Shrinking Conscience

It is understandable that in an election year officeholders and those seeking office will seek to marshall their political allies by appealing to their interests. Sometimes those interests, though local or “special,” can be tolerated as part of the give-and-take of political bargaining, so long as they do not affect the public good or the social order in a significant way.  Not all concessions to special interests are the same.

The recent HHS ruling (Jan. 20) that would force many health service providers to choose between conscience and providing their employees with insurance – practically speaking, a choice between compromising their moral integrity and closing – is a particularly good illustration of how such a political maneuver can lead to the corrosion of a foundational principal of our constitutional republic: freedom of conscience.
The Supreme Court has developed an elaborate jurisprudence that has come to embrace freedom of conscience as within the orbit of First Amendment rights.  Religion is not now – if it ever was – constitutionally limited to the freedom to pray privately or in a religious house of worship.

Free exercise extends beyond the sacristy and into the market place and public arena where actions, based on conscience, are neither constrained nor restrained except where the maintenance of public order might require certain limitations or regulations. In this understanding of religious freedom – that includes peaceful actions according to conscience – there is no fundamental conflict between constitutional law and Catholic Church doctrine.

The late John Courtney Murray, S.J., whose thought and writings contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of religious liberty, as articulated most eloquently in Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II, was particularly cognizant of the rational foundations of both church doctrine and American constitutional law on this issue. That understanding, however, is now in jeopardy.

People of all ideological persuasions should be concerned about the HHS ruling because it goes beyond partisan politics. Erosion of anyone’s rights of conscience affects everyone else’s. The premise of the ruling is that freedom of conscience is merely a matter of what one thinks and believes within, but does not extend fully to the right to acts based on or constraints on those beliefs.  This is alien the First Amendment, constitutional jurisprudence on the rights of conscience, public policy, sound reasoning upon which our own teaching is based and – above all – the nature and dignity of the free human person. It is not just as “Catholic” or “Christian” matter, but a human rights issue.

Catholic moral teaching has never been rooted exclusively in divine revelation as accessible to believers in Scripture and traditional. St. Paul recognized the law of God written in the hearts even of non-believers (cf. Romans 1:18-23). Ethical dialogue in a secular society requires common understandings that can be derived from “right reason” – which is fundamentally how St. Thomas Aquinas understood the natural moral law.

It has been opined by some pundits that Newt Gingrich has Bill Clinton to thank for his “successful” dismissal of a former spouse’s accusations of morally egregious behavior. But not without some acquiescence from their generation’s “sexual revolution” which flaunted sexual behavior as irrelevant to the social order.  Now we see, in this soap opera like diorama, how any instance of an erosion of moral principle, eventually spawns new episodes.

The deterioration of one person’s conscience is one thing and a sad tragedy in its own right. The erosion of the conscience rights of an entire nation, however, is a recipe for its demise.