Friday, April 10, 2015

Conscience, Obligation and Decisions


I came across an article, A Note from Creator Cakes | Andrew Walker | First Things from Facebook, which seems to have received popular support from Catholics whose views I ordinarily think are good. However, I personally find the article troubling because of what it seems to imply. Now maybe the article expressed a point badly and did not mean to advocate going against conscience. But I see some comments which seem to indicate that people are interpreting it this way, and so I feel like I need to speak out on what troubles me.

The Premise of the Article

The basic premise of the article is a fictional letter from what I assume is a fictional bakery. The fictional letter expresses the concern of the owners who are trying to run their business in accord with their religious beliefs. In response to the fact that business owners lose whenever they refuse to cooperate with a “same sex wedding,” they intend to set forth the following policy:

We've decided that if asked, we will provide a cake at a same-sex wedding ceremony. But we will take every dollar from that sale and donate it to an organization fighting to protect and advance religious liberty—organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, Manhattan Declaration, or the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

No organization, company or person should be compelled to participate in events or speech that conflict with their convictions. This is a basic freedom we thought was afforded under our constitution. But our culture is beginning to turn its back on its rich legacy of protecting dissenting viewpoints. If Caesar insists that bakers must be made to bake cakes or else close up shop, we’re going to see to it that Caesar’s edicts get undermined by channeling resources designed to fight Caesar.

So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well. If we are coerced into baking for events we disagree with, we will return the favor and use the funds of those we disagree with to fund the organizations they disagree with.

I have seen certain Catholics cheer this article, saying the article should be a template for Christian businesses. But when I read this, I find myself thinking, “Wait! Do you realize what are you saying?"

Conscience and Not Doing Evil

Let’s lay down some basics first, and look at the Church teaching on conscience

What troubles me about this article is this: The Catholic Church teaches that we may never do evil so good comes of it. The Catechism says:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. [Emphasis added

The writer of the article creates the situation of a baker forced to act against a troubled conscience but intends to mitigate it by donating the proceeds from such sales to groups which defend marriage. That is pretty much the essence of "doing evil so that good may come of it.” The question that first needs to be asked is: Does the baker believe that participating in a “same sex wedding” is wrong? If so, then to do what one believes to be wrong cannot be justified, regardless of the circumstances and intention. Again, the Catechism:

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving). (2479; 596)

1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. (1735)

I find that the Youcat[*] has some good insights into conscience as well:

295 What is conscience?

Conscience is the inner voice in a man that moves him to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the ability to distinguish the one from the other. In the conscience God speaks to man. [1776–1779]

Conscience is compared with an inner voice in which God manifests himself in a man. God is the one who becomes apparent in the conscience. When we say, “I cannot reconcile that with my conscience”, this means for a Christian, “I cannot do that in the sight of my Creator!” Many people have gone to jail or been executed because they were true to their conscience.  120, 290–292, 312, 333

"Anything that is done against conscience is a sin."



"To do violence to people’s conscience means to harm them seriously, to deal an extremely painful blow to their dignity. In a certain sense it is worse than killing them."


(1881–1963, the Pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council)

I believe the witness of the Church tells us that the conscience is to be obeyed when it tells us “I must do this!” or “I must not do this.” The conscience must be formed within the Church so it may be accurate (avoiding both scrupulosity and laxity), but deliberately choosing to go against the conscience can never be justified.

The Example of the Martyrs

As Catholics we have a history of facing rulers who have said we must obey them or face the consequences. We have a collection of saints who gave witness by dying or by suffering in other ways rather than obey government edicts which go against what they believed to be morally wrong. Whether it was the Romans who demanded that the saints burn incense to the emperors or whether it was the Persians who demanded the saints worship the sun, these saints looked to their love of God and their conscience and decided they had to obey God over man when what man demanded exceeded his rightful authority (see Acts 5:29). This was even at the consequence of suffering torture and often execution. 

Now, in America, I don’t expect torture and execution to happen unless America falls much further into moral collapse. Because we pride ourselves as a nation of law, I expect the persecution to come through the law and through unjust judicial rulings that provide a fig leaf for unjust applications of the law. So instead of executions in the arena, we can look to lawsuits, fines, injunctions and prosecutions.

With this in mind, I ask people to think about what the First Things (fictional) proposal is saying. In saying, "So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well,” what we are seeing is not a praiseworthy thing, but a capitulation with the intent to use the results of the capitulation to defend Christians from needing to capitulate in the future.

It’s as if the martyrs took up the promised reward for denying their faith and applied that reward to protecting Christians in the future from denying their faith. Our Lord’s question echoes through the ages:

23 Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:23-25)

The Ultimate Goal

We need to remember the ultimate goal of our life is to know, love and serve God. We do this by keeping His commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). We must also keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not reached in this life, but the next life. Thus we endure suffering in this life for His sake, rather than lose the next life by putting ourselves over His commands. Some may pay a harder price than others. In such cases, those who have suffered less should help those who suffered more.

However, when we have to choose between The Lord and ourselves, we cannot choose ourselves—even if we seek to do good with the gain we receive from choosing ourselves over God. Every one of us will have to make this decision in some way. Let us pray that we be given the strength to do what is right and not what is easier.


[*] I understand some Catholics look at the Youcat derisively. However, given the CDF has given it’s approval and Benedict XVI has also shown his approval (saying in the introduction, “So I invite you: Study this Catechism! That is my heartfelt desire.”), I find that the trust I have for those who approve far outweighs the trust I have of those who disapprove. Please keep this in mind. God Bless.

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