The Role of Conscience

Fr. John Breck

The conscience reflects the divine image in which we are created. It may be considered a function of our nature, which itself is good, even though, as “fallen,” it is subject to the corrupting influence of sin. The conscience, nevertheless, is either developed or undeveloped, that is, it reflects the divine image with greater or lesser degrees of faithfulness and fullness.

Used in a moral sense, the term “conscience” emerged in Greek philosophy during the first century before Christ. The noun is derived from a Greek verb meaning to have common knowledge or “to know with” someone. This became associated with the idea of bearing witness with, for or about someone, but particularly the self.

The oldest witness in Judaism to the concept of conscience appears in The Wisdom of Solomon: “For wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned by its own testimony; distressed by conscience, it has always exaggerated the difficulties.” (17:11) Here conscience appears as a moral voice signaling disobedience to the Mosaic Law. Significantly, conscience functions here both as preceding the act and as judging and condemning it once it is committed. Conscience not only declares acts of wickedness to be “cowardly” and “condemned,” but serves as a bulwark against the performance of further wicked deeds.

This same double emphasis occurs in the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul, speaking about the natural law perceived by the Gentiles, declares: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 2:15-16) This passage suggests that the conscience is indeed an innate faculty that permits even the Gentiles to know the “natural” law or the will of God, and that same faculty also passes judgment on those acts and attitudes that contravene the divine law.

As St. Paul’s anguished reflection in Romans 7 makes clear, however, conscience does not automatically determine behavior. Even those who are baptized into the Body of Christ, whose lives are filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, experience an ongoing conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, between obedience to the will of God and enslavement to one’s own will. Conscience nonetheless remains as an inner voice of discernment that judges our behavior, gradually guiding us toward a fuller acquisition of virtues: moral qualities that lead us to reflect in our day-to-day actions and motives the compassion, love and mercy of God. A further illustration is provided in chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians. Here conscience guides the strong toward edifying behavior that serves to upbuild the Church as community both by directing behavior away from scandalous actions and by condemning such actions once they have been performed.

Finally, St. Paul also speaks of an aspect of conscience that confirms his judgment and feelings regarding the destiny of his “kinsmen by race.” (Rom 9:1ff) Here he affirms that his conscience witnesses and confirms to him (and to others) that the anguish and sorrow he feels over the rejection of Christ by his fellow Jews is authentic and unfeigned. Particularly significant in this passage is the fact that the apostle’s conscience bears its witness in the Holy Spirit, and the truth of that witness is grounded in the person of Christ.

Moral discourse of the medieval Western Church refers to conscience as that faculty of the mind by which one makes moral judgments. It is the capacity by which one recognizes the duty to perform acts deemed moral or in conformity with the divine will. This capacity is exercised in light of what Aquinas refers to as “the first principles of moral action.” Those principles must be inculcated through a process of education. Although conscience is God-given, it can nevertheless err. One can “in good conscience” perform acts that are morally reprehensible, including everything from child abuse through excessive punishment, to the crime of “ethnic cleansing.”

The education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God. In our day there is a tragic lack of spiritual elders (such as the 19th century Russian startsi) whose own life and experience have brought them to a height of wisdom that is essential for the perfection of the conscience. For the most part, we have to rely upon the written tradition of the Church: scriptures, liturgy, and lives of the saints.

In this respect we have a great deal to learn from the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). In his “Third Century on Love,” he declares:

Do not treat the conscience with contempt, for it always advises you to do what is best. It sets before you the will of God and the angels; it frees you from the secret defilements of the heart; and when you depart this life, it grants you the gift of intimacy with God.

St. Maximus depicts conscience as an intimate friend who advises us “to do what is best,” reveals the will of God, and protects and liberates us from the corrupting influence of our own reasonings and our own feelings or “passions.” More strikingly still, Maximus depicts the conscience as an advocate, which defends and vindicates us before divine judgment. At the same time, it lays the foundation for our eternal communion with God, insofar as it guides us to become “perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Elsewhere Maximus speaks of the education of our conscience as accomplished by the acquisition of virtues:

He who has succeeded in attaining the virtues and is enriched with spiritual knowledge sees things clearly in their true nature. Consequently, he both acts and speaks with regard to all things in a manner which is fitting, and he is never deluded. For according to whether we use things rightly or wrongly we become either good or bad.

