Is conscience a reliable guide?

I had the pleasure of hearing Globe columnist and author James Carroll at a BC High lecture recently. The former Paulist priest’s latest book is “Practicing Catholic” in which he explores the history and development of the institutional church and his concerns about the failure of renewal started at the Second Vatican Council.

Displaying speaking skills every bit as sharp as his insights, Carroll lamented the failure of the church to fulfill the promise of fresh ideas and a new direction begun during the brief reign of Pope John XXIII.

A liberal Catholic, Carroll is uncomfortable with a church that emphasizes dogma over conscience, infallibility over consensus, primacy over tolerance, and power over love. He is a strong advocate for the rights of women and gays.

He advocates the primacy of conscience, believing it should be the principal factor in determining what is good or evil, right or wrong. By that I am sure he means an informed, critical conscience, not one that necessarily reflects what we want to do but what we should do.

Dogmas tend to stick and develop a life of their own well after their validity or usefulness have evaporated. While I understand Carroll’s distaste and suspicion of their rigidity and intolerance, I am also wary of his reliance on conscience because it is so easy to confuse what we should believe with what we want to believe for reasons other than conscience. Our capacity for rationalization and self delusion seems almost limitless.

Also, if choices of good and evil are that subjective, what is left of objective moral values? Certainly two people of conscience can reach opposite conclusions. Take abortion, for example: People of good conscience can and do sincerely disagree on whether it is morally right or wrong. Does that mean there is no objective truth?

In the 19th century there were those in the South, God-fearing people of good conscience, who believed in slavery. They did not see it for what it is, a moral evil – a serious sin. Similarly, jihadists sacrifice themselves and others in the mistaken belief they are doing God’s will.

Even those Vatican conservatives Carroll is so quick to criticize conscientiously believe in a more traditional response just as progressives conscientiously desire an evolving church more open to change.

Like dogma, conscience is not always reliable, particularly when it tells you what you want to hear. It is probably more so when it tells you to do something you do not want to do; in other words, something contrary to your own perceived self-interest.

Senator Ted Kennedy was pro-choice. That may have been a sincere, prayerful, conscientious decision on his part. Certainly many good people feel the same. Or he could have been influenced in large part by a desire to remain in power, knowing that a strong pro-life position could take him down and thereby prevent him from promoting important social justice causes. Can pro-life and pro-choice both be right? is it that simple?

How can we reconcile objective evil and subjective conscience? Are they mutually exclusive? I believe there is room for both. Not all things that are evil are equally wrong. Some are serious sins, many are not.

Homicide is a serious evil; the taking of a human life is wrong under any circumstances. However, civil or moral responsibility for the act is subjective. For example, killing in a just war or in self-defense is still wrong, but circumstances may make it less so, or even justifiable. The conscience of the person doing the killing determines the degree of guilt, if any.

Yes, you can do something objectively wrong and, depending upon the circumstances, still be acting conscientiously in good faith. The act may be wrong, but the actor can be innocent. While not always trustworthy, conscience can be a mitigating factor. It also can be a transparent excuse.

Abortion, if it involves the death of a human being or even the termination of a potential person is, in my view, morally wrong. In that respect, I am a traditionalist. On the other hand, I understand how someone in good conscience may get an abortion. The degree of moral guilt, if any, depends upon the motivation. I understand and sympathize with those facing the dilemma in cases such as a likely birth defect, rape, or just the inability to afford another child.
I disagree with my church on the issue of birth control. My reason and conscience tell me it is not a moral evil (life is being prevented, not taken). The church’s correct position on abortion is seriously undercut by its opposition to birth control.

My church is also wrong in not granting women a broader role, including the right to become priests. Women are entitled to full participation in the church and would enrich the institution. Their exclusion is not based on any moral principle; it is simply a matter of church policy. The same can be said of married priests.
One of Carroll’s heroes is Pope John the XXIII. In convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he said he wanted to open a window to allow some fresh ideas to blow through a church grown musty over the centuries. Like Carroll, I wish that window had remained open. It probably would have assured a better balance.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law. E-mail: jdolan