George Weigel complains that “voices have been heard urging a view of conscience that is curious, even dangerous.” What view of conscience could that be? Weigel describes it like this:
Under certain circumstances, conscience may permit or even require that a person choose acts that the Church has consistently taught are intrinsically wrong—such as using artificial means of contraception, or receiving Holy Communion while living the married life in a union that’s not been blessed by the Church.
That is certainly a curious way of paraphrasing the following view of conscience from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia:
Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
It’s an odd paraphrase because people whose freedom is compromised by weakness or external pressures do not “choose acts that the Church has consistently taught are intrinsically wrong.” Such people are not free to choose wrong acts, they choose the wrong acts because they are not free. Get it? It’s a completely different starting point.
But since no impediment to moral freedom can be imagined by a Pelagian, this faulty assumption that people are “choosing” or getting “permission” to do evil actions guarantees false conclusions. So Weigel goes on…
‘If, for example, “conscience” can command me to use artificial means of contraception because of my life circumstances, why couldn’t conscience permit, or even require, that I continue to defraud customers if my business is in debt and my family would suffer from its failure, even as I work my way into a better, more honest financial situation? Why couldn’t “conscience” permit me, on my journey toward the “ideal,” to continue to indulge in extracurricular sex while my spouse and I work out the kinks in our marriage? Inside the idea that “conscience” can permit or even require us to do something long understood to be wrong, period, where’s the circuit-breaker that would stop a couple from “discerning” that an abortion is the best resolution of the difficulties involved in carrying this unborn child to term, although under future circumstances they would embrace the “ideal” and welcome a child into their family’
Well let’s take Ratzinger’s example of the prostitute that starts using condoms out of a newfound concern for the safety of his partners. Ratzinger admits that nothing about this scenario is a real objective moral solution. The prostitute has a long way to go before he is in conformity with the law. Nonetheless he is taking steps in the right direction, and why should we deny that these steps are taken under God’s influence?
Does that mean that God is asking him to be a prostitute or giving him a free pass to fornicate? Or is God, through his conscience, helping him to be concerned for the first time about some of the consequences of his actions, and to see what good he could do under such limited circumstances? What the prostitute is doing is not morally defined by what he is compelled to do, but what he is able to do with the freedom that he actually possesses. Likewise, what God is asking of the prostitute at that moment cannot be characterized by what the prostitute has no control over, but only by what the prostitue can positively achieve within his particular sphere of freedom.
Weigel is making the same claim as Josef Seifert that this “dangerous” view of conscience means that “we can know with ‘a certain moral security’ that God himself asks us to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts, such as adultery or active homosexuality.” But that’s not what is happening, that is a false characterization. Aquinas wrote that a moral act takes its “species” from deliberate reason, and so whenever this deliberateness is taken away by weakness or ignorance, that “species” is destroyed. You can not fairly describe the action of a mother who walks out of a grocery store with a candy bar her toddler threw into the basket as “shoplifting”. That species never came into existence because she never became aware that her basket contained items that she didn’t pay for.
To continue to characterize her action that way is slander. Weigel and Seifert are slandering the weak and the ignorant. They use ‘objectivity’ to obscure the moral reality of the person. And they are slandering God because they can’t understand the difference between commanding evil and tolerating it. God isn’t asking the prostitute to continue being a prostitute. But the prostitute will continue to be a prostitute for some time while God shows him or her a way forward and empowers their steps. Read again Weigel’s characterization of Pope Francis’ view of conscience – the whole description is a lie.
Pelagians are scandalized by the idea that God would dwell with the sinner in his or her darkness and help them even when it means remaining in the darkness with them for possibly a long time. They like God the law giver, they don’t like their God mingling with prostitutes. Conscience can do more than simply recognize that a situation doesn’t conform to God’s law. It can also recognize and be at peace with what is the next step to take on a gradual journey to conformity. Those are the options.
God keeps his hands clean until man helps himself to conformity; “God helps those who help themselves”, which is essentially the Pelagian heresy. Or Pope Francis is correct that God dwells in the sinner’s conscience, helping and guiding the sinner even in the midst of continuing sin, tolerating the irregular situation for the sake of transformation and conversion. The God who humbled himself to take the form of a slave does not hesitate to dwell with human beings that really are slaves.
Weigel also makes the obligatory reference to Trent.
“The Council of Trent taught that it’s always possible, with the help of God’s grace, to obey the commandments—that God wills our transformation and helps us along the way to holiness.”
Yes indeed, those that like to quote this council should think hard about what is implied by “transformation” and whether or not one could be helped “along the way” without there being any steps at all. Trent does not support the Pelagian fallacy of “immediatism“. Pope Francis has made it clear that grace does not make us strong or perfect all at once. “Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities” (GE 50).
So it’s Weigel’s view of conscience that is curious. And what is dangerous (for the Pelagian-minded), is simply the boundless tolerance of divine mercy.
Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer, amateur pianist non-theologian. Used to live amongst the Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.