Conscience and its Limits

By Ephraim Radner

The paradox that moral protest against common procedural norms can lead to the contradiction of those very moral commitments both protester and procedure have hoped to avoid — the just security of a peaceful life — is one that bedevils political history and certainly coherent political decision making, even within “civil institutions” like churches. The notion that only a “collective” conscience can uphold cohesion and peace, but only “conscience” itself — individual if need be — can maintain the moral accountability for collectivities and individuals alike, presents a classic conflict in decision making and a formidable challenge to the very notion of moral agreement in the standard understanding of the term. In our own day, the protesting consciences of women, homosexuals, indigenous peoples, environmental defenders, liturgical traditionalists, “prolife” activists, and so on have sought to overcome the collective commitments to certain procedures of debate and decision making, setting up often intractable conflicts within institutions. I would like to explore this conflict and challenge, but in doing so to complicate the factors involved, and thereby declassicize, as it were, the dynamic given in the example. What is involved in these kinds of conflicts is not simply, nor can it ever be, an encounter between “group” and “individual,” institutional demand and personal conscience, tradition and truth, and so on, in the generalized modern version of the case (even in the form of its reactive rejection as a case of public truth vs. private opinion). Rather, decision making in morally conflicted spheres of life and the building up of consensual norms is a matter of agreement by deliberated subtraction, conscience retired from a host of often cacophonous conscientious demands working at once in collective and individual together. In Christian and Christian ecclesial terms, there is no agreement without sacrifice of conscience.

Negotiating Conscience: The Case of Henri of Navarre

Let us take an example of this reality, in the case of one of the first effective proponents of religious toleration in Europe, Henri of Navarre, eventually Henri IV of France. Caught up, and indeed an active leader militarily, in the late eighteenth-century conflicts of France whose actual dynamics and motives have so exercised the debate over “religious violence” studied by William Cavanaugh, Henri’s specifically religious convictions have often been lost in cynical judgments of both political and confessionally partisan commentators. Baptized a Roman Catholic, he was raised by his mother Jeanne of Navarre to be a committed Calvinist. In 1562 it was his father Antoine de Bourbon’s decision that he become a practicing Catholic, but the ecclesial tie was brief, and Henri made a quick return to Calvinism. In 1572 he converted to Catholicism once again, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that had exploded on the heels of his Paris wedding to Marguerite of Valois. But after his flight from the court, in 1576, Henri reembraced his Calvinism, which he held on to relentlessly, until 1593, when his succession to the French throne in 1589 and consequent military victories over resisting Catholic forces were threatened by the prospect of ongoing conflict. He had promised to receive instruction in the Catholic faith early on in his accession, and had repeatedly voiced his readiness to do so; but he passed over these promises again and again. His final conversion to Rome gave rise to his (apocryphally attributed) remark “Paris is well worth a Mass” but, more importantly, secured the allegiance of Catholics until then unprepared to accept a Protestant monarch.

Judgments on Henri’s religious commitment have been varied, but generally have viewed his confessional gyrations as politically opportunistic. Ronald Love’s detailed and persuasive examination of this matter, however, has disclosed a very different picture, one in which Henri struggled with competing loyalties and commitments and only slowly and haltingly developed a reconstrued framework of obligation that led him to his final decisions.[1] The competition of moral demands was unending, beginning with the religious formation he received from his mother, and the diverse directions he received from his father. The 1572 massacre taught him the existential value of religious toleration, for which he worked after 1576 in a way that was unique within the political sphere of the era; but his time as a captive “Catholic” in the court taught him also the “need for effective duplicity,” a moral imperative whose profile had gained considerable attention during the century in many venues, and whose attraction proved crucially substantive.[2] In this way, Henri distinguished himself slowly from his theological paragon, Calvin, and from the latter’s demand for a complete congruence between personal belief and public behavior and profession. Rather, Henri came to understand that the Christian does indeed often stand within a “conflict of obligations,” and as a monarch especially, and thus there is a need at times to “separate” “private belief and external conformity.” His religious goal, in his own words (and never achieved), was a reformed  Catholicism, “cleansed” for the sake of the country but in the form of a single church, in France, that might take its place within the “Catholic” world.[3] This “reform”-minded conviction was bound to his Calvinist commitments, but he nonetheless saw reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant as a religious hope, one that must cut away certain “dogmatisms” of both sides, and must therefore, as it had for him, demand the shedding of certain fundamental religious principles. The hereditary “blood” that bound him to his public duty, as monarch according to the Salic law’s demand for succession through the male line, overcame two realities: first, the obligations of his immediate “blood” relations — his mother’s Calvinist faith, to which he was bound in nurture, respect, and conviction; but second, thereby, the Protestant religion as well. At the same time, however, Henri’s “religion” of duty to God for the sake of the people of France and their security according to the divine law also overcame the more particular elements of confessional religion itself — hence his own ability to move between confessions, to dissemble at times, and to promote the then doctrinally obscure and disturbing policy of religious toleration.

How does one describe the interior deliberations of Henri’s conscience in all of this? Love’s account deals with his more conceptual considerations, for example, his reframing of the monarchy’s religious basis, or his willingness to follow a (fairly common) “providential” reading of historical outcome, whereby God’s favor would rest upon the prevailing religious party in the conflict, or indicate through the movement of even political events the right path to follow.[4] But conflicts of commitment remained part of Henri’s personal discernment until virtually the moment of his formal entry back into the Catholic Church. He sought counsel from religious leaders and political advisers from both confessions, and continually struggled with the competing claims of “perseverance in his faith” and “public utility,” whose advocates were found in both camps. Indeed, among those most insistent on his conversion to Catholicism were several Huguenot leaders, convinced as they were that their religious colleagues would gain more by a Catholic Henri than through the ongoing vicissitudes of the armed struggle.[5] Not all Calvinists held to this view, of course, and Henri was personally threatened with damnation by several Huguenot preachers in the case he abjured. But a final discussion with Catholic and Protestant clergy came to a common conclusion, or at least one Henri was able to identify, that is, that he would not lose his soul and could indeed find personal salvation as a Catholic. “It was the last encouragement he needed to make up his mind,” writes Love.[6] Although Henri took pains to announce his finally decided reembrace of Catholicism as something based on his “conversion of heart” and sincerity of faith, he would privately tell Protestant representatives that “I have not been persuaded [to abjure] by any other theology than the necessity of state.” Still, it was an act that he also described in these terms: however strongly he remained a Calvinist in his “conscience” “it is necessary that I lose myself for your sake.”[7]

What, in the end, was this “necessity of state” for which Henri was willing to “lose himself” while hiding away his Calvinist “conscience”? In a word, it was “peace,” the promotion of truces and armistices, the withdrawal of foreign military interventions, the staunching of religious bloodshed and internecine conflict.[8] And to this end, Henri agonizingly reordered the pieces of his moral and religious convictions, trying different arrangements, working through various sequences and syllogisms, carrying through with sometimes conflicting actions, creating new meanings. While one might wish to claim that finally Henri adopted a hierarchy of goods, with social order at the top, such a description would not capture the fluid character of Henri’s development, its lack of system, and its ongoing open-endedness, at least in terms of its implied substance, even after his final conversion.

Nor would a simple “pragmatism” properly capture the breadth of engaged meanings that Henri juggled and at various points decided to fix for specific purposes. Family loyalties and deference to their wisdom, theological convictions, political obligations, personal ambitions, the force of reason, affective sorrows and experienced joys, the passions of communal ties, and so on: all these formed a part of Henri’s moral repertoire of conscience, and none exhausts it, nor does their synthesis imply a single integrated moral system. Rather, some things were set aside for others. We might say that Henri negotiated over time his own multiple consciences for the sake, as he saw it, of the common good, understood simply and concretely as the security of the common person.[9]  How does one finally describe this kind of deliberation and “internal” consensus, which of course cannot be detached from external alignments of conviction?

In any case, Henri’s example subverts the simple mythology of conscience that stands behind much modern discussion of consensus and dissent. To say simply that “one must follow conscience” hardly touches the actual texture, not so much of any moral decision making, but of a decision making that ultimately aims at or at least gives rise to public security, or “peace” within a conflicted context where the norms of common life are themselves at issue. Henri’s own drama was one not of hewing to a process but of orchestrating new procedures of common life that were, however, bound up with accepting claims from the older processes in place. Neither procedure nor its conscientious resistance explains the character of his effective choices. Nor ought any one to think, in any parallel way, that Christian ecclesial decision making can achieve or evade substantive outcomes for the good by simply pitting the procedural traditions of an institution against personal and conscientious protest.

The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a member of the Living Church Foundation.

This essay is adapted, with permission, from A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, out this month from Baylor University Press. This article was first published in the October 7, 2012 issue of The Living Church.

[1] Ronald S. Love, Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV, 1553-1593 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). It should be said that not all readers of Love’s painstaking study agree that Henri’s interior feelings can ever be known with any degree of certainty. But this itself indicates the complexity that lies behind the too neat modern notion of “conscience” itself. Michael Wolfe, in his equally stimulating The Conversion of Henri IV (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), examines Henri’s conversion from the perspective of his Catholic subjects. Not only does he demonstrate the profound religious and confessional stakes at issue in their eyes — the wars, that is, were indeed religious at root — but he deliberately prescinds from evaluating Henri’s own personal convictions precisely because he sees the entire episode as demonstrating a shift from private conscience in religious matters to public conformity as the criterion of Christian integrity within the evolving French nation.

[2] Love, Blood and Religion, p. 76.

[3] cf. Love, Blood and Religion, p. 307.

[4] cf. Love, Blood and Religion, pp. 150-58 and 273-74.

[5] Love, Blood and Religion, p. 275.

[6] Love, Blood and Religion, p. 277.

[7] Love, Blood and Religion, p. 280

[8] cf. Love, Blood and Religion, pp. 284, 307.

[9] Something like this judgment is given by his contemporary de Thou, in the opening Dedicatory Letter to Henri of his Historiae sui temporis (Paris, 1604). Given de Thou’s own notions regarding “religion,” he is in fact painting Henri as a person of a certain kind of conscience, but the narrative he offers of the king’s various allegiances fits well with the picture sketched here.


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