Third in a Series on Catholic Morals
Fr. John H. Stapleton
|Angel of Justice|
Guariento di Arpo (1310-1370)
The will of God, announced to the world at large, is known as the Law of God; manifested to each individual soul, it is called conscience. These are not two different rules of morality, but one and the same rule. The latter is a form or copy of the former. One is the will of God, the other is its echo in our souls.
We might fancy God, at the beginning of all things, speaking His will concerning right and wrong in the presence of the myriads of souls that lay in the state of possibility. And when, in the course of time, these souls come into being, with unfailing regularity, at every act, conscience, like a spiritual phonograph, gives back His accents and reechoes: "it is lawful," or "it is not lawful." Or, to use another simile, conscience is the compass by which we steer aright our moral lives towards the haven of our souls' destination in eternity. But just as behind the mariner's compass is the great unseen power, called attraction, under whose influence the needle points to the star; so does the will or Law of God control the action of the conscience, and direct it faithfully towards what is good.
We have seen that, in order to prevaricate, it is not sufficient to transgress the Law of God: we must know. Conscience makes us know. It is only when we go counter to its dictates that we are constituted evil-doers. And, at the bar of God's justice, it is on the testimony of conscience that sentence will be passed. Her voice will be that of a witness present at every deed, good or evil, of our lives.
Conscience should always tell the truth, and tell it with certainty. Practically, this is not always the case. We are sometimes certain that a thing is right when it is really wrong. There are therefore two kinds of conscience: a true and a certain conscience, and they are far from being one and the same thing. A true conscience speaks the truth, that is, tells us what is truly right and truly wrong. It is a genuine echo of the voice of God. A certain conscience, whether it speaks the truth or not, speaks with assurance, without a suspicion of error, and its voice carries conviction. When we act in accordance with the first, we are right; we may know it, doubt it or think it probable, but we are right in fact. When we obey the latter, we know, we are sure that we are right, but it is possible that we be in error. A true conscience, therefore, may be certain or uncertain; a certain conscience may be true or erroneous.
A true conscience is not the rule of morality. It must be certain. It is not necessary that it be true, although this is always to be desired and, in the normal state of things, should be the case. But true or false, it must be certain. The reason is obvious. God judges us according as we do good or evil. Our merit or demerit is dependent upon our responsibility. We are responsible only for the good or evil we know we do. Knowledge and certainty come from a certain conscience, and yet not from a true conscience which may be doubtful.
Now, suppose we are in error, and think we are doing something good, whereas it is in reality evil. We perceive no malice in the deed, and, in performing it, there is consequently no malice in us, we do not sin. The act is said to be materially evil, but formally good; and for such evil, God cannot hold us responsible. Suppose again that we err, and that the evil we think we do is really good. In this instance, first, the law of morality is violated - a certain, though erroneous, conscience: this is sinful. Secondly, a bad motive vitiates an act even if the deed in itself be good. Consequently, we incur guilt and God's wrath by the commission of such a deed, which is materially good, but formally bad.
One may wonder and say: "how can guilt attach to doing good?" Guilt attaches to formal evil, that is, evil that is shown to us by our conscience and committed by us as such. The wrong comes, not from the object of our doing which is good, but from the intention which is bad. It is true that nothing is good that is not thoroughly good, that a thing is bad only when there is something lacking in its goodness, that evil is a defect of goodness; but formal evil alone can be imputed to us and material cannot. The one is a conscious, the other an unconscious defect. Here, an erroneous conscience is obeyed; there, the same conscience is disregarded. And that kind of a conscience is the rule of morality; to go against it is to sin.
There are times when we have no certitude. The conscience may have nothing to say concerning the honesty of a cause to which we are about to commit ourselves. This state of uncertainty and perplexity is called doubt. To doubt is to suspend judgment; a dubious conscience is one that does not function.
In doubt the question may be: "To do; is it right or wrong? May I perform this act, or must I abstain therefrom?" In this case, we inquire whether it be lawful or unlawful to go on, but we are sure that it is lawful not to act. There is but one course to pursue. We must not commit ourselves and must refrain from acting until such a time, at least, as, by inquiring and considering, we shall have obtained sufficient evidence to convince us that we may allow ourselves this liberty without incurring guilt. If, on the contrary, while still doubting, we persist in committing the act, we sin, because, in all affairs of right and wrong, we must follow a certain conscience as the standard of morality.
But the question may be: "To do or not to do; which is right and which is wrong?" Here we know not which way to turn, fearing evil in either alternative. We must do one thing or the other. There are reasons and difficulties on both sides. We are unable to resolve the difficulties, lay the doubt, and form a sure conscience. What must we do?
If all action can be momentarily suspended, and we have the means of consulting, we must abstain from action and consult. If the affair is urgent, and this cannot be done. If we must act on the spot and decide for ourselves, then, we can make that dubious conscience prudently certain by applying this principle to our conduct: "Of two evils, choose the lesser." We therefore judge which action involves the least amount of evil. We may embrace the course thus chosen without a fear of doing wrong. If we have inadvertently chosen the greater evil, it is an error of judgment for which we are in nowise responsible before God. But this means must be employed only where all other and surer means fail. The certainty we thereby acquire is a prudent certainty, and is sufficient to guarantee us against offending.