17 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson – Conscience – doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it

Conscience – Doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it.


In the opinion of many scholars, the most radical changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council concerned religious liberty. For some 1500 years the Catholic Church had held that truth alone had rights, while error had no rights, that the Catholic Church alone contained the complete truth, so it alone had rights that other groups did not have.

The Council marked a radical departure from these teachings, for it said that it is people who have rights, not truth or error, and that people retain their rights even when they are in error. On this basis it defended the right of all people to religious liberty.

The Council tried to say that these statements were merely a development of past ideas, but it is impossible to accept this notion. A French bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, left the Catholic Church after the Council and took a significant number of people with him. The teaching on religious liberty was one of his major reasons for leaving, for in one moment the Council reversed some fifteen hundred years of history.


Despite this radical change, to a moral theologian the Second Vatican Council can be a disappointment, for it contains many ambiguities and even contradictions on the subject of conscience. At times it appears to say that people should follow their consciences, at other times it appears to say that conscience must always follow the teaching authority of the church.

Compare two quotations from the same document, Gaudium et Spes. The first speaks of the nature of conscience.

“Deep within their conscience men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves, but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love, and to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For people have within their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity lies in observing this law, and by it they will be judged. The conscience is the individual’s most secret core and sanctuary. There each person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his or her depths.”

The second quotation applies conscience to the question of birth control.

“In the end, it is the married couple themselves who make this judgement before God. In their way of acting, however, Christian couples should be aware that they cannot proceed solely according to their own ideas, but must always be ruled by a conscience that seeks to follow the divine law, and they must be docile to the teaching authority of the Church, which authentically interprets the divine law in the light of the Gospel.”

It is important to realise that this ambiguity on the subject of conscience exists within the Council itself. It would be wrong to quote either side as being the authentic and consistent teaching of the Council. It must be admitted that the Council was reflecting a very long history of division on this point and that it was unable to resolve the tension.

Since the Council this ambivalence continues to exist and has, indeed, been sharpened. On the one hand, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor says,

“The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience”.

On the other hand, there has been a constant insistence that people must conform their thinking to the teaching of the church. The two critical issues have been contraception and the ordination of women. Separately or together they have frequently been the litmus test of orthodoxy and loyalty.

Is there a way forward? In answering this question, it is important to understand that there was much development of ideas over the four years of the Council and one must trace this development in order to understand where the Council was heading. Often we cannot draw certain conclusions as to what it would have said if it had had more time, but we can see directions. There is one trend in particular that I believe is of the greatest importance to the issue of conscience.

Doing Right Things and Taking Responsibility

It concerns the statement that doing right things and taking responsibility for our actions are both essential to morality.

“Human dignity therefore requires us to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in ourselves or by mere external constraint. We gain such dignity when … we press forward towards our goal by freely choosing what is good….”

“By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness.”

“The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.”

Performing right actions and avoiding wrong ones is an essential part of moral growth.

In the midst of a powerful history of communal or tribal hatreds, a certain person makes a genuine conscience decision before God alone that he should take part in the massacre of his perceived enemies and does so. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, I would be compelled to say that his very dignity lies in following his conscience, even when he is wrong. Despite this, I would have to add that his decision has hurt him. He has become a murderer, and for the rest of his life, whenever he looks in a mirror, that it what he will see. To make serious progress as a human being, he would need to recognise that his decision in conscience was wrong, and he would need to do all he could to repair the damage he had caused.

For growth as moral persons, however, more is required than simply performing right actions. It is also required that we take personal responsibility for our choice of actions.

As children grow, it is important that they learn right habits, but it is also important that they gradually learn to take responsibility for their own actions. If they learn wrong habits from their parents, or if they rebel against their parents and adopt wrong habits themselves, they will encounter problems. But if they do not learn to take responsibility for their own actions, obedience to parents will gradually become an obstacle rather than a help to their true growth as persons. If this is true in all aspects of their life, it is true also of their moral life.

There are persons who, because of fear or laziness, do not want to take personal responsibility for moral choices. They want either the Bible or church authority or a charismatic leader or popular opinion or a peer group to take the responsibility for them, so that all that will be left to them is to follow this authority. This cannot be called “the very dignity” of these persons, for they have not taken personal responsibility for their decisions and will not grow as they should. Mere obedience, to either religious authority or popular opinion, is not “the very dignity” of a person.

Thus it is important that we take personal responsibility for our decisions and it is also important that we get them right. We will not grow unless we take personal responsibility for our actions. But, even if we do take personal responsibility, we will still not grow if our decisions are wrong ones, that is, if they harm other people or our own true good. For growth both of these elements are essential.

Assisting Conscience

If we apply this idea, it must follow that the task of church authority in the moral field is that of assisting consciences.

There is a twin danger in this idea. For individual persons the danger is that of speaking of conscience when they have not done the work necessary to justify the use of this word, when they do no more than go along with the crowd or decide what they would like to do and call that “conscience”. This is a constant danger for every single person and much that is called “conscience” does not deserve that name.

The danger for church authority, on the other hand, is to think, “We have a responsibility and an authority to teach in the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if people had formed their consciences correctly, they would agree with us. If they don’t agree with us, they can’t have formed their consciences properly and must be in bad faith.”

There is a constant tug-of-war between these two forces. The solution is surely to be found in a constant dialogue between two parties who both want the best possible outcome for the individual. Let us look at some of the elements of this dialogue.

Individual and Community

As need arises, I am in dialogue with a mechanic concerning my car, a doctor concerning my health, an insurance company concerning my insurance needs, and so on. It does not make sense to call myself a member of a church community and not be in dialogue with that community on moral matters. Within this community conscience can never be an autonomous moral sense.

