The peril of forsaking private conscience for the sake of public duty

Should human life be protected in all stages and conditions? