for you in your talk, and that you have safe and uneventful travels (if that is required)....

Ever since our very animated discussion on this topic of “conscience” concluded about a month ago (That long ago?  How time flies!), I’ve still been digging deeper on the subject.  Last night, I came across a VERY interesting article, which shed quite a bit of light on the matter for yours truly.

The article (link below) describes “two camps” of belief within Catholicism wrt conscience, which I think makes considerable sense of why you, Jules, and I came to such loggerheads on this topic.  When you do finally have free time again, please give the relatively brief article a read, and let me know what you think.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article: 

Perhaps, with the enlightenment of this article, we can continue our discussion of “conscience”, albeit each from the perspective of our own “camp”, respectively?

As the authors of this article infer, perhaps there is a need within Catholicism for these “two camps” of belief to work harder toward greater harmony?  I hope that we can continue further discussions which might aid in that lofty goal….

Take care and God bless,

Steve B
Plano, TX

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