Andrew Scheer.

Glen Argan: In search of a moral conscience

  • November 14, 2019

The issue of the right to freedom of conscience will not go away. In fact, it may be the defining issue of our time. 

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, for example, is under fire for not revealing to the public what his conscience tells him on issues such as gay rights, abortion and assisted suicide. One reporter even asked him whether he thinks homosexuality is a sin, as if his answer might affect public policy.

In Alberta, a private member’s bill has been introduced in the legislature which would defend health professionals’ conscience rights. The bill drew immediate negative reaction from those who believe that, if passed, it would undermine the civil rights of women, the LGBTQ and the dying.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms places the right to freedom of conscience and religion first on its list of rights for good reason. However, many see no significance in this right topping the list. For them, it is just one right among many.

Underlying this difference of opinion are quite different understandings of what it means to be human. 

For those of us who see the right to freedom of conscience and religion as most fundamental, this placement testifies to the transcendent dignity of the human person. Conscience is a practical judgment based on one’s understanding of moral truth. It is a quest to understand and act upon a moral good, one which has objective reality.

From here, it is a small step to seeing each human person as a being with irreducible dignity and a transcendent destiny. Such a destiny implies the existence of a transcendent being in whose company one hopes to reside. 

The Second Vatican Council spoke of conscience this way: “Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God.”

A moral conscience is quite different from a psychological conscience. One’s psychological conscience is the result of conditioning which parents or society impose on children. The psychological conscience is not a reliable guide to performing morally good actions. It can give no reason for its decisions other than a feeling. What it does offer is an impetus to conform to the commands of authority figures.

Once a child matures, they may rebel against this formation and even against the idea of objective right and wrong. If one mistakes psychological conscience for moral conscience, they fall into subjectivism — the belief that I determine what is right and that no one should interfere with my judgment.

This subjectivist framework has no room for God. The person, meanwhile, has no intrinsic dignity other than what he or she or society gives the person. The transcendent horizon is gone. A person is a physical body with emotions and thoughts. The person interacts socially with others, but each other person is an “it” rather than a “thou.”

In this view, rights are not God-given but the result of a scramble to have a political or legal body impute some powers to me. Freedom of conscience has no unique value and may even result in others refusing to honour my personal power. Someone else’s right of conscience may undermine my freedom.

This subjectivist view leads to chaos and conflict. It will also lead to the demeaning of those who uphold their own rights to freedom of conscience. 

Scheer has been less than forthcoming about his own judgments of conscience. 

His conscience, it appears, will have no effect should he become Canada’s political leader. One might understand his defensiveness on these matters, but it is deplorable that a political leader would fail to follow his well-informed conscience. 

The media, meanwhile, have been hectoring Scheer as if the real sin were not his judgment on homosexuality, but the mere fact of his having a conscience. 

The assumption of some reporters is that Scheer should listen, not to his conscience, but to social conventions. 

Although such conventions change with time, the reporters assume that a politician should be a slave to convention and not provide moral leadership.

When that becomes mainstream thinking, it does not bode well for Canadians who follow their consciences.

(Argan is program co-ordinator at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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