Conscience Matters

With Health and Human Services (HHS) implementing its mandate, forcing employee insurance to cover contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization, it is time to revisit the “right of conscience.”

This is the best of times. Many Americans, across disparate political and religious affiliations, have locked arms with the American bishops in protest against the Obama Administration’s contraceptive mandate and its unabashed assault on individual and institutional rights of conscience.

This is the worst of times. In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services implemented the “preventive services” portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It ruled that employers across the country must cover contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization within their employee health insurance plans, not to mention that HHS neglected to include conscientious objection exemptions in this controversial regulation.  So, in effect, what the Federal government and its mandate did was to ride roughshod over the First Amendment religious liberty interests of the many employers who, based on faith and reason, morally object to these services and their provision.

This is the perfect time to teach. The ensuing national conversation about religious freedom provides the bishops with a teachable moment. Catholic faithful, and all persons of good will, are invited to ponder the salient natural law teaching that propelled the American hierarchy to the front lines in the first place. To fully appreciate the bishops’ passion to secure protections for a well-formed conscience, then, we all need to investigate its theological/philosophical foundation: What is conscience? What are the effects of freely exercising our conscientious judgments? What harms will follow if employers act against their conscience by capitulating to the HHS regulation?

What is conscience?
The etymology of the English word conscience 1 is the Latin derivative, cum scientia, meaning “with knowledge.” This literal meaning of conscience—the ability of a human being to “be witness to [him]self” by acting with knowledge or with “a co-knowing of the truth”—grounds the natural law understanding of conscience, and its doctrine of living according to a well-formed conscience. Human beings act conscientiously when they intelligently apply the objective moral truth of human nature to the concrete choices and decisions of their life.

What are the sources of conscience?
The first source of conscience is human nature, that fundamental organization of human persons by which biologists and psychologists empirically distinguish homo sapiens from the primates.  Thus, conscience, at the ontological level, involves the knowledge associated with an inner moral sense, summoning each person to the objective truth of loving and pursuing the good while avoiding evil. This natural capacity to make conscientious judgments about the morality of our behavior, comes from “the godlike constitution of our being:” we are made in the image and likeness of an all-good, intelligent, and free Creator. As a result, the good reverberates in the moral memory (anamnesis) of each of us.

You and I have the capacity to hear the echo of the original goodness from within, so that, seeing the good, you and I know it: “That’s it, “we declare. “That is what our nature points to and seeks.” Or, seeing evil, you and I know it: “That is not good,” we proclaim. “That will not satisfy the basic needs of our nature.”  Thus, we all have the capacity to discover a natural law within us—the absolute law of love—which has God as its origin. Due to our connaturality with the good, all of us naturally resonate with certain things and naturally shun, or clash with, other things.

All persons of all cultures, governments and business enterprises can settle the veracity of the natural moral law by scientifically studying human nature and its needs. Both commonsense, everyday experience and empirical observation, lead us to certain reasonable conclusions about human nature.  Human persons are, by nature, physical beings. Without life and health, human beings cannot function well, and eventually die. Therefore, life/health (or self-preservation) is the most basic human need. Yet, we all know that we do not live simply to be physically healthy but to do something with our healthy life.  Moreover, children cannot become healthy—both physically and psychologically—without help. History, experience, and science demonstrate in different ways that a human child is meant to be raised in family, by a mother and a father who love each other, and who love their children. With the social, psychological, and moral knowledge that redound to children as a result of their family life, we see that family does much more for children than just assist them to be healthy. Yet, the family alone does not sufficiently satisfy all the needs of its individual members.

All human beings, as a result, need a society, a community of many individuals—each with their different gifts, skills, and professions—who can assist in the acquisition of knowledge, and in its eventual transmission to others. Finally, knowledge (knowing the truth of reality) is the most important of all human needs. Without it, we cannot realize lesser goods, such as making a living, healing diseases, and procreating and educating our young.  What’s more, knowledge is the sine qua non of being able to enjoy our integral human fulfillment, and our ability to transcend our own perfection, by knowing world cultures, history, and the wonders of the universe, with its wise, all-good Creator-God. In short, we infer that we will be integrally happy—happy in a way that satisfies all our human yearnings, energies, inclinations—when our basic human needs for health, family, society, and knowledge of the truth are satisfied according to their hierarchic importance.

Theoretical knowledge of our basic human needs/goods, however, is not enough. We must also have practical knowledge of them in particular situations of our life. That is to say, we will only satisfy our basic human needs when we realize them in their proper order in our everyday human behavior—in and through the concrete good judgments, choices, and actions of our life.

