Popular appeals to conscience carry with them more than a whiff of the dramatic, or even the melodramatic. In common parlance, one either has a conscience torn by a problematic moral decision, unable to resolve the dilemma or plagued by uncertainty after the fact, or one is propelled to action, willy-nilly, by the demands of one’s conscience. The field of conscience, popularly conceived, shows two aspects: the first filled with pitfalls that make decision-making difficult if not impossible; the second a highway so unobstructed that decision-making is obvious, even if it comes at a cost. Either way, conscience is king or judge, with an absolute responsibility and a task before it.
Christians are wise to avoid melodrama, even as they affirm the moral seriousness of decision-making. Conscience has a long pedigree in Christian moral reflection, extending at least back to the New Testament and to the medieval scholastics. St. Thomas defined conscience as an act of the mind, encompassing both deliberation and judgment. Yet an emphasis on conscience that makes it sovereign in relation to decision-making is itself problematic.
The medieval tradition of casuistry focused on particular cases, applying general moral principles in a specific context toward action. Here conscience became the chief actor in determining the right course in particular circumstances. Conscience has a reflective and deliberative moment, to be sure, in wielding the tools of moral decision-making; but it’s all too easy here to place the weight on the executive function of conscience, moving on to action. Even when moral decision-making is conflicted or questioned afterward (“the guilty conscience”), conscience is firmly in the driver’s seat.
Modern Roman Catholic writers, at least since the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on conscience in its decree on religious freedom, have used it to balance the older emphasis on law. Perhaps thinking that too much emphasis is now placed upon the autonomy of the conscience, with a concomitant slide toward moral relativism, some writers (drawing upon St. Thomas and others) have re-emphasized the claims of an objective moral reality, and the need for an informed conscience (informed, that is, by Church teaching). Much of the teaching of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor is a reiteration of this point (Veritatis Splendor, 54-64).
John Pearson, the 17th-century Bishop of Chester, struck a different note (though perhaps with similar concerns) when writing briefly about conscience in An Exposition of the Creed. A commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the work was a theological standard for ordinands for well over two centuries. Not a work of moral theology, like those produced at the time in the Church of England by Robert Sanderson, Jeremy Taylor, and others, Pearson’s comments occur in association with the final judgment, specifically that article of the Creed, “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”:
That there is a judgment to come after this life, will appear demonstrable, whether we consider ourselves who are to undergo it, or God who is to execute it. … There is in the soul of every man a conscience, and wheresoever it is, it giveth testimony to this truth. The antecedent or directive conscience tells us what we are to do, and the subsequent or reflexive conscience warns us what we are to receive. Looking back upon the actions we have done, it either approves or condemns them: and if it did no more, it would only prove that there is a judgment in this life, and every man his own judge. (An Exposition of the Creed [Clarendon Press, 1877], p. 522)
Though he believes that conscience testifies to the reality of God, Pearson here finds common ground with those who would assert the existence of the individual moral conscience yet would go no further in considering divine judgment. Following St. Thomas, he identifies both executive and deliberative functions within conscience: the directive conscience guides to action, while the reflexive conscience evaluates action. Having laid this out, however, Pearson is unwilling to leave the individual as sole judge of the self’s actions, or indeed, as a judge at all:
But seeing it doth not only allow and approve our good actions, but also doth create a complacency, apology, and confidence in us; seeing it doth not only disprove and condemn our evil actions, but doth also constantly accuse us, and breed a fearful expectation and terror in us; and all this prescinding from all relation to anything either to be enjoyed or suffered in this life: it followeth that this conscience is not so much a judge as a witness, bound over to give testimony for or against us, at some judgment after this life to pass upon us. For all men are ‘a law unto themselves,’ and have ‘the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing us or else excusing one another; in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men’ (Rom. 2:14-16). (An Exposition of the Creed, p. 522).
In this brief excursus, Pearson points his readers toward a consideration of conscience in its function as witness rather than judge. The conscience gives evidence in itself that it is a witness in another court, not beholden simply to its own discretion or judgment. In this court, conscience is not seated as judge, as a decision-maker who rules on the case, but instead is brought to the bar to offer testimony. This testimony is of two kinds: testimony to the reality of God, and testimony to the moral weight and significance of our actions. The conscience is not sovereign. God, who sits as judge on the last day, is sovereign.
The appeal to conscience lends itself to drama for a reason. When it comes to decision-making, what could be more compelling to the dramatist than the moment of decision, the step into action? Pearson’s construct, by contrast, offers us a humbler way of proceeding. The witness who bears testimony may be subject to melodrama just as much as the judge who orders the work of the court, but cannot be said to make a determination in the same way. When we consider conscience, there is only one judge, and that is God. Moral theologians, and all who do the work of moral discernment, would do well to bear both the metaphor and reality in mind.