Two years ago this month, as the COVID-19 virus spread uncontrollably across large swaths of the country, much of our society shut down. Religious services have been suspended. We all learned about “spiritual communion” and how to attend Mass via Zoom. We Catholics have also learned that we haven’t done a very good job of explaining what the Church teaches about conscience.
No one is better at turning church teaching into gibberish than Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. He repeatedly encouraged people not to get vaccinated and said a well-trained Catholic conscience was grounds for exemption from any vaccination mandate. Poor thing, now he’s posting stupid tweets about fake trucker convoys protesting in Canada and the US: “The Freedom Convoy is deeply rooted in the core values that built the world we take for granted. he tweeted. “We must be free to make choices for our own lives.” Where is the balance? Where is the “both/and” that has always characterized the Catholic intellectual tradition?
Strickland was not alone. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services Archdiocese argued that Catholic soldiers could refuse the vaccine. In a statement noting that the Vatican said the vaccines were morally acceptable, but some soldiers still asserted a conscientious objection to receiving the vaccine, Broglio said: “This circumstance raises the question of whether the moral legality of the vaccine precludes an individual to form an honest religious belief that receiving the vaccine would violate their conscience.
The Colorado bishops released a statement that appeared to have been written with the help of the libertarian Acton Institute, or possibly the Republican National Committee. “We always remain vigilant when a bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping demands on a group of people in areas of personal conscience,” they wrote, without explaining how public health measures during a pandemic can be everything. except “uniform and radical” or if their radical claim on bureaucracies applies, for example, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Let’s be clear. Conscience is not the right to do what you want. Consciousness is the opposite of self-will. Conscience is the voice of God in our hearts, helping us to apply divine law to the moral choices we make. The caricature of conscience as a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is just that, a caricature, but it is closer to reality than the three statements quoted above. Conscience is the voice of God telling us to follow his law in a specific situation, thereby creating or strengthening the disposition to make virtuous choices.
No Catholic is more associated with the idea of conscience than Saint John Henry Newman, and none of his commentaries on conscience is more famous than the quip with which he ended the fifth section of his famous “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”: “Certainly if I am compelled to bring religion into the after-dinner toast, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I will drink — to the Pope, please , — again, to the Conscience first, and then to the Pope.” Indeed, it is a black letter of Catholic theology that a person is always bound to follow his conscience, even if he is in error . Likewise, the obligation to form one’s conscience is very serious.
It’s an earlier passage from Newman’s famous letter that almost seems to span the ages and speak to us today:
The rule and measure of duty are neither utility, nor propriety, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor the convenience of the State, nor propriety, order and pulchrum. Consciousness is not long-term selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but he is a messenger of Him, who, both in kind and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and governs us through His representatives. Conscience is the original Vicar of Christ, a prophet in his information, a monarch in his peremptory character, a priest in his blessings and anathemas, and, though the eternal priesthood in the whole Church might cease to be, in she the priestly principle would remain and have an influence.
If the great Newman had not written anything else, if he had not written the sermon “Le Second Printemps”, nor the poem “Le Rêve de Géronte”, nor his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, the sentence “Conscience is the Aboriginal vicar of Christ” would have earned him a place in the pantheon of great English writers.
Divine law contains many precepts, and during a pandemic none has a greater claim on our decisions than the common good. It’s the nature of a public health emergency that bad decisions made by one individual can have disastrous consequences for others, often people they don’t even know. As we discovered, overburdened hospitals had to postpone important and necessary surgeries for others because there was no room for non-COVID patients. As the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, told American Catholics last year, “[People] have no right to go against the common good. This is not Catholic teaching.”
It’s amazing to me that anti-vaxxers have used the exact same logic and language as abortion-rights proponents – “My body, my choice” – yet, as far as I know, no significant figure in neither side found in this strange commonality a reason to reconsider their position. Libertarian ideologues speak of conscience but are allergic to moral scruples. There is nothing liberal or Catholic about libertarianism. I repeat: there is nothing liberal or Catholic in libertarianism.
Consciousness is not something that asserts itself lightly. We struggle with our conscience. Conscience challenges us to act in a way that goes against our interests. Consciousness often exacts a high price for following it. I argue that no one in this great free country of ours should be tied to a stretcher and vaccinated against their will, of course. The right to bodily integrity, the founding right of so many legal and moral maxims, requires it just as much. But, refusing to be vaccinated allows society to protect itself and to demand that the unvaccinated no longer participate in, for example, a religious service or the army or any community activity during which they are at risk of transmitting the virus to others.
One of the worst abuses of the idea of conscience in recent years came in 2015 when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio in Washington, introduced Pope Francis to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses and went to jail after refusing to let another clerk issue the licenses. The now-disgraced former nuncio told the pope that Davis was a conscientious objector. But, as I observed at the time:
If the pope wanted to show his support for the right to conscientious objection, it would have been better if he met a conscientious objector. Davis lost her right to consider herself a conscientious objector when she forbade others from issuing marriage licenses that she did not wish to issue herself. Davis was not imprisoned for practicing her religion. She was imprisoned for forcing others to practice her religion. … She’s a sworn civil servant. If she cannot fulfill this obligation, she should seek a workaround or accommodation, which she eventually agreed to, or she could have done what a true person of conscience would do: resign.
Conscience, like faith, makes demands and there is nothing more detrimental to both than people trying to invoke it on the cheap. As we heard this week in the Gospels, people who want to follow Jesus must take up their cross, not wave it in the face of others.
We have learned a lot about our society during this pandemic. The Holy Father addressed many of the challenges the pandemic has highlighted in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. The fact that the church in America has not been able to articulate a Catholic understanding of conscience in our hyper-individualistic society is one of the challenges we knew existed before the pandemic, but which s turned out to be even worse than feared due to COVID-19. Especially as the bishops begin to rewrite their quadrennial document on voting, “Shaping Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” it is vital that bishops, with the help of theologians, seek better ways to teach what is church believes in conscience.