Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The difference between a certain and a correct conscience

There is a difference in meaning between a certain and a correct conscience. The term "correct" describes the objective truth of the person's judgment, that in fact his conscience represents the real state of things. The term "certain" describes the subjective state of the person judging, how firmly he holds to his assent and how thoroughly he has excluded fear of the opposite. The kind of certitude which is meant here is a subjective certitude, which may easily exist along with objective error. It follows then that we have two possibilities here:

1. A certain and correct conscience.

2. A certain but erroneous conscience.

Now, a certain and correct conscience offers no difficulty and our obligation is therefore clear. A certain and correct conscience is merely the moral law promulgated to the individual and applied to to his own individual act. But the moral law must always be obeyed. Consequently, a certain and correct conscience must be obeyed. And what degree of certitude is required? It is sufficient that the individual's conscience be prudentially certain. Prudential certitude is not absolute but relative. As such, it excludes all prudent fear that the opposite may be true, but does not rule out imprudent fears which are based upon bare possibilities. The reasons are convincing enough to satisfy a normally prudent man in an important matter and this results in that individual feeling safe in practice while there is a theoretical chance of his being incorrect. In such a case, the individual has taken every reasonable precaution but he cannot guarantee against rare contingencies and "freaks of nature."

In moral matters, a complete mathematical certitude is not to be expected. This because when there is question of action, of something to be done in the here and now, but which also involves future consequences (some of which are dependent upon the wills of other individuals), the absolute possibility of error cannot be entirely excluded. However, it can be so reduced that no prudent man, one who is free of neurotic whimsies, would be deterred from acting through fear of it. Therefore, prudential certitude, since it excludes all reasonable fear of error, is much more than high probability, which fails to exclude such reasonable fear.

What happens when an individual is in possession of an erroneous conscience? That depends. If the error is vincible, it must be corrected. In such a case, the person knows that he may be wrong, is able to correct the possible error, and is obliged to do so before acting. A vincibly erroneous conscience cannot be a certain conscience. This is easily demonstrated. For example, an individual may have a merely probable opinion which he neglects to verify, (through laziness or fear of discovering that he is in fact in error), although he is able to do so. Or perhaps he may have judged certainly and yet erroneously at one point, but now begins to doubt whether or not his judgment was in fact correct. For as long as this individual did not realize his error, his conscience was invincibly erroneous; the error becomes vincible at the precise moment that the individual is no longer subjectively certain and has begun to doubt. Anyone who has read Dr. Scott Hahn's personal conversion story will recall that, when he realized the truth of Catholic teaching and that the Catholic Church was in fact the Church founded by Christ, he knew he had a responsibility to enter that Church. I would also refer readers to Lumen Gentium, No. 14 which deals with this subject.

If an error is invincible, there appears to be a dilemma. On the one hand, it doesn't seem right that a person should be obliged to follow an erroneous judgment; on the other, the individual is not aware of being in error and has no means of correcting it. But this dilemma is solved by recalling that conscience is a subjective guide to conduct, that invincible error and ignorance are unavoidable, that any wrong which occurs is not done voluntarily and therefore may not be charged to the agent. An individual acting with an invincibly erroneous conscience may in fact do something that is objectively wrong. However, since he does not recognize it as such it is not subjectively wrong. Such a person is thereby free of guilt by the invincible ignorance which is bound up in his error.

Conclusion: The will depends on the intellect to present the good to it. The will-act is good so long as it tends to the good presented by the intellect. It is bad or deficient if it tends to what the intellect judges evil. Invincible error in the intellect does not change the goodness or badness of the will-act, in which morality essentially consists. If an individual is firmly convinced that his or her action is right, that person is obeying the moral law to the degree that he or she can. If that same individual is firmly convinced that his or her action is wrong, that person is disobeying the moral law in intention, even though the act may not be objectively wrong.

I would recommend a thorough read of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say with regard to forming a correct conscience.

God love you all,
Until next time
Paul Anthony Melanson

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