Conscience. Natural law.

They’re terms we've heard countless times before. They occupy the broad contexts of public debate and juridical consideration, places where they are invoked as principles of moral reasoning, legal significance, and natural and constitutional rights.

What is the natural law? Ask five lawyers and they could give you five different answers. Ask five philosophers and you could well get more than five different answers. What is conscience? Ask many of the people familiar with the word and you’re liable not to get a very clear answer, if you get one at all.

Recently, and due largely to the buzz surrounding the Health and Human Services Department’s controversial insurance mandate, conscience and natural law have come to the forefront of a national Catholic conversation. The American Catholic bishops have been as adamant in their opposition to the mandate on conscientious grounds as have many Catholics who fiercely defend the mandate (and their sexual choices) on the same principle. Many Catholics justify dissent from Magisterial authority by invoking conscience, while the Church insists that one’s conscience must be educated and formed in accordance with the Church’s moral teaching.

In light of such confusing and contradictory claims, one wonders: what does the Church really have to say about conscience? About natural law? Are the two related? If so, how? These questions are hardly political questions (and so may seem out of place here in The Purposeful Polis), but they assuredly have political implications. A sound understanding of conscience and natural law is an essential component to any authentic Catholic witness or evangelization effort in the public domain.


Saint Paul, writing before the first of the canonical Gospels was recorded, makes one of the earliest Christian connections of natural law and conscience. His “law written on the human heart” passage is well-known (with my emphasis added throughout):

All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it; and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified.

(Luther is rolling in his grave.)
 For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul’s juxtaposition of conscience and natural law is not accidental. For him, one’s conscience bears witness to the law written on the heart; one knows the natural law through his conscience, which holds him accountable to the law. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, agree. They “recall the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles. Man's conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles.” The single most influential figure in the Church’s conscience and natural law tradition is Thomas Aquinas, as his work directed and paved the way for centuries of natural law theorizing.

St. Thomas, whose philosophical heirs today continue most forcefully to propound natural law theory, ably infused the medieval Church’s understanding of natural law with his Scholastic philosophy. In De Veritate, Thomas makes a distinction between two levels, or faculties, of “conscience” – synderesis and conscientia. Synderesis, for Thomas, is the innate habit of the practical intellect whereby man grasps or is aware of the precepts of the natural law that guide human choice and action. The very first principle of practical reasoning (FPPR) is “good is to be pursued and acted upon, and evil is to be avoided.” This principle is the cornerstone of all practical reasoning.

thomas_aquinas_in_stained_glass_cropWhat does it mean to say that synderesis is an innate intellective habit? Thomas wrote elsewhere, “the natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.” Synderesis is a name given to our capacity to know the precepts of the natural law.

The analogy of the FPPR to light is an illuminating one. Just as we don’t see light but see according to light or by light, we don’t “perceive” the FPPR through synderesis. The FPPR is self-evident upon reflection, and is axiomatic because one must functionally assume the truth of the FPPR in order to attempt to justify or deny it. You cannot not act in accord with the FPPR.

It’s important not to conflate two separate things: the habit (synderesis) whereby we grasp or know the FPPR and the precepts of natural law, and those principles themselves which make up the content of that innate habit. Man doesn’t “possess” or “create” natural law; he is aware of it in his conscience as a prior, a given; he receives the precepts of natural law as from a lawful authority. The precepts of the natural law, which outline what is good and not good for man, are “determined” so to say, by man’s nature (since what is good for man is dependent on man’s ontological “makeup”), but natural law is not synonymous with Kantian deontology because natural law is not constituted of precepts specific to rational natures but to human nature specifically. The precepts of natural law do not stipulate how any and all rational beings must act in accord with right reason; they stipulate what is good for human beings. Angels are rational creatures but are non-human and incorporeal; natural law would be (is) constituted by different norms, rights, and duties for angels than it is for us. For example, there are not angelic goods of marriage, health or life, since angels have no bodies.

The second “part” of conscience, conscientia, is the act whereby we witness to truth and apply knowledge of the first principles to particular circumstances; we analyze past choices, judge present choices, and deliberate on future choices. Hence, it is to conscientia that the Catechism refers when it instructs, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.”

In light of the HHS mandate and its wake, it’s apparent that there is general confusion amongst Catholics regarding conscientia. First, when someone says, “I can’t in good conscience do X,” it does not follow that X is an immoral type of act. It could very well be the case that due to one’s circumstances or the demands of one’s vocation, one conscientiously avoids acts or commitments that are themselves good types of acts. Or the act itself could be immoral. One can conscientiously abstain from acting for either reason.

Furthermore, one can never act against one’s conscience. “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself,” the Catechism tells us. Regarding the deliberations of conscience, “some rules apply in every case: One may never do evil so that good may result from it; [and] the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’" It is never morally permissible to do what one believes to be immoral, whether the type of act in consideration is itself morally permissible or not.