The second source of conscience, then, is at the level of praxis: the level of making actual decisions in the particular circumstances of our life. On this practical level, conscience is our capacity to reason to the good. Stated differently, practical conscience is a well-executed judgment—a proximate norm—by which individuals recognize that a prospective act, because it conforms to their natural moral truth, is a true good, summoning them to do it. Or, practical conscience is a well-executed judgment—a proximate norm—enabling individuals to recognize that another act, because it fails to comport with their natural moral truth, is truly evil, summoning them to shun it.

This practical designation is the traditional or strict sense of conscience. It is the one operative when, in our context, we talk about an employer’s conscientious objection to the HHS regulation on grounds that provision of contraception and sterilization threaten the basic human goods of their employees’ life, health, and family.

What are the effects of freely exercising our conscientious judgments?First, the acts that carry out our free choices have both transitive and intransitive effects.  They are “transitive” because good deeds make the world, and our environment, a better place. Evil actions necessarily make the world a worse place, whether we know it or not.  As true as this is, the reflexive ability of free choices, and their completed acts to shape and re-shape the world outside the chooser, is not their most important significance.  For our free choices have an even more profound meaning—an intransitive or immanent signification: they reflexively create the personality, or character, of the person choosing. Our free choices determine us reflexively (whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not), augmenting or diminishing us—sometimes inconspicuously, and other times decidedly—to a lesser or greater degree, but always inexorably shaping us into persons of a certain character. If our free choices, and the acts that implement them, are good, their effects are good, molding our society and the world into a better place and us into better people; if our free choices, and their concrete acts, are bad, their effects are evil, molding society into a worse place, and us, into worse persons.

Second, the self-defining significance of our free choices lasts beyond the concrete acts that carry them out. As already argued, free choices integrate us around their inherent moral goodness or badness. By logical extension, then, the self-determining effects of our free choices endure within us. The only way the virtuous effects of a person’s good choices would be expunged from his character is if the person would choose an act that is the moral opposite of the original good act. In the same way, the vicious effects of bad choices define our inner selves until we repent of the bad choice, and either choose its moral opposite, or genuinely resolve never again to make the bad choice.

What harms will follow if employers act against their conscience by capitulating to the HHS regulation?
Personal harms:
To require an individual, or institutional employer, to act contrary to their conscience is to strike at the heart of whom they are by:

  1. Violating their personhood which, by nature, tends to the true and the good, being only fulfilled by doing good, and avoiding evil;
  2. Deforming their inner moral self (character) with the vicious effects of bad choices;
  3.  Interrupting all the stages of their ability to act humanly, including the capacity to understand the moral principles of human nature, to reason from these principles, to judge according to them, and, to choose and carry out these conscientious judgments in concrete acts;
  4. Compromising their freedom for excellence and its dynamic quality of virtue that follows from their natural openness to truth, goodness, and happiness;
  5. Denying them the right to freely exercise their prudent conscience, an inalienable requirement of human dignity.

In sum, to coerce employers to provide immoral health services to their employees, or to prevent them from following their religious convictions in the workplace, so radically defaces their dignity, freedom, and moral integrity as to imperil their quest for integral human happiness and a life of grace.

Political harms:
To deny employers’ liberty of conscience:

  1. Violates what national, and international, human rights proclamations recognize as the basic civil right of every human being: “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the freedom to “manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance;” 2
  2. To the extent that laws of the state fail to give a primacy of place to the free exercise of the conscientious judgments of its citizens, the state has overreached its authority, arrogating to itself the right to decide what is good and evil and, failing in the process, to secure the fundamental rights of individuals against unjust encroachment by government and the majority view.

As a prophylaxis against these personal and political injuries, the U.S. bishops will not rest until HHS exempts the religious/moral objection of any self-insured religious employer, religious and secular for-profit employer, secular non-profit employer, and religious insurer.


  1. Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth” in Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation, Russell E. Smith, editor (Braintree, MA: The Pope John Center, 1991) 7-27 ; and Servais Pinckaers, OP, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995).
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, §18.
Sr Renee Mirkes About Sr Renee Mirkes

Sister Renee Mirkes, OSF, PhD is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, Manitowoc, WI. She serves as director of the Center for NaProEthics, the ethics division of the Pope Paul VI Institute, Omaha, NE.


  1. A government does not have a conscience. When the American bishops declared to the US government that health care is a right, each bishop gave up his own conscience to the governing body. There should be no shock that the secular federal government acted this way. Don’t put a fox in charge of a henhouse and then blame the fox. Health care is abundant to those who will work for it and available to those who can’t. It wasn’t a perfect system, but giving it over to the government was obviously not the right fix.


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