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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question D: What is the ideal way to make a judgment of conscience?

1. Considering how a judgment of conscience is ideally reached helps clarify both what “blindness of conscience” means and what the goal of formation and refinement of conscience is—a goal which is more than the acquisition of a body of knowledge.

2. The practical intellect operates best in a person who is good, mature, and integrated. A good person has no reason to evade moral truth, to hide from the light. A mature person goes beyond superego and social convention and judges moral issues by moral principles. A well-integrated person is not excessively distracted by a disorganized multiplicity of thoughts and inclinations arising from various parts of the self and clamoring for attention.

3. Such a person has a virtue traditionally called “prudence” or “practical wisdom.” Prudent people easily tell what is right; they are precommitted to it; and the various elements of their personalities are harmoniously integrated with their upright commitments. In considering possibilities for action, they usually find it easy to judge what is the appropriate thing to do.

4. They usually do this by perceiving the harmony between what is right and their own established commitments and other dispositions integrated with them. For prudent persons, in other words, their own character is a standard of morality because it embodies moral norms. Since character is like a second nature, they can be said to judge “by connaturality.”

St. Thomas teaches in a number of places that a virtuous person makes moral judgments by affective connaturality. For example, a chaste person easily detects anything which is immodest and avoids it (see S.t., 2–2. q. 45, a. 2). This teaching of Thomas has been used by some to bolster the claim that individuals can make moral judgments as if by inspiration, even against the general moral truths proposed by the Church.18

However, this is a misinterpretation of the teaching of Thomas, for he does not suggest that affective connaturality replaces moral norms, moral reasoning, and the judgment of conscience. Rather, he holds that a virtuous person has integrated the moral norms, so that his or her moral reasoning is facilitated and made certain (see S.t., 1–2, q. 57, aa. 5–6).19 Nowhere does Thomas suggest that cognition by affective connaturality could authorize anyone to set aside the moral norms proposed by the Church. Thomas always assumes that a good Christian knows these, and even accepts and integrates them into the self to the point that they are second nature.

5. When prudent persons reflect upon practical possibilities and judge by connaturality, they ignore or set aside without choice possibilities which are not morally acceptable, since such possibilities are not appealing to them insofar as they are upright. The appropriate thing to do usually comes to mind without prolonged inquiry and is accepted without deliberation; love both shows the virtuous the best way to proceed and inclines them to follow it. In such cases, the practical judgment of a prudent person is not conscience indicating what ought to be done, but an effective judgment determining what will be done (see S.t., 2–2, q. 47, a. 8). A person already fully ready to do what is good need only see what that is to put practical insight into effect.

6. Sometimes even prudent persons must deal with factors extrinsic to their own existentially integrated personalities. They must, for example, take a stand with respect to a wrong communal act in which they find themselves involved or must resist morally unacceptable suggestions from others. Also, even the prudent must sometimes choose contrary to normal, existentially undistorted inclinations. For example, Jesus had to resist a normal, emotional repugnance to dying (see Lk 22.40–44). In such cases the prudent usually have little difficulty recognizing what is morally upright; they need only choose to reject wrong possibilities which thrust themselves before consciousness and appeal for acceptance.

7. No one perfectly realizes the ideal of the prudent person, and many Christians, especially those who are younger or weaker, hardly realize it at all. All morally earnest persons are aware that their personalities are only partly integrated and their unreflective insights on moral questions can thus be mistaken.

8. Whenever one’s prudence is adequate, one has no doubts; one has confidence in one’s judgment. But when doubt and hesitation are present, they signify a defect of prudence and cannot be removed by some supposedly direct personal insight into moral truth. One does wrong in such cases to fall back upon a subjective impression. Nor does it help matters to call a resort to feeling by some other name—“discernment of prudence” or “my personal conscience judgment.”

9. Moreover, although immoral people cannot be as perfectly integrated as those who are prudent, an individual who is morally bad, mature, and well-integrated also judges by connaturality. A thoroughly vicious person, like a saintly person, sees what is appropriate and acts without doubts or hesitations (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 47, a. 13). Not psychological ease and immediacy, but agreement with moral truth—which, if necessary, can be reflectively and critically articulated—is the hallmark of sound practical judgment.

10. Thus, one whose conscience is blind because of sin often proceeds with the self-assurance of an upright person and refuses to be criticized by anyone (see Prv 5.12–13; 1 Cor 2.14–15). However, all who are children in Christ need help in forming their consciences (see 1 Cor 3.1–3).20 The Church’s teaching contributes to this formation.

Conscience will be quiescent whenever one operates within a framework of previous choices one is sufficiently satisfied with and integrated around. One makes fresh choices but they do not raise new issues, and so they do not elicit moral reflection. This type of situation arises for both morally good and bad people. For example, good parents might deliberate at length and finally make a choice with respect to their child’s education, yet not confront any judgment of conscience, because all the possibilities considered are morally acceptable. Again, criminals can make many choices to settle the means to be used in pursuit of their objectives without ever confronting a judgment of conscience, because they are interested only in what effectively leads to their ends, and make choices only because of the impossibility of settling rationally among options.

18. See, for example, John W. Glaser, S.J., “Authority, Connatural Knowledge, and the Spontaneous Judgment of the Faithful,” Theological Studies, 29 (1968), 742–51. Glaser assumes that St. Thomas’ judgment by connaturality is the same as Karl Rahner’s “preconceptual knowledge,” but Thomas, in the passage Glaser cites (748) from S.t., 2–2, q. 45, a. 2, speaks only of a judgment made without the complete use of reason—that is, without working out the argument from principles to conclusions.

19. For a summary of St. Thomas’ doctrine on prudence: H. D. Noble, “Prudence,” Dictionnaire Théologie Catholique, 13:1023–76. On knowledge by connaturality: W. E. May, “Knowledge, Connatural,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:228–29. On the logic of moral judgments involving connatural knowledge: Germain Grisez, “The Logic of Moral Judgment,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 36 (1962), 67–76. Joseph Owens, C.Ss.R., “The Ethical Universal in Aristotle,” Studia Moralia, 3 (1965), 27–47, shows that prudence in Aristotle does not make for a subjectivism which would qualify the universal norm, but since the norm is specified formally in terms of the virtues, its material application is conditioned by recognition. The latter is limited and guided by the culture. Thus, Aristotle’s prudence entails cultural relativity in respect to material norms; if it is accepted in a Christian context, the implication is that a person fully formed in a Christian way of life will recognize by connaturality what will embody the Christian (and underlying common human) virtues—e.g., mercy and justice.

20. See Rudolf Schnackenburg, “Christian Adulthood According to the Apostle Paul,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25 (1963), 354–70.