However, while one’s conscience always binds in this sense, it does not always justify. That is, one is not absolved of moral culpability for doing, in good conscience, what is in reality an immoral type of act if that act can be known to be wrong via natural law (i.e. is not a revealed law of which the person has no awareness). It is not the case that, since to act against your conscience is always wrong, acting in accord with your conscience cannot be wrong; it can be, and for many people, it is. Conscience is not a personal defensive sphere of infallibility, the final interior arbiter of what is true and good. Were this the case, moral relativism would displace transcendent, objective truth, since what is true would be synonymous with what is believed to be true.

Moses_10-Commandments-Tablets_by-RembrandtThe Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – is often cited as a robust expression of the natural law. (Not all of the Decalogue’s injunctions are precepts of natural law; it contains revealed law as well – keep holy the Sabbath day). You may notice something about the commandments of the Decalogue – they’re mostly negative imperatives. Many of the precepts of natural law proscribe only those actions that are incompatible with human flourishing, which types of acts harm basic human goods or the integrity of those goods together as a whole. When people complain that God apparently doesn’t want us to have much fun, they have negative imperatives in mind. “Don’t sleep with her!” “You shouldn’t say that!” “Don’t take that, it’s not yours!” “Don’t drink so much!”

The natural law is not just expressed through negative imperatives, however. Why would some types of actions be intrinsically evil if not for the fact that in committing such actions you violate or harm the pursuit or possession of some quality that is intrinsically good for man, and/or to which man has a right? Murder is a negative imperative, but murder is intrinsically wrong because life is a human good and also a human right. So you might say that the negative imperatives of the natural law – precepts, known by the practical intellect, prescribing what types of acts to avoid always and everywhere – safeguard the positive goods (which are also discernible through conscience) the pursuit and attainment of which do make up the “good life” for man. The Catechism again: “The natural law provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices.”

The Catechism also nicely illustrates this foundational quality of natural law. The Church distinguishes four separate but interrelated “expressions of the moral law,” which is “the work of divine Wisdom...God’s pedagogy.” It prescribes for man the rules of conduct that lead to the promised beatitude:

1) eternal law – the source, in God, of all law;

2) natural law;

3) revealed law, comprising the Old Law and the New Law, or Law of the Gospel;

4) finally, civil and ecclesiastical laws.

Perhaps surprisingly, apart from the law of God’s own being (eternal law – logos), natural law is the “highest” and most binding expression of the moral law, even more so than revealed law or the laws of the Church. Natural law is more foundational than even the revealed law expressed definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, and in fact it makes perfectly intelligible the way in which natural law arguments are commonly invoked in the public square. Regardless of one’s convictions or commitments, there are fundamental truths of the moral law that are discernible to man not because he is Catholic or American or a theist or a philosopher but because he is human. Since natural law is “prior” even to Christ’s revelation, it makes sense that even those who have never heard of Christ or who have rejected him outright can still be expected to know the natural law – Saint Paul knew as much 2,000 years ago.

What of the alleged universality of natural law? Why do so many people “not get” natural law?

In the Catechism we read that “the precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known.” Furthermore, “application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances.” Sin and concupiscence have mired our ability to grasp the precepts of the natural law. Hence the gift of the Decalogue; grace and revelation crowning and bringing to perfection what nature and natural law can make known, but have a hard time doing just that.

Recall the second level of conscience, conscientia, the application of the precepts of natural law to specific acts. Taking the case of murder defined as the intentional killing of innocent human life: really nobody, at no time and nowhere, thinks murder is okay. People have and will disagree enormously on what constitutes intentional killing and on who qualifies as innocent or human, but the reality of Eskimo infanticide practices or genocidal horrors such as the Holocaust does not weaken natural law arguments in the least. Indeed it strengthens them. Knowledge of the precepts of natural law is remarkably universal. The application of natural law principles varies widely. The Church not only acknowledges but predicts this discrepancy.

Notice that the Church’s natural law language is pointedly theological, or at least decidedly not philosophical. The Church endorses the reality of natural law and the conclusions of natural law, if you will, but makes no formal commitment to the philosophical system that most simply and lucidly yields those conclusions; hence the disagreements even between Thomistic natural lawyers to settle on “the right natural law system.” Indeed it behooves the Church not to do so, since she lacks the proper competence to enthrone a given philosophical system as the way to think about natural law. The Church teaches (Catechism again!) that natural law, as the “light of understanding placed in us by God,” “immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history,” “expresses the dignity of the human person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties.” There can be and is plenty of room for scholarly disagreement about the philosophical nature of the Church’s natural law perspective; how to solve the is-ought problem, the role of teleology in deriving norms from human nature, how many human goods are enumerable and so forth.

Especially due to the presence of what I call “religious liberalism” in American Catholicism – a spiritual mentality, incompatible with the Church’s perspective on the symphony between natural law, conscience and Magisterial authority, which views that authority as the enemy of conscience – and in the course of the New Evangelization, which Pope Francis will surely continue to emphasize, we American Catholics would do well to educate ourselves more fully in both the Church’s rich natural law tradition and its beautiful teachings on conscience. By doing so, we will be better public citizens, more able to advocate on behalf of public morality and to articulate and defend the rights and dignity of the human person and his conscience.