Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada. Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Glen Argan: Conscience and truth walk hand in hand

By 
  • March 6, 2019

Former federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has become a Canadian hero for her courage in resisting political pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to interfere in a court case against the Montreal-based contractor SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould stood up for the rule of law and was first demoted from her high-level cabinet position before she resigned from cabinet altogether. As a result, she lost considerable salary and other perks as well as gaining the enmity of some in the party which helped her get elected. 

At this writing, the testimony of those whom she accused of interference has not been heard, but the former justice minister’s credibility was enhanced with Treasury Board President Jane Philpott’s resignation from cabinet on March 4. 

Wilson-Raybould has paid a significant price for telling her story, and as yet no reason exists to disbelieve her. She is a woman of conscience, a woman who told truth to power. 

Yet, Wilson-Raybould was also the minister who introduced and shepherded legislation through Parliament to legalize both assisted suicide and marijuana. The common view would be that there, too, she followed her conscience, although her conscience differed from the consciences of large numbers of Canadians.

In April 2016, Wilson-Raybould defended the government’s bill legalizing “medical assistance in dying” — the Orwellian euphemism for assisted suicide. “We believe,” she said, “that this legislation is the best approach to ensure that dying patients who are suffering unbearable pain have the choice of a peaceful death and the vulnerable are protected.”

Her statement hangs on the magic word “choice” which adorns so many TV commercials and is often the irrefutable rationale behind government legislation and Supreme Court rulings. “Choice” here refers to autonomous choice, unattached to the common good or any notion of moral truth.

Yet, what do we do when judgments of conscience contradict each other? Can we be satisfied with the blasé view that “you have your conscience, and I have mine; we each have our own truth”?

In a series of speeches and articles in the 1990s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) challenged this subjective understanding of conscience. 

This understanding, he argued, reduces the human person to their subjectivity and makes us slaves to prevailing opinions against which we have no defence. Without allegiance to moral truth, we are chaff in the wind.

Conscience, Ratzinger retorted, is the human perception of what is highest and best. Judgments of conscience may differ, but only on the premise that at least one of those differing judgments is erroneous. 

Ratzinger turned to the reflections of an earlier cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman, who maintained that conscience is supreme, not because it is subjective, but because it is based on a personal encounter with truth. Truth takes priority over consensus or accommodation to power, which is why we praise Wilson-Raybould for refusing to bow to political pressure.

Yet, in the instance of the legalization of assisted suicide, we do not see the justice minister defending truth. Rather, she defends “choice” as the criterion for changing the law.

Ratzinger reflected on Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee’s conscience is clear because he is unaware of his guilt. The tax collector, however, knows his guilt. He has an active conscience. Because of this awareness, the tax collector knows his need for forgiveness and conversion.

Guilt has a bad name in our times. It is often seen as a psychological hindrance to the flowering of one’s personhood. Yet, guilt is part of our spiritual makeup and challenges us to be the best that we can. We should not be obsessively guilty but should respond to conscience’s call to avoid evil and do good.

Conversely, when conscience goes silent — when it has forgotten or ignored truth — individuals and society itself are dehumanized and morally endangered. Knowing no truth, individuals are defenceless against prevailing opinions. The propaganda and manipulations of governments and corporations overwhelm them.

Yet conscience has enormous power. Wilson-Raybould’s defence of the rule of law has enlisted a nation on her side. Likewise, the lonely defiance of tens of thousands of refuseniks and martyrs brought down the Soviet empire which could not withstand the witness of truth.

A citizenry whose consciences are informed by a lively awareness of the truth is more essential to our freedom than all the military arms and all the economic growth for which we endlessly strive.

(Glen Argan is an editor and writer who lives in Edmonton.)


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Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.