When I started replying in the comment box to Nathan’s question about my post on Newman’s toast to conscience, I found myself going long. So I just decided kick it upstairs into another post. Here’s Nathan’s question:
So the fault would be in holding that lotteries are intrinsically evil, not in disobeying the command of the Pope. Equally, the fault for a faithful Catholic couple who uses birth control to regulate their family would be in holding that birth control is not intrinsically evil rather than in disobeying the Pope.
There seems to be an impasse here:
They commit a sin if they obey the Pope, says Newman, since they believe that contraception is ok and that not using it could harm their family life, financially, emotionally, etc, (let’s suppose).
But they also commit a sin if they don’t obey the Pope since they have withheld the assent of faith.
But don’t they have to withhold the assent of faith, so that they don’t sin against their consciences? How does one avoid going in circles?
To me, the question seems to boil down to whether the dissenter ends up perplexus (i.e., in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation) on Newman’s schematization of conscience. I think that Newman can get around this impasse by a distinction between discrete acts and stable virtues/vices.
In the previous post, I said that the anti-teetotaling priest may not be guiltless of disobeying the Pope’s order “in every respect” (even if he could honestly see nothing but sin in following the Pope’s order). Admittedly, his conscience binds in the moment of acting. But do only such punctiliar acts have moral status? Or may one be liable for one’s general dispositions and overarching attitudes as well? In his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” Newman asserts that the fanatical teetotaler would commit a sin in going against the judgment of his conscience “whether he was right or wrong in his opinion, and, if wrong, although he had not taken proper pains to get at the truth of the matter.” Notice that Newman is not even supposing invincible ignorance for the non-compliant priest. This gives a sense of how narrowly Newman construes the judgment of “situation-conscience” (the only aspect of conscience to which Newman attributes subjectively binding force).
If Newman did not think there were ways of incurring guilt that disobeying one’s conscience in actu, then he would be forced to concede that moral negligence and fanatical narrowness of opinion were the safer course in the moral life (a perverse sort of “tutiorism”). A thought experiment: If one were ultimately accountable only for the judgment of one’s conscience in the moment of acting, it would follow that the SS agent who works himself into a fervent ideological blindness is in the most enviable position of all. After his opinions crossed a certain threshold of subjective certainty, he would become like a newborn babe, innocent of all actions committed in this blessed state. Each new crime against humanity would, after all, carry the sanction of a subjectively convinced conscience.
Since I don’t take Newman to be saying this, I suppose that he is allowing for the possibility of guilt and moral responsibility at another level, perhaps at a more habitual or cumulative level. To return to our example, Newman would agree that the teetotaling priest is not guilty for the isolated act of resisting (what he perceives to be) the Pope’s sinful order. However, the priest’s having arrived at such fanatical teetotaling convictions may be the fruit of an overall pattern of moral laziness or a blinkered arrogance. In this tendency to stifle the voice of truth Newman would locate the guilt. The teetotaler is perhaps not committing a fresh sin of disobedience, but he may be manifesting a preexisting sin—a longstanding vice of apathy, stubbornness, or indifference to the claims of legitimate authority. Hence, the teetotaling priest is not really perplexus in the act; he can move without sin hic et nunc by following his conscience and disobeying the Pope. This non-compliance does not so much engender a new sin as perhaps uncover a sinful attitude for which the teetotaler would have already been liable–even had the Pope never issued his order.
One theme in Newman’s thought that suggests this two-level schema more plainly is his haunting insistence on the possibility of “secret sins.” In his homily “Secret Faults,” Newman enumerates various causes of moral blindness. After ticking off laziness, lack of exposure to trials, self-love, and prevailing customs, Newman continues:
Next we must consider the force of habit. Conscience at first warns us against sin; but if we disregard it, it soon ceases to upbraid us; and thus sins, once known, in time become secret sins. It seems then (and it is a startling reflection), that the more guilty we are, the less we know it; for the oftener we sin, the less we are distressed at it. I think many of us may, on reflection, recollect instances, in our experience of ourselves, of our gradually forgetting things to be wrong which once shocked us. Such is the force of habit. By it (for instance) men contrive to allow themselves in various kinds of dishonesty. They bring themselves to affirm what is untrue, or what they are not sure is true, in the course of business. They overreach and cheat; and still more are they likely to fall into low and selfish ways without their observing it, and all the while to continue careful in their attendance on the Christian ordinances, and bear about them a form of religion… Now we cannot suppose they always thought their present mode of living to be justifiable, for others are still struck with its impropriety; and what others now feel, doubtless they once felt themselves. But such is the force of habit… But it is not the less a sin because we do not feel it to be such. Habit has made it a secret sin.
The certainty of an erroneous conscience would excuse from the “surface sin,” but not from the habitual “secret sins” that led to the erroneous certainty in the first place.
None of this is meant to deny the possibility that dissenting folks may be in good faith, suffer from invincible ignorance (for innumerable physical, social and psychological reasons), or even be on the side of the angels in a certain dispute with Church authorities. It is simply meant to suggest that the special “immunities” of erroneous conscience don’t cover accumulated belief systems in the way that they cover moral judgments in the moment of acting. We may still be liable for the way in which we arrived at the faulty “general propositions” operative in our moral judgments, even long after we have come to hold them with a serene, subjective certainty.
It was for this reason that Newman thought we should pray earnestly, “Cleanse Thou me from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12).