The HHS Mandate: Protect Conscience. Protect Humanity.
Center for Morality in Public Life Begins Project Conscience
The recent HHS decision to mandate contraceptive coverage is an assault on conscience, and an attack on a basic human right. By forcing citizens to violate their consciences, the government has imposed itself on the most human aspect of our lives-an area only rightly governed by God, liberty, and the common good.
What conscience does is pretty clear. The Disney images we have of conscience-at-work are, strangely enough, pretty accurate. Our experience tells us so.
But what conscience actually is takes more than cartoons to grasp. How can the same thing be a beacon of wisdom, a guide, and totally ambivalent all at once? After all, conscience is above all a personal phenomenon. How can it really, then, be reliable? It's the million-dollar question.
One thing we know for certain: recent months have been some of the worst for conscience in the history of our nation. The Obama administration's decision to force citizens to violate their consciences through healthcare mandates and semantic manipulation has been the object of widespread public outcry. True, many Americans might not know exactly what conscience is, but they certainly know that it should be protected.
With the government-forged blade of social progress cleaving civic requirements from moral obligations, the need to educate on the meaning and importance of conscience is greater than ever. To aid in this effort, the Center for Morality in Public Life has launched Protect Conscience-a digital resource for Americans wanting to inform themselves, and their family and friends, about the role and meaning of conscience in the public square.
The Delphic oracle preached a simple truth: gnothi seauton-"know thyself." This pithy dictum was at the heart of ancient wisdom: Plato employed it in his dialogues, where it represented the deepest purposes of philosophy and the "good life." Self-knowledge showed the humble, like Socrates, to be heroes. And it betrayed the proud as fools.
Conscience, as we understand it today, is an application of this very principle-con from the Latin "with," and scientia from "knowledge." The type of understanding required for conscience isn't supernatural or inspired, but natural and scientific. It's based in an appreciation of our humanity-not only as a gift from God, but more simply as something fundamentally good in itself.
The reason we understand so well how conscience works is the same reason we understand how breathing or walking work: they're basic human acts that just come with the territory. We breathe and walk every day, and we could give an account at the drop of a hat. The very same goes for conscience. (That's why you don't have to be a faith-filled or God-fearing person to be conscientious. The two aren't related any more than faith to breathing or walking.)
As we saw, though, things get tough when we ask why conscience is important-in other words, just what it actually is. This takes some deeper reflection, since conscience is tied at bottom to the meaning and identity of our very selves. Sure, we know that we breathe, but can we explain just what breathing is; or better yet, why humans have lungs rather than gills? In other words, we can give an account of our human activity, but it's not so easy to give a similar account of our most basic nature.
Happiness is an Individual Thing
Humans are communal creatures. We thrive in company-and by Catholic teaching, we're created in the image of a God who is "company" in himself. But seeking out that destiny-what will make us happiest and most fulfilled-is a radically individual pursuit. "Know thyself" is a singular command. (Can you imagine if we had to "Know thyself and everyone else"?)
Conscience, because it's linked so closely to our human nature, is also singular. There's no such thing as a "collective conscience." Thus, we're left with an individual conscience-our own-to make judgments for ourselves about what's right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral. When it comes to our own personal actions, the dictates of conscience are absolute. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be right and just [i.e., his conscience]" (1778). Of course, we have an obligation also to form our consciences according to what's truly right and just-by study, practice, and prayer. In the end, though, a "human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself" (CCC 1790).
Conscience: A Basic Human Right
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