The right of an individual to follow his or her conscience has long been a matter of dispute in our society. In times of war, for example, men subject to military draft have claimed conscientious objection. Should they be permitted to excuse themselves on that basis? If so, what should be allowed to count as “conscientious” and how is it different from draft-dodging? In health care, questions of individual conscience rights also arise. Should a nurse be compelled to assist in abortion procedures that are permitted in his hospital? Can a doctor be held liable for refusing to prescribe contraceptive drugs? In recent years, federal health care laws have been implemented in such a way as to mandate that employers who provide health insurance policies to their employees include contraceptive and potentially abortifacient drugs in those policies. This has raised questions about how conscience rights should be ascribed to institutions, and some of those questions have now been adjudicated in the Supreme Court of the United States.
But what is conscience? And what rights do individuals or institutions have to act in accordance with their consciences? Let us seek answers to these questions in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Conscience is a Human Judgment
“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC 1778).
Conscience is an act of the human mind in which a person discerns what is right and wrong to do. Conscience is therefore something interior to the personal self. Your conscience and my conscience are not the same because each person has to judge what is right and wrong for him or her to do. Yet conscience is not just about private opinions or feelings. Conscience is a judgment or reason that depends upon the understanding of truths that are accessible to all people. By virtue of our shared human nature, all people can perceive the principles that should guide human choice. We can all recognize the goodness of protecting and sustaining life and health, living together in peaceful cooperation, and pursuing knowledge of the truth.
Conscience Must Be Formed
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC 1783).
Conscience is an act of the mind and the mind is directed to true understanding. Our minds can only understand truth when we are well informed and rightly educated. The information necessary for the right judgment of conscience begins with the moral principles we naturally apprehend. However, due to our natural limitations and the limitations that result from original sin, we also need to be taught by wise educators and guided by the revelation of God that is handed down to us in the Church.
Right Conscience Reveals God’s Will
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey… There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776).
Though conscience is a human judgment, it is also, when rightly formed, an expression of God’s will. God is the author of truth and goodness and when we are able to judge what is truly good we are participating in God’s wisdom and guiding our actions in accordance with God’s love. Conscience therefore has an authority that is not just from ourselves. It comes from God and communicates God’s law. It follows that conscience must always be obeyed, for when we do what we judge to be good we do what we perceive to be the will of God for us.
Conscience should be Free from Coercion
“The Christian faithful, in common with all other men, possess the civil right not to be hindered in leading their lives in accordance with their consciences” (Dignitatis Humanae 13).
Respecting the freedom of a person’s conscience is part of respecting his human dignity. The dignity of the human person is most clearly expressed in his ability to judge rightly about what is right and good for him to do. It is then that voice of God is spoken in his heart and the will of God is accomplished in his acts. It is then that he is seen to be created in God’s image. This most quintessential human activity should not be suppressed. To do so, to force a human being to act contrary to her conscience, is an act of violence. There can sometimes be exceptions to this rule, cases in which someone’s conscientious judgment cannot be reconciled with the good of the human community. Such exceptions, however, are rare, for the good of the human community is the good of free persons who express their freedom and their dignity most perfectly when they conscientiously pursue what is truly good.