Anyway, many conventionally-minded Christians are suspicious of the Romantic Christian call for the necessity of assuming personal responsibility for discernment in this time and place.
Some dismiss it as a radically individualistic, “go your own way” approach destined to lead one away from God rather than toward Him.
Others fear the fallibility of personal discernment, especially if it ventures too far from tradition and church teaching.
Whatever the concern, most conventionally-minded Christians openly acknowledge that responsibility for personal discernment is indeed a key element of the Christian faith. At the same time, they are often apprehensive, confused, or obstinate when it comes to the matter of delineating the “boundaries” of that Christian responsibility. Much of what qualifies as Christian conscience barely rises above social conscience.
Though this may sound harsh, I sense that Christians have fallen into the rather dangerous habit of doing everything they can to avoid personal responsibility for their discernment, and I believe this dangerous habit reveals itself most perceptibly when it comes to matters of conscience.
Conscience is a core component of Christian discernment. No Christian tradition treats the matter of conscience lightly or timidly.
Even the Catholic Church, which other Christian denominations are usually quick to criticize as “authoritarian” and the least “free”, approaches conscience with an assuredly clear conception of the role and significance of conscience in an individual’s discernment and personal responsibility.
I focus here specifically on Catholic views on conscience primarily because it is the tradition with which I am most familiar, and secondly because the followers of the Catholic tradition are often the most resistant to the notion of personal responsibility for discernment.
The Second Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dedicates an entire section to conscience. Interestingly enough, most of what the Catechism notes is in complete alignment with the supposedly “radical and individualistic” Romantic Christian take on responsibility and discernment (bold added throughout).
LIFE IN CHRIST
MAN'S VOCATION LIFE IN THE SPIRIT
THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON
1776 - Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
I. THE JUDGMENT OF CONSCIENCE
1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.
Note the emphasis on the heart, on internals, on the call to love, on the call to do Good, on alignment with God’s purposes, all of which happen within – not outwith – the individual. Note also the definition of conscience as a conduit through which “a prudent man can hear God speaking.”
I could quibble about the implications of concepts like law and obedience, not because I am innately opposed to these concepts, but because the words are often misunderstood and misapplied, most frequently as means through which to avoid personal responsibility. In any case, what the Catechism outlines parallels the Romantic Christian notion of heart-thinking, almost to a T.
1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
Once again, perceiving and recognizing the prescriptions of divine law echoes the Catholic emphasis on authority, but the implications of personal responsibility are resoundingly clear nonetheless. Conscience is primarily “about” an inner mode of thinking and acting that aligns with God and Creation.
Describing the conscience as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ is Cardinal John Henry Newman’s stroke of beauty and genius. Aboriginal means primordial, primeval, and original, implying that man’s connection to God via conscience supersedes man’s connection to the Vicar of Christ who heads the Church.
Catholics naturally qualify this distinction and are quick to criticize Protestants who basically wielded the distinction to separate themselves from the authority of the Church.
I do not wish to wade too deeply into such matters in this post. All I can say is that the role of conscience as a conduit for hearing the voice of God and the assumption of responsibility for conscience both align with Romantic Christian assumptions about personal responsibility for discernment.
1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:
Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.
Stressing interiority, reflection, self-examination, and turning inward accords with the Romantic Christian call to place internals before externals – to distance oneself from the external distractions of the given world and focus instead on the internal realities of the Created World with the understanding that the reality of the Created World exists in the internal, even when it is perceived as being external.
1780 The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment.
1781 Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God:
We shall . . . reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything
Without the uprightness of moral conscience, the dignity of the human person is threatened. Aquinas’ teachings about synderesis are a testament to this principle, and they underscore the unavoidable need to think and act in good conscience. Note also the weight the Catechism places on personal responsibility, and the unquestionable need for repentance whenever an individual Christian goes against his conscience. A Christian who does not repent going against his conscience condemns himself. Attesting to faults committed is the foundation of spiritual learning, which Romantic Christians define as the primary purpose of mortal life.
1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.
"He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."
Traditionally-minded Christians inevitably insist upon the primacy of authority over freedom, but 1782 in the Catechism seems to suggest that this notion is not necessarily set in stone. The Catechism qualifies this, as we shall see, but taken here in isolation, 1782 affirms the Romantic Christian assumption that freedom always enjoys primacy over authority.
Nikolai Berdyaev went as far as to proclaim that he could never accept anything that went against his free conscience “not even God himself since God cannot be violence over me. My humility before the Highest can only be enlightenment and transfiguration of my free conscience from within, as my communion with a Higher Reality.”
