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Toward a Proper View of Conscience: The Insistence of God

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
August 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

We commonly speak about God's existence.  By "looking out" into the world we can rationally establish God, that He is.  These proofs all rely on the underlying assumption that the created world is true, and our senses are adequate to it.  Not only does God exist as may be rationally demonstrated, one can also say that God "insists."  To say that God "insists" is to suggest that we can find a proof of God, and that He is, by "looking in," specifically, by looking at our conscience.  This is what I mean by the "insistence" of God.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - We commonly speak about God's existence.  The word "exist" comes to us from the Latin words ex ("out of") and sistere ("to cause to stand").  Catholics believe--indeed, are required to believe--that God's existence can be rationally demonstrated from the things that are made.  As the First Vatican Council stated in the document Dei Filius, "The one and true God, our creator and Lord, can be known through the creation by the natural light of human reason."

Traditionally, of course, all manner of rational "proofs" were thought up by Catholic thinkers to show that it was reasonable to believe that God exists.  We have, for example, the famous "five proofs" of St. Thomas Aquinas. 

Using proofs such as these, by "looking out" into the world we can rationally establish God, and that He is.  These proofs all rely on the underlying assumption that the created world is true, and our senses are adequate to it.  As Pope Benedict XVI put it in his book Jesus of Nazareth, "The world is 'true' to the extent that it reflects God: the creative logic, the eternal reason that brought it to birth."  The truth of the created world is therefore a witness to uncreated Truth.

Not only does God exist as may be rationally demonstrated, one can also say that God "insists." 
The word insists likewise comes from Latin, specifically the words in ("into" or "in") and sistere ("to cause to stand").  To say that God "insists," then, is to suggest that we can find a proof of God, and that He is, by "looking in," specifically, by looking at our conscience.  This is what I mean by the "insistence" of God.

There are perhaps no two better guides for exploring God's "insistence" than St. Augustine and Blessed John Henry Newman.  At least as far as I have found, nowhere do we find the notion of God's "insistence" better explored, or at least more beautifully expressed. 

Blessed John Henry Newman, of course, might be called the Doctor conscientiae, the Doctor of Conscience.  Newman understood conscience to be something more than a sense of propriety, or convention, or feeling, or opinion, or taste, all of which he would have referred to as "counterfeit" conscience. 

Newman believed that conscience properly understood was "the echo of God's voice."  Authentic conscience had the "prerogative of commanding obedience," of enjoining upon us a moral duty, a prerogative which convention, opinion, feeling, or taste do not have.  In describing conscience, it is difficult, even in the vast annals of Catholic thought, to encounter words as beautiful as these which come from Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:

"The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum [beautiful].  Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself, but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives.  Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway."

The Second Vatican Council embraces this concept when in Gaudium et spes (No. 16) it taught that "Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.  There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths."

Because conscience--again, not "counterfeit" conscience, but authentic conscience--is a witness to truth, it, like the created world, can be a witness to Truth, namely, God and that He is.  In his Grammar of Assent, Newman expanded on his belief that the sense of duty or command that he discovered in his conscience was proof of what I have called God's "insistence," of God, and that He is.

"If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away . . . and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive."

Elsewhere, in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, he put this concept in these words:

"I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God; and if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience."

Many centuries before Newman, St. Augustine was also keenly aware of what Newman so well described.  In his Confessions, St. Augustine described in what manner God may be found in a person, and so "insists."  Within man, St. Augustine finds God as the "eternal internal," the internus aeternus.  As Blessed John Paul II summarized it in his apostolic letter Augustinum Hipponesem, St. Augustine believed that, in this "eternal internal," this internus aeternus, "God is in the depths of each one of us." 

God is found in us through the witness of our conscience, which contains within it the natural moral law, a law "written in men's hearts, which iniquity itself cannot blot out," as St. Augustine said.  This law which is writ in the heart and which is accessible in conscience is itself is nothing less than a creaturely participation in the eternal law.  The eternal law is nothing less than God himself.   "And your law is the truth, and the truth you."  Et lex tua veritas, et veritas tu!  (Conf. 4.9.14) 

So St. Augustine is consistent with Newman's insight.  From our conscience, we learn the commands of an internal law, a law that commands, that imposes a duty.  For St. Augustine, like Newman, the human conscience is, in the words of Thomas Brooks, "God's deputy, God's spy, God's notary, God's viceroy."  The source of that command, that duty, points to the eternal law of our Creator, and that law is truth, and that truth God. 

By looking "inside" us, by recognizing that there are interior moral commands in the form of law, we find the "eternal internal" is us, and therein find evidence of God, and that He is.  Like Newman, St. Augustine believed that God "insists."

To be sure, God exists.  To be equally sure, God insists.  And if God exists and insists, we may be assured that God assists

Ahh.  But the assistance of God takes us from nature to grace, from reason to revelation.  And if we are going to dwell on God's assistance, we shall have to await another day and another article.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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