This assessment of the role of virtues in life, clearly based on Maximus’ personal experience, conforms to the Christian conviction that the conscience is educated and the person becomes “good” precisely by performing good actions. Virtue is acquired through the exercise of virtuous deeds. Although the conscience is inherently good, and in a sinless world would lead spontaneously and inevitably to righteous acts, in our fallen world conscience — and with it the virtue of discernment — must be acquired through formative experience.

This, however, raises the question as to just how we exercise the discernment that leads to virtuous action. In Toward Transfigured Life, Fr. Stanley Harakas enumerates several elements that go into the process of making moral decisions, laying stress on the resources provided by the Church in the form of scripture, canons, hierarchical teaching authority, and the liturgy. These provide laws or rules that serve to reveal God’s will and to shape our responses to that will. The language will appear rigid to many in this time of acute egocentrism, with its self-serving relativism and relentless quest for instant gratification. Yet his point is well taken. America is a society devoid of an Orthodox ethos. Patterns of behavior tend to be shaped less by religious conviction than by economic forces. Consumerism and competition, considered vices by biblical and patristic tradition, have been elevated to virtues in modern Western culture. In contrast, consider patristic homilies which urge the Christian to live with a minimum of material goods and to share any excess with the poor.

As a result, Christian people often find themselves adrift, unable to distinguish between genuine values that reflect God’s will and those that derive from social custom or convenience — “Don’t we really need a new car?”; “Shouldn’t old Aunt Harriet be taken off the respirator?”; “Isn’t it better for a child to be raised by a ‘same-sex couple’ than to live in an orphanage?” Answers to such questions can only be formulated appropriately if the moral reflection that leads to them is grounded in the “mind of the Church,” the living Tradition that offers clear and authoritative guidelines for Christian behavior.

Yet, as Fr. Harakas notes, rules can contradict one another. Traditional guidelines may not be adequate to help us make decisions in critical situations. Other criteria are needed: the good or evil consequences of actions together with our intentions, motives, and means. Yet our attempt to translate moral principles into specific responses at critical moments does not mean that we substitute relativism for principle. It means we recognize that the application of moral absolutes must be made by giving full consideration to the specific circumstance. Placing a teen-aged accident victim on life-support would presumably be morally required, but the same cannot be said for an anencephalic newborn.

Unfortunately the kind of “situation ethic” popularized several decades ago by Joseph Fletcher still governs much moral reflection today. For Fletcher the criteria for moral judgments are supplied by the situation itself — moral absolutes simply do not exist. In its extreme form, this is an ethic of sheer relativism, permitting decisions based on purely subjective criteria such as “quality” of life.

In addition to the elements of Tradition already mentioned, are there any other resources provided to us within Christian life that can help us in making critical decisions, for ourselves and others in our care?

We are in fact making ethical judgments and acting upon them at virtually every waking moment of our life. The questions, “Do I raid the refrigerator?” or “Do I report to the police the gunshots I just heard coming from next door?” are both moral questions, albeit of differing urgency. They concern not only my behavior, but the consequences of that behavior for my own spiritual well-being and that of others. In most cases, a moment’s quick reflection — practically an instinctual reflex — leads me to act according to what I feel is best or most appropriate. When conflicts arise between what I want and what I know to be rather in accordance with God’s will, then conscience comes into play. Whether I opt for the former course or the latter, however, depends on the degree to which I have allowed the moral teachings of the Church to shape my own values and the behavioral responses I make based on those values. Again, this is usually a reasonably clear-cut process. Either I obey the dictates of my conscience, or I do not and lapse, knowingly and intentionally, into sin or disobedience to the divine commandments.

Many of the bioethical issues we are dealing with, however, either admit of no specific resolution that covers all cases, or else they have not been given sufficient consideration by theologians and others in authority within the Church to provide the clear and definitive answers we are looking for. Even the most sincere attempts to analyze an issue in terms of the Church’s rules, the motives and means of our actions, and the potential consequences, often leave us with a feeling of helpless frustration. A decision, perhaps a life or death decision, must be made, and we lack the resources to decide in a way that clearly conforms to what we know to be God’s will. Often, in fact, God’s will is not clear, and the temptation can be simply to throw up our hands in despair.

The reasoning process behind this frustration can only lead to a dead-end. Whether the decisions we make involve trivial matters in the course of a day’s activities, or a life-or-death judgment with little or no time to reflect and seek the advice of others, those decisions can be faithful to the divine purpose only insofar as they are essentially ecclesial decisions, made on the basis of a conscience that conforms to the mind of the Church.