Traditionally-minded Christians tend to regard following conscience as an act of obedience to an external command of God who communicates with the individual within via conscience. Viewed this way, conscience is reduced to free will – to the matter of choosing right over wrong and good over evil.
I submit that the Romantic Christian belief about conscience accepts free will but attempts to expand beyond it into the realm of spiritual freedom, into the enlightenment and transfiguration Berdyaev mentions.
For a Romantic Christian, the ultimate purpose of conscience does not reside in choice but the rendering of choice irrelevant.
A conscience that aligns with God does not agonize over choices; it sees the best and only course of action and then takes it.
I am not suggesting that Romantic Christians have attained this conscience in any consistent manner, but it is within Romantic Christian motivation to recognize the desirability of spiritual freedom and strive toward it.
II. THE FORMATION OF CONSCIENCE
1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.
1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
The passages above reveal a demarcation line between the traditional and Romantic Christian understanding of conscience. Unsurprisingly, the Church insists upon the necessity of its authoritative teachings in 1783, whereas the Romantic Christian understanding is better reflected in the last sentence of 1785.
Romantic Christians are open to being guided by authoritative teachings but also understand that truth can only be disclosed and received in freedom and not through authority, which inevitably suffocates thought.
III. TO CHOOSE IN ACCORD WITH CONSCIENCE
1786 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.
1788 To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.
1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble."
The matter of making a moral choice “either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” has become a real sticking point for many traditionally-minded Christians.
Without going into extensive detail, I’ll just say that many of the contrary, erroneous judgments I have witnessed traditional Christians make in the past three years or so can be directly attributed to muddled ideas about what constitutes “divine law”.
When it comes to matters of conscience, traditionally-minded Christians rarely draw deeply enough into the interiority the Catechism noted earlier.
Instead, they often fall into the trap of allowing externals to dominate and rule over the internal. Hence, “divine law” is experienced externally rather than internally. Instead of the voice of God, conscience hears the voice of the external Church, or the voice of society, or the voice of secular law.
The spiritual is obscured as the conscience responds to the external. Most traditional Christians are either oblivious to this or rationalize this misuse of conscience as an indicator of their humility before and obedience to authority.
IV. ERRONEOUS JUDGMENT
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.
That is about as clear and straightforward as can be. A human being *must* obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he doesn’t, he condemns himself. If he has condemned himself, he should repent.
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.
Ignorance is no excuse, especially after ignorance has been revealed. Also, ignorance cannot be used to justify and rationalize wrong choices. Personal responsibility and discernment are indisputably unavoidable.
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.
According to this criteria, all Romantic Christian discernment is an error of judgment, which is understandable given the context.
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.
Plain English – if you are an incurable moral and spiritual retard who really cannot tell right from wrong even though you are sincerely trying your best to figure out, you get a pass . . . sort of. The same applies to people who are forced into committing evil without knowing they are committing evil. Nevertheless, evil is still evil and needs to be acknowledged as such.
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.
To sum up, the Romantic Christian insistence upon the gravity of personal responsibility for discernment echoes the tenets prescribed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Yes, some key differences exist – particularly when it comes to matters of law, authority, and obedience – but the core Christian principles overlap.
The biggest difference between the two approaches to conscience could be summed up by the following question – What for?
Salvation aside, the “what for” of conscience in conventional Christianity can be summarized as obeying God and keeping his law to ensure the stability and continuity of divine order.
When a Christian obey his conscience, he is “for” these things. When he goes against his conscience, he is “for” everything that opposes these things.
This is nothing to sneeze at. Whenever a traditionally or conventionally-minded Christian goes against his conscience, he goes against God’s divine order and is “for” disorder, which means he is actively choosing to weaken and undermine what God has divinely created and put into place. He is essentially “for” evil.
Hence, in addition to working toward salvation, a traditionally-minded Christian is motivated to conserve and preserve the order Divine Law has instituted.
Romantic Christians understand and appreciate this approach, but also view conscience as a conduit for creativity.
The Romantic Christian intuitively understands that every alignment of his conscience with Creation does more than maintain order – it enhances and adds something to the Reality of Creation. Romantic Christians are “for” this creativity.
Thus, for the Romantic Christian, conscience is not limited to the choice between good and evil – it spills over into the creative possibilities that arise after an alignment with good is in place. Without awareness of the possibilities that alignment brings, there is little or no participation in God’s creative purposes.
Conscience extends beyond keeping God's moral order.
It is also about participating in the ongoing creation of Creation.