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The supremacy of conscience in determining the actions of an individual is a key principle of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, in no uncertain terms, presents it as the ultimate criterion: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC, §1790). Regardless of whether it is “right” or not - and it can certainly also be wrong! - “[i]n all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience.” (Dignitatis Humanae, §3).
This is, indeed, not only the teaching of the Catholic Church, but also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ articles 1 and 18:
“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.In practice, the picture is far from clear though, in that external forces - but internal ones too - often push in directions opposed to a person’s conscience and going against them can come with significant risks, to the point of putting one’s own life on the line. The United Nations themselves recognize this clearly and in their guidance about conscientious objection with regard to military service, give the following example of probably the earliest recorded conscientious objector:
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
“In the year 295, on reaching the age of 21, Maximilianus, as the son of a Roman army veteran, was called up to the legions. However, he reportedly told the Proconsul in Numidia that because of his religious convictions he could not serve as a soldier. He persisted in his refusal and was executed. He was subsequently canonized as Saint Maximilian.”It may not always be a matter of life and death though, at least for the person whose conscience can come in conflict with external forces, such as a state’s laws, and the qualifier “certain” used in the Catechism as well as the knowledge that one's own conscience may be erroneous can both put a question mark over one's conscience. The principle of following it can therefore be less than unambiguous in practice and arguments for its bending and dulling can easily creep in. This may, in part be what has resulted in the, to my mind, disgraceful positions taken by some politicians and representatives of the Catholic Church in Central Europe with regard to the refugee crisis (and the opposite of what has thankfully lead many citizens as well as clergy and lay persons to do the right thing).
Against the above background, I would here like to translate parts of an interview that Cardinal Walter Kasper gave yesterday, in which he addressed the question of conscience in the context of the refugee crisis and with reference to the laws of individual states. Here Kasper starts his argument from the position of mercy:
“To welcome someone is a work of mercy and justice that goes beyond state laws. The Holy Year of Mercy reminds us about what the Old and New Testament teach: we must welcome as brothers and sisters those who arrive to us from oppressions and persecutions. And even before we understand whether or not they are to be considered refugees, we must remember that they are human beings and as such have the right to live in a healthy and free environment. It is clear that immigrants must respect the rules of the society that welcomes them, but we must be open because that is what Christian mercy asks of us.”Next, he goes on to directly address how mercy and the laws of states relate:
“State laws are to be observed, but they are not the ultimate criterion of being a Christian. Mercy goes further. The state cannot give orders to mercy. In this sense, the laws stipulate a minimum level for the rules of coexistence, while mercy goes beyond. And it is only mercy that gives a certain warmth to our society, without it and without compassion we would live in a very cold society. [...] There is a question of conscience. One has to wonder if a man who has no documents can be returned to a country where he was persecuted. It is clear that a state has the right to ask for the documents of immigrants, but there is always room for individual conscience.”In fact, Pope Francis took this same argument even beyond the confines of the Church, by emphasizing the inviolability of a person's conscience also in the case of non-believers (in one of his first acts as Pope - the letter to the atheist Eugenio Scalfari):
“[T]he mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. There is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed. Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil. It is on the basis of this choice that the goodness or evil of our actions is determined.”And, some months earlier, in his remarks before the Angelus prayer, he explained what he means by conscience, in clearly Christian terms:
“[T]he importance, even for Jesus, of conscience [was this]: listening in his heart to the Father's voice, and following it. Jesus, in his earthly life, was not, so to speak, “remote-controlled”: He was the Word made flesh, the Son of God made man, and at one point he made a firm decision to go up to Jerusalem for the last time - a decision taken in His conscience, but not on His own: with the Father, in full union with Him! He decided in obedience to the Father, in profound intimate attunement to the Father’s will. For this reason, then, the decision was steadfast: because it was taken together with the Father. In the Father, then, Jesus found the strength and the light for His journey. Jesus was free. His decision was a free one. Jesus wants us Christians to be free as he is: with that liberty, which comes from this dialogue with the Father, this dialogue with God. Jesus wants neither selfish Christians, who follow their egos and do not speak with God, nor weak Christians, without will: “remote-controlled” Christians, incapable of creativity, who seek ever to connect with the will of another, and are not free. Jesus wants us free, and this freedom – where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience. If a Christian does not know how to talk with God, does not know how to listen to God, in his own conscience, then he is not free – he is not free.During the press conference after his visit to the USA, Francis also explicitly applied this same principle to the scenario of a conflict between individual conscience and state law:
So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.”
“[C]onscientious objection is a right, and enters into every human right. It is a right, and if a person does now allow for conscientious objection, he or she is denying a right. Every legal system should provide for conscientious objection because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise, we would end up selecting between rights: “this right is good, this one less so”. It is a human right. I am always moved when I read, and I have read it many times, when I read the “Chanson de Roland”, when there were all these Moors lined up before the baptismal font, and they had to choose between baptism and the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It’s a right and if we want to have peace, we have to respect all rights.”While its prominence has recently been heightened, conscience has been given great respect throughout the history of Christianity, which can also be seen in the following guidance given by St. Francis of Assisi to the leaders of his own order:
“If a superior give any order to one who is under him which is against that man's conscience, although he do not obey it yet he shall not be dismissed.”At a time when obedience to hierarchy was unquestionable, Francis underlined the importance of placing conscience above obedience even in a context where authority may be exercised with the best of motives and by the best and most holy of people.