It is not possible for individuals to form their consciences on all matters entirely on their own. People can form their consciences only by humbly joining with many others in the search for truth. One of the very first requirements of a true conscience is humility.

The Force of Arguments

In fact and in practice, the effectiveness of any document setting out moral teaching will always depend first and foremost on the power of the arguments contained in the document. The authority of the writer will never be able to make up for a lack of power in the arguments. A document containing powerful and persuasive arguments written by a person with little authority will always be more convincing than a document lacking persuasive arguments written by a person with great authority. If the arguments in a document fail to convince even people of good will, no amount of authority will make up for this.

Furthermore, if people are convinced by the arguments put forward, they will make a decision based on personal conviction and will be ready to take responsibility for the decision. If they are quite unconvinced by the arguments presented and do something only because of the authority of the person who wrote the document, they will not take the same degree of responsibility for the decision and will not grow in the same way.

The Importance of Authority

Despite what has just been said, authority does matter. If I am sick, I want the opinion of a qualified doctor rather than the opinion of someone ignorant of medicine. Sometimes I might want a second medical opinion or a referral to a specialist, but it is undeniable that in most matters authority does count.

I must, of course, decide whether I will accept the word of the doctor. There will be many factors involved in this decision, and one of them will usually be whether the doctor takes the time to explain to me exactly what is wrong and what needs to be done. In other words, I will have most faith in those authorities who do not rely on authority alone, but who attempt to lead me as far as possible along the road of making my own informed decision.

The Power of Collective Wisdom

In assessing a moral authority, one of the criteria will usually be whether the opinion expressed represents the collective wisdom of the whole community or only the private wisdom of an individual or group, no matter who that individual or group may be. As a matter of fact rather than theory, the documents of the Second Vatican Council carry a greater weight with Catholic people than documents written by a pope alone.

Infallible Advice?

It is a contradiction in terms to speak of infallible advice to conscience. If a statement is presented as infallibly true, it is no longer advice.

Over the centuries popes have sometimes made infallible statements on dogmatic matters, that is, on what people should or should not believe, but no pope of the past ever attempted to make an infallible statement on a moral matter, that is, on what people should or should not do.

The reason that concerns us here is that an infallible moral statement would subvert the role of conscience. Moral statements can be more or less certain and they can be made with more or less authority. But if they are to respect the essential role of conscience in moral growth, they must stop short of infallibility.

A Positive Role for Church Authority

The world of today often seems to present to people, on the one hand, a dogmatic and authoritarian church and, on the other hand, the total freedom of the individual, and then ask: Which of these two do you prefer? To this I must reply: Why should we choose either of these extremes? Can not a greater truth be found in the middle? I see four roles for the church.

Educating to the Use of Conscience

The first is to assist people to educate themselves in the fields of conscience and moral principles.

In relation to conscience, the church should help people to understand what is and what is not conscience, how it works, how one forms a conscience properly, and the dangers to be aware of in the difficult and subtle world of moral decision making.

In relation to moral principles, the church must not present a long series of statements beginning with “Thou shalt not…” for a negative morality cannot be an adequate basis for a person’s life. It must be a positive morality, consisting of positive principles, eg. “How can I best witness to truth and justice in this situation?” “How can I best help to bring peace and understanding between these persons in conflict?” “What can I do in this situation that will best help both others and myself to grow towards perfect love?”

Since such principles require a profound sense of realism and honesty, the church should then seek to give to people the best spiritual-moral insights it can from the Scriptures, the great saints and the whole Christian tradition. The better people are educated in the field of moral principles, the better they will be able to make moral decisions and the more they will grow.

Guidance in Moral Matters

The second role I see for the Christian church is to present its position on many issues that commonly arise in the lives of people. In doing so, the church must not rely simply on the moral authority of its leaders. Rather, it should always present the arguments in favour of its position as fully and as fairly as it can, that is, it should rely above all on the force of its arguments.

Indeed, I believe that in all such statements the church should first present as fully and as fairly as it can the case against its own position. If it does this, it will truly be assisting people to make mature decisions in conscience before God alone. There is one obvious condition.

“Your exposition of your opponent’s beliefs should be so accurate, so true to his beliefs, that he will gladly sign his name at the bottom of your exposition as a witness to its accuracy.”

If the Christian church acquired a reputation for putting the arguments against its own views as powerfully, clearly and honestly as they can be put, its credibility would soar dramatically. If people were able to say, “You will never see the arguments in favour of this action put more clearly than they are in the document of the Christian church”, they might really start listening to the moral arguments the church gives against that action.

Protecting the Community

The third role is a more negative one, but necessary. A community must protect its members against the decisions of individuals that harm other people, even when they are made in conscience. Just as the state will imprison a person who commits murder, so a church community must dismiss from a teaching post a person who displays racial hatred to some students. Because harm is being caused to people, neither the state nor the church will accept conscience as a defence. There are serious difficulties and dangers in this field, but it cannot be ignored.

Encouraging People

The fourth role I see for the church is the important one of giving constant encouragement to people to believe in God’s love and God’s assistance, to have the courage to face the challenges that confront them, and to make all the conscience decisions they need to make. The church should encourage people not to seek an easy way out, but to grow through challenges towards all they are capable of being. It can encourage them to have faith that they can grow to heights they have not dreamed of.

As children grow up, their parents must finally stand back and allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from these mistakes. If the children abuse their freedom, the parents can only hope that the day will come when they see that their actions are not contributing to their growth, health or happiness, and will want to change. It is important that, through all of this process, however long it takes, the parents keep their relationship with their children, so that the children will know they are there and will turn to them when they feel the need. A church should act in the same way.

(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is auxiliary bishop of Sydney.