This means as well that the critical decisions we may be called upon to make are in fact made within the community of the Church. This is the community of the living and the dead, the saints of all ages, who dwell with us in the universal Body of Christ. On the one hand, we turn to them for counsel, through personal dialogue or through the writings they have left behind. (How many of us today have gained fresh and blessed insight from the notes of persons like Nicholas Motovilov, or Fr. Alexander Eltchaninov, or St. Silouan of Mount Athos!) On the other hand, we ask for the prayer of the saints, their intercession on our behalf, that we might be guided appropriately. We ask that we might be led, by the inspirational grace and power of the Holy Spirit, to actions that in fact do correspond to the will of God for ourselves and for all others involved.

We never make ethical decisions alone. Our moral judgments, and the actions consequent upon them, are always made within the living Body of the Church. Through our baptism, we are incorporated into one another, we become “members one of another.” The decisions I make affect and influence the Body as a whole. Just as my own sinfulness has consequences not only for my family and friends but for the entire community, so my ethical decisions and their consequences involve and affect the entire “communion of saints.” The marvelous promise of that truth is that I can depend upon the Body as a whole to assist and guide me in critical decisions, through their love, concern, personal involvement, and, above all, through their prayer.

All of us need to build up personal support systems of trustworthy experts and friends who can provide us with counsel and advice as we make critical decisions. It means as well that we as the Church need to recognize and accept our responsibility toward one another, to provide the support, guidance and intercession. When death threatens or chronic illness plunges one of us into depression and hopelessness, or friends are moving toward divorce, all too often we tend to ignore the problem. We “don’t want to get involved.” It is the same self-protective attitude, translated into the parish setting, that makes us recoil when we see someone lying in a doorway or in the gutter. Little wonder, then, that Orthodox moral theologians have felt themselves obliged to develop an ethic founded on the imperative of self-giving and self-sacrificing love.

In the final analysis there is only one reason why Christian people accept the narrow way of the moral life. If we choose self-giving love over hedonism, God over Mammon, it is because we are fundamentally convinced — on the basis of our own experience as well as the witness of others — that God himself is love: that he is indeed the Author and End of our life, who alone endows it with meaning, purpose and value. As such, he is intimately involved in every crisis we encounter and every choice we make. Such crises and choices are part of our daily fare. They cannot be avoided, since to refuse to decide, and therefore to act, is a moral commitment in itself.

When it happens that we cannot discern God’s will in a given situation, then we need to remember that Satan — the Tempter — works most effectively through our confusion, frustration, and despair. When we find ourselves obliged to make a decision that has serious consequences, yet the elements needed to discern God’s will and purpose seem to be lacking, then we need to step back and remind ourselves of what is really going on. We need to recover the intuition of the Church’s great ascetics, that such critical moments in our life are battle grounds in which the most important decision we can make is to surrender into the merciful hands of God both ourselves and the other persons involved.

All this suggests a paradoxical yet inescapable conclusion: whether we can know with certainty that any given moral decision conforms to God’s will and represents the “right choice” ultimately does not matter. What does matter is that in our often agonizing moral deliberations (concerning, for example, the proper care for a terminally ill parent or an appropriate response to an addict’s destructive behavior) we reject the prideful temptation to seize control ourselves, and instead “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life to Christ our God.” This does not mean that we renounce our freedom or abdicate our responsibility. It means that we render to God what is God’s, namely the whole of our life, which includes our motives and desires together with our choices and actions. And we do so with the unshakable conviction that in any situation where disinterested love governs our behavior, God can bring out of our errors and poor judgments whatever is needed to fulfill his purpose. The faith of the Church is that God’s will governs all things. The essence of the Christian moral life, therefore, consists in surrendering our own will to the will of God, with the fervent prayer that his will be done.

This act of surrender is needed whether or not we feel confident that we share the mind of Christ and can conform our decisions and actions to it. It requires a profound act of faith and a large measure of humility to admit our own limits in making moral choices and to deliver over the decision-making process into the proper hands. It also requires both humility and trust to turn to others and beg them to accompany us in that process with their love and intercession. But this is precisely what is asked of us as members of a Body and members one of another. The first and last decision we need to make, then, is the decision to submit our moral deliberations to him who is the Head of that Body, with the single-minded concern that whatever action we may take in any specific situation will be to his glory and for the salvation of those he has entrusted to our care.

This is a condensed extract from the first chapter of The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; free phone for book orders: 1-800-204-2665; e-mail: svpress@svots.edu). Fr. John Breck is professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. With his wife, Lyn, he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, South Carolina.