David D. Kagan, the Bishop of Bismarck and thus my bishop, had a letter on conscience and citizenship read at masses throughout North Dakota last weekend. Well-written, informed, and informative, it was supposed to be under embargo until then, but, being delivered to parishes ahead of time, it was leaked to a North Dakota state senator who perceived in it subtle politicking. The senator broke the embargo and published the leaked letter on the Internet in the context of his own vigorous response as a pre-emptive strike.
For my part, I think the senator’s response to Bishop Kagan’s letter misinformed on conscience and Catholic citizenship. I do not wish to delve deeply into either letter, however. Readers may find links to them below, as well as my own general reflections on conscience in response, and make their own judgments. But I do wish to take the opportunity of this most unfortunate incident (for the state senator in question is by all accounts actually a faithful Catholic with a stellar voting record) to reflect on the Christian conscience and its concern for the common good.
Catholics (and many other Christians) believe that conscience is malleable and must be formed by the objective norms of reason and nature. It ought to conform to truth, but it can be well formed or poorly formed and direct the human will in right and wrong directions. Problems arise, however, because the modern mindset considers conscience a matter of subjectivity, and in practical terms that means it functions on the level of feelings as a warrant for one’s desires. Here the conscience is seen as the particular, unquestionable property of an autonomous individual, and any external claims upon it are perceived as a threat.
But the Christian conscience is considerably more robust. In its concern for the common good, the Christian conscience concerns itself with the objective and public categories of reason and nature. Simply put, truth. Here postmoderns may protest, positing that claims regarding nature are actually cultural exercises in the will to power. Through sleight of hand, culture masquerades as nature, crushing those on the margins. Indeed, some truth claims about the ultimate nature of things have had deleterious consequences, and certainly competing (meta)narratives abound, but here the principle of abusus non tollit usum is useful. Without a constant striving for truth, we wind up like the impetuous and brash William Roper in A Man for All Seasons, willing on utilitarian grounds for the sake of expediency to tear down laws for the sake of some greater good, but like him we will have nothing shielding us from the devil when he turns on us. Better to strive for truth and fail than to have nothing to appeal to in the face of injustice.
Now Christian conscience is concerned for the common good because of its insights into the categories of reason and nature by which it is ideally shaped. Reason and nature teach the well-formed conscience that it should be concerned for the common good and what is ultimately good. Further, reason and nature are categories accessible to all, not just Christians; they are public categories. Certain strains of thought in late medieval theology and philosophy culminated in the Enlightenment conviction that faith and reason were separate things, and thus religion has become regarded as a matter of private preference to be pushed out of the public square. For this reason, whenever people of faith put forward arguments in the public square, our secularist opponents cry foul, because they assume that religious people are contending for contentious positions on religious grounds, not rational grounds.
Admittedly, much Christian activism furthers this perception to the degree that activists themselves have failed to understand the classical Christian conception of the relationship of faith and reason and often employ warrants drawn directly from revelation, not reason; put simply, they quote Bible verses and present the issue as a matter of the Christian God’s will. I recently attended a pro-life event, a wonderful evening of conversation and conviviality capped by a captivating speaker. I live in a very Christian region of the country, kind of like Kierkegaard’s Denmark, where even the cows are Christian, so the repeated mention of Jesus did not surprise me, nor did our speaker’s express passion for him. But I do wonder if our religious passion for our causes undercuts our endeavors, effectively relegating us to the margins in the eyes of our opponents precisely because we’re not making arguments expressly rooted in reason. If we are to withstand and repel the juggernaut launched by the sexual revolution and preserve the human person and the human family, we will need to develop a broad-based consensus on these issues shared not only by the religious right within the Republican party but shared by persons of all faiths and no faith, by both Democrats and Republicans as well as Independents.
Such a consensus is indeed possible, even though at the present moment it seems elusive, if we can recover and promote a sufficient appreciation for reason and nature. And here we might find Christian conscience converging with Enlightenment concerns, if the Enlightenment would follow through on its stated convictions regarding the individual. As Bishop Kagan put it in his letter:
At the heart of all Catholic moral and social teaching is a single fact: the respect given to an individual human person must always be first and must govern every law and action so that the person’s life and dignity is always and everywhere protected and defended. In other words, from the first moment of human conception to the last moment of life on earth, the person must be respected without exception.
This, I think, is what reason and nature ultimately teach us, confirmed also for Christians by their faith, and on this natural, rational basis all positive law and policy should rest.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
David D. Kagan, Bishop of Bismarck, Letter of October 19 on Catholic Conscience and Citizenship
Leroy Huizenga, Church, State, and Conscience
State Senator Tim Mathern, Media Advisory Urging Bishop Kagan to Withdraw Election-Related Letter
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