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Truth, conscience and conversations

  • 24 June 2006

For many years, Archbishop George Pell has expressed reservations about the appeal many Catholics make to the primacy of conscience. In a recent speech, he has said forthrightly that, while individual conscience is important, the ‘misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected’. He argues that ‘conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy’.

Although these claims are made in the terms of a long standing debate among Roman Catholics, they are of wider interest. For they touch the relations between individual and society, between personal freedom and law, between allegiance and dissent, that are being renegotiated in a world shadowed by September 11.

The primacy of conscience is a slogan that can decorate the flags of quite different philosophies. To bring it into useful conversation we need to specify what we mean by conscience, what conscience has primacy over, and under what conditions it has primacy.

Within Catholic conversation, conscience is usually identified with the process by which we make decisions about right and wrong. When we follow our conscience, we weigh the arguments and do what we recognise to be right. Conscience is important because in it we engage the hunger for truth and goodness that are the core of our humanity. For that reason both Archbishop Pell and his Catholic critics insist on its centrality.

When we speak of the primacy of conscience we assume that conscience must take precedence over at least some other things. In spelling out where conscience has precedence, Archbishop Pell and his critics have much in common. They agree, for example, that conscience has primacy over the claim of the state to dictate the religious faith and practice of its citizens. Archbishop Pell explicitly acknowledges this in endorsing the Declaration of Vatican II on Religious Freedom, which insists that the search for religious truth is central to human beings, and that assent to it must be freely given.

They agree also that conscience has primacy over our convenience or our comfort. The stories of martyrs are remembered in order to show that human dignity never shines more brightly than when people brave threats to their life and security in following their conscience.

This common insistence by Catholics on the importance of conscience is significant, because in Australian national life today the claims of religious freedom and of the lonely conscientious voice need all the support they can find. Where so many people find government policies and