On Conscience, Coercion and Religious Liberty

Fellow Junto Members, herewith you will find my July meeting presentation. I appreciate the good discussion we had on it and I will also add a link later that is pertinent to this topic.


It is founded on doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man.

** Cardinal John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk **


In previous Junto meetings, we debated the indisputable slide from a Christian to a post-Christian, neo-pagan society. As foundational religious influences diminish, society, left without a moral compass quickly is filling that void with subjectivism and relativism primarily driven by feelings and emotion. Pertinent examples of this are the push for “equality”, especially related to any of unnatural forms of sexual expression one may ascribe to, as well as the intrusive mandates in the Affordable Care Act. The cultural shift relies on both subtle aspects and overt pressures to marginalize and neutralize opposition as it moves along the continuum into neo-paganism.


Our language has been co-opted in subtle ways to reinforce this premise. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides these four definitions:

Phobia: an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation

Illogical: not observing the principles of logic

Homophobia: irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals

Irrational: not governed by or according to reason


Aside from the fact that the word homophobia is constantly misused in labelling those who have even the slightest objection to homosexuality, the main rub is the implied meaning behind it. As defined, one is able to logically present valid arguments, premises and conclusions about all other phobias. However, when branded as a homophobe, that belief is the result of a simple lack of reasoning ability. In a Psychology Today article entitled “Don’t Try to Reason with Unreasonable People – Simple strategies for dealing with mean or crazy people”, contributor Dr. Susan Biali bluntly states: “Don’t try to explain yourself or try to get them to understand you and empathize with your perspective. They won’t, and you’ll just feel worse for trying.” So the message is to avoid, ignore and marginalize, and certainly don’t try to understand.


Cultural progressives buoyed by friendly governmental policies continue to increase efforts on a heavy-handed enforcement of ‘acceptance’ rather than ‘tolerance’ of their latest moral relativism. Latest case in point – the Colorado Civil Rights Commission issued a ruling against Jack Phillips, owner of a small Colorado bakery. His crime was that he declined to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his religious objections. The Commission ordered him to “bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples” and to file a quarterly report documenting those that he chooses not to serve. The thought-police also ordered him and his employees to attend anti-discrimination training sessions. At the ruling, one of the Commission members stated: “I can believe anything I want, but if I’m going to do business here, I’d ought to not discriminate against people.” – a chilling statement to those who believe in private enterprise without government intrusion. After the ruling, Mr. Phillips stated: “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down.” I am glad that he is willing to stand on his principals, but unfortunately he may end up looking for a new job when all is said and done.


Which brings me to thoughts about conscience and liberty. We who sympathize with Mr. Phillips’ plight will certainly commend him on acting according to his conscience and bristle at the government intrusion on his religious liberties. But are we willing to hold the same view for the Satanist or the New-Ager? It can’t be denied that they don’t have conviction in their beliefs. I will assume for the sake of argument that the point of contention is not whether they have conviction or not, but rather whether their conviction is aligned with objective truth and natural law. If their conviction is erroneous when held up to the lens of truth, how do we approach this while respecting their human dignity and rights? Clearly it comes down to these aspects to consider: conscience (freedom to believe) and religious liberty (freedom to act) weighed against duties of society to govern in a just manner with minimal intrusion into private affairs.


Various Church documents provide ample instruction on this. CCC sections 1777-1801 relate to our conscience and can be summarized as follows:

  • a conscience is within every person
  • it is an urge to the Supreme good and avoid evil
  • because of our human dignity:

o   we need an upright conscience

o   we are to use it prudently

o   when used, we take responsibility for our actions

o   we have a right to follow it

o   it is an affront to our dignity to be forced to act contrary to it

  • a properly formed “certain” conscience is required, based on truth and reason in conformity to the wisdom of the Creator
  • a conscience can make a right judgment in aligned with reason and divine law or an erroneous judgment not aligned with them


Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty) elaborates on the freedom to be able to search for truth and act according to conscience:

#3: “Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law–eternal, objective and universal–whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.”

“Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.”

“Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.”

“On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.”


If no external coercion is present and one is free to pursue the search for truth, what are the internal impediments to truth and result in having a malformed conscience? It is helpful for me to reflect upon the characteristics of a malformed conscience in order to understand what is meant by a “properly formed conscience”:

1. Lax Conscience – recognizes only the most serious of sins.

2. Suppressed Conscience – in a state of denial and will rationalize sin.

3. Deformed Conscience – not properly formed by faith or truth.

4. Doubtful Conscience – unable to know what moral decision to make.

5. Scrupulous Conscience – believes almost everything as sin but at same time misses objective sins.

6. Dead Conscience – ignores the calling of conscience and gradually kills it.

We can all recognize many of these characteristics in others. It is especially grievous when those others are in positions of authority and are therefore lacking in the ability to make sound and just judgments and decisions.


Dissenting Catholics or others who assert beliefs contrary to objective truth must always place an asterisk next to their statement “we have a right to follow our conscience”. While one is always bound to follow his certain conscience, one is also equally bound to form it correctly and guard it against the possibility of making an erroneous judgment – otherwise it is not “certain and true”. It is only by assenting to the rightful authority of those entrusted with divine truth and applying proper formation to one’s conscience that one can claim to have a certain conscience. Certainly no one can be forced to believe contrary to their own conscience, even if their conscience is objectively in error; yet it is proper and right for others to practice the spiritual works of mercy “instruct the ignorant” and “counsel the doubtful” toward them.


In the public square, personal beliefs inevitably flow into acts. Since it is the duty of government to provide for the common good, it is expected that prudential judgment be used to implement and enforce laws in line with natural law. It follows then that acts and beliefs – regardless of whether they are based on erroneous or true conscience – should be critiqued and argued, rejected or accepted without impugning the rights or dignity of individuals. The objective should always be to align with truth in the end – and that is the passage of just laws.


In the ideal sense then, if just laws are passed, there should be an inherent respect for beliefs or acts founded on certain and true conscience impacted by these laws. However, in a fallen world having the effects of concupiscence, conflicts arise in beliefs, unjust laws are implemented, and fundamental conscience rights can be infringed upon. The Christian principals respecting human dignity represented in Western civilization have repeatedly demonstrated a more balanced preservation of these fundamental rights, particularly when applied to self-government. Founding Father John Quincy Adams captured the concept of these instinctive moral standards when he stated: “Our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Because people lacking in virtue will be likely to trade liberty for protection, financial or personal security, for comfort, for being taken care of, etc.” His words are prophetic as we survey the landscape of society today – we are no longer free as we are no longer virtuous.


Proposed to the Junto for personal growth and for preparedness in your state of life:

  1. Read the full text of Dignitatis Humanae
  2. Be ready to defend and respect conscience rights, even for those who are not aligned with truth
  3. Investigate and understand the legitimate and logical boundaries of religious liberty
  4. Be prepared to explain to others “a certain and right formation of conscience” based on the mandate from CCC 1789:
  • One may never do evil so that good may result from it
  • The Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” [Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 6:31; Tob 4:15.]
  • Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ.” [1 Cor 8:12] Therefore “it is right not to … do anything that makes your brother stumble.” [Rom 14:21]


Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

** Cardinal John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk **


Respectfully submitted,



July 2014


  1. Spaniard says:

    Well done, Artemus. I commit to reading DH before we’re back together. Thanks.

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