The metaphysics of being and the Social Doctrine of the Church Montefiascone, 7 November 2016

On the occasion of the recent conference on “Conscience without rights?” held in Rome on 21 October in the meeting hall of the Palazzo of Parliamentary Groups, the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin sent the Center a very meaningful message focused on the theme of the Conference, on conscience. The Cardinal’s words are to be considered in depth and accorded due value insofar as they single out both current difficulties in the notion of conscience, and ways to emerge from the contradictory swamp of conscience as the absolute source of rights, but precisely for this reason losing all rights. If each conscience has a right to everything, and this to the point of determining what is right and what is wrong all on its own, it also becomes possible to argue that conscience has no right to anything if the principle is expressed in conscience. If the criterion is not the content of truth, but the pure expression of an act of conscience, it therefore becomes possible to sustain in all conscience that conscientious objection on one or another point is not admissible. This is conscience without rights.

Cardinal Parolin refers to a conscience based on a “structured and value related vision of the human person”, and, conversely,  to a conscience based “on a very fluid and perhaps even liquid vision of a person uprooted from solid points of reference according to a misunderstood idea of liberty”. In a liquid conscience regime each conscience is an absolute, and hence beginning is conflict between and among consciences. With each conscience pursuing nothing but self-consistency, the sole criterion for the settlement of conflicts will be recourse to might. Hence, legislation regarding “new rights” increasingly refrains from contemplating the right to conscientious objection. How is it possible, people ask, that in a liquid conscience regime where conscience can decide everything, it is forbidden to obey one’s conscience by exercising the right to conscientious objection?   The reason for this resides in the prohibition to sustain in conscience that conscience can decide everything. Admitted is the fact that conscience can decide everything, except for one thing: that conscience may decide that deciding everything is erroneous.  Anyone who argues that there is something that comes before conscience and limits it is forced to accept the principle that there are no limits to conscience. In this manner the state and legislation force conscience to accept that nothing must be imposed upon conscience. Note well the more than apparent oddity of this situation: imposed upon people is the duty not to accept impositions. Here lies the contradiction: it is said that nothing must be imposed upon conscience, but this principle is then imposed in an absolute and dogmatic manner.

The Secretary of State also listed the “limits” of conscience which the new ideology considers we should liberate ourselves from, and linked this with distorted notions of liberty. The limits would be “nature, ethics, religion and the selfsame humanistic culture”. Implicit is the reference to the new ideological currents of thought that also want to entrust the very nature of the individual person, his sexed identity, and what is understood by family relations and the meaning of procreation to the judgment of conscience. The new ideology wants to make it compulsory to liberate self from these “limits”. Worthy of note here is the same contradiction indicated above: the obligation to liberty. Liberty can liberate itself from everything, but cannot liberate itself from the idea of liberating self from everything. It is forbidden to sustain that liberty has limits, but this is necessary in order for liberty to have a sense. Actually evident is the propensity to impose a liberty bereft of sense. Then again, a liberty imposed by  power can be nothing else than this.

It is evident that such a notion of conscience and liberty generates disaggregation and individualism on one hand, and impositions by political power on the other hand. This is the old story of private and public. Areas of great public importance – such as life, the family and procreation – are privatized and surrendered unto a completely free conscience. At the same time, however, this is done by means of a resolute act of political imposition, that is to say with the prohibition to orient conscience according to “nature, ethics, religion and the selfsame humanistic culture”, to cite the cardinal’s words. I don’t think people are sufficiently aware of these specifically political consequences of the theme of conscience. 

Cardinal Parolin concludes his Message to the Livatino Study Center with two observations. One has to do with the importance of conscience in the Catholic vision, and the other with the formation of conscience. In this way he has provided food for thought to open new pathways of true freedom of conscience. Conscience is first of all ‘conscientious I’ in the sense of I being able to look within myself as well as at things. Understood in this manner, conscience evokes the personal soul, the spirituality of the individual, who is able to assess and judge the situations of and in life which are all contingent with respect to conscience. Needed on this level is a philosophical and theological culture that once again takes up the theme of the soul. In the second place, conscience is the capacity of practical reason to orient conduct on the basis of good and evil. Here we must recall that just as theoretical reason immediately intuits the initial principles of reasoning, practical reason immediately intuits the initial principles of morals, or the golden rule – do good, avoid evil – and its very first applications. I believe that this faculty of conscience should also be rediscovered. Today we have to once again recognize that all persons, above and beyond their cultural or religious diversities, are able to know some elements common to all in both theoretical and practical terms. We have insisted all too much on diversity, and have to recover what is common to us in order to offset centrifugal distortions in the notion of conscience and its freedom.

This is where we see the importance of Cardinal Parolin’s summons to once again form consciences. The new ideology of conscience as the source of right and wrong does not think it has to be formed. In order to form it, however, it would be necessary to begin from principles other than conscience itself, and this is exactly what this ideology refuses.  A conscience which is the source of truth does not have to be formed to truth; it already knows its one and only truth, this being self-determination, which, unfortunately today, is often the sole criterion guiding the conscience of post-modern man also in the face of crucially important choices for the individual and for the community.  The point of departure of this return to forming consciences is acknowledgment of the fact that a conscience left to its own devices becomes a tumor. Man is prevented from stepping outside himself. When power obliges everyone to follow their own conscience, it obliges them to be satisfied slaves. In order to do so, as I said above, this obligation is imposed forcefully, because the true liberty of man naturally propels him to step out of self in order to reach out to reality, and, in reality, to other persons. The formation of conscience is therefore the construction of community, while abandoning or forcing conscience to follow naught but “its own whims” means atomizing the community into separate pieces bereft of relations.


Most Rev. Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi

Bishop of Trieste

President of the Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân