LIÇÃO DE FILOSOFIA (1948): Let Your Conscience be Your Guide? Conscience, Contraception and Natural Law

"It is January 14, 1948 and we are back again in Philosophy with the walking, talking reincarnation of Saint Thomas Aquinas, aka Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB, chairman of the philosophy department, known behind his back as “tough old Ernie.”

Fr. Ernest. Shut the door please. The caterwauling in the halls is detrimental to our conversation. Mr. Bede Hall, you-the garrulous one. Shut the door and then return to your seat and if you would, please, shut your mouth [laughter]. What did I say that was funny? [Laughter dies immediately]. Harrumph. [A clearing of the throat that was done to express professorial displeasure].

The question is raised on occasion: The Church says I must follow my conscience. Very well-but what if my conscience runs contradictory to the Church? What are the things a man must do to ensure his conscience is not in error…let’s see, Mr. Roeser. You say what? WHAT? Yes: you must form it correctly. But how do I do that Mr. Orville Hesch? What? WHAT? Pray a lot! Wrong! You should pray but that is not requisite in this case. Mr. Cornelius Whalen. Yes, YES. You can pray all you wish, Mr. Orville Hesch but the first step to ensure conscience is not in error is to form one’s conscience. Gentlemen, conscience is not infallible. Thomas says in Question 79 “Parallel with the duty to obey conscience is to-“…what? EDUCATE IT, gentlemen! EDUCATE IT! What do I mean by this?

If your car needs oil you must consider what oil to put into the car by…what? I see no hands. CONSIDER THE MANUFACTURER’S DIRECTIONS! Why is that so hard to understand, gentlemen? This means that to decide whether an action is moral or not you must consider the directions of your Manufacturer. The Manufacturer speaks to you through the…what? Two things. Mr. Austin Sullivan. Yes, YES. First the Manufacturer speaks to us through the natural law and second what, Mr. let’s see, Mr. Harry Arth. YES, through the teachings of His Church. So these are the first two things, consider the natural law and the teachings of His Church. The teachings are conveyed through the Magisterium. Churchmen may dispute, may divide but once the teachings are postulated through the Magisterium they are requisite for consideration since they cannot be in error. These two elements comprise ONE step to resolve a matter of conscience: natural law and the Magisterium.

The second step is…what, Mr. Jacob Polta? YES. Follow your conscience if it is clear. Which means you follow your judgment on the rightness or wrongness of an act only if your judgment is clear and doubt-free. We are obliged to act on the dictates of a conscience that is certain. Now here is something that at first seems hard to understand. We must obey our conscience even through later it can be found to be objectively wrong. Will we be blamed if we follow our conscience only to discover later it is objectively wrong…let us see, someone who has been dawdling over his notes and who in fact is not writing notes at all but drawing cartoons: Mr. Albert Francis!

Perhaps you have not been listening to us since you have been so intent on your drawing, Mr. Francis. Here I will show the class your drawing. It is of a football player! Now I ask you Albert Francis, will we be blamed if we follow our conscience only to discover later it is objectively wrong? You say WHAT? WRONG SIR! WRONG SIR! Now because you have been wrong, I shall tear up your cartoon and urge you to concentrate on the subject at hand [He rips up the cartoon].

You will be blamed for following a conscience that is objectively wrong because…why? I see no hands. What is this: the rest of your dawdling with your thoughts as Mr. Francis has with his cartooning? The answer is depending on the gravity of the circumstance, you may be held accountable for failing to form your conscience properly. So you are not off the hook. I SAY YOU ARE NOT OFF THE HOOK.

Why is contraception against the Magisterium of the Church? Mr. Roeser. You answered the first question and let us see if you can answer this one. You say, what? Aha, Mr. Roeser is right as far as he goes-that contraception is wrong because it is against natural law. But Mr. Roeser has not been listening intently, has he class? [Nods of agreement]. But there is an important distinction: The Church does not teach natural law; she proclaims Christ. The Church is still the arbiter of the application of natural law to particular cases…but the Magisterium, Mr. Roeser, I remonstrate with you to understand…the Magisterium goes much father. It incorporates the natural law into Lex Christi, the law of Christ. Thus your answer is incomplete! Does this sound like hair-splitting? I assure you it is not.

But perhaps I have been too hard on Mr. Roeser. Essentially he is right except he did not carry it far enough. Natural law was formulated first by Aristotle and refined by Thomas. The Church taken it from there and has enshrined it as the law of Christ. Why is contraception against first natural law, Mr….let’s see, Mr. Paul Mulready? Because why? Yes, because…yes, essentially you have it…because at the root of origin of every human person is a creative act of God thus it follows that the procreative power embodied in human sexuality is a cooperation with God’s creative power. And so it follows that men and women are not the ultimate arbiters but cooperators, participants in God’s creative decision. And when married couples decide through contraception to frustrate exercise of their sexuality, they claim a power belonging solely to God-the power to decide the coming into existence of a human person.

Now let’s see how good you are at applying both the natural law and what the Church does which is to proclaim Christ. Mr., let’s see, Mr. Donald Cascalinda…how you describe the difference between contraception and abortion? Mr. Cascalinda, because you are thinking so ponderously is that the reason you do not rise? Ah, he rises! Mr. Cascalinda. You say---what? WHAT? That is not the answer I seek, Mr. Cascalinda. The two are in a sense inseparable. What is the common distinction? Class! Mr. Hesch. You say what? WHAT? Yes, of course, excellent, Mr. Hesch. Contraception is the PREVENTION of human life; abortion is the TAKING of human life…and both come from a common cause. The contraceptive wish is hedonistic utilizing worldly pleasure and success as the primary goal of life. Of course the TAKING of human life is the greater evil but both are mortal sins…the one involving murder and the other involving the personal sin of selfishness, pleasure acquisition but the contraceptive ethic you see prepares the ground for permissive abortion…which, although illegal in this country, is practiced primarily among the rich.

Another test for this class. What is the judgment from both natural law and Church teaching on pornography? Aha, we have Mr. Cascalinda wishing to redeem himself. What is the distinction, Mr. Cascalinda? EXCELLENT! Pornography is the separation of sex from life and the reduction of sex to self-gratification. As is masturbation.

Our civil society as you have begun to realize is starting down the road to decadence. But when did all this begin to change? It began with the human condition, of course, as old as the ages but in modern history when did it begin…let’s see, Mr. Roeser: we will let you redeem yourself for not answering completely, Mr. Roeser. When did it begin? Yes, YES. The Enlightenment, roughly from 1650 to 1800. It does not represent just one strand of thinking of course but a philosophy…that man must seize the archaic elements of tradition and overcome them…that man must be free from authority to think on his own-and this is the important point: TO USE ONLY HIS OWN REASON.

These are the fallacies that stem from the misnamed Enlightenment: Thus truth is no longer an objective dictum. The idea of good as good is beyond man’s grasp. You see then that conscience becomes subjective and subjective conscience is the source of our troubles, gentlemen…the seeds of which even exist in our own founding where reliance on John Locke led founders to embrace natural law but a law which is shaped by majorities. So long as the old style dominated in this country, Locke’s misguided principle worked but once our legal authorities recognized that Locke felt what is intrinsically good is what the majority believe, we ran into trouble. Until next time, gentlemen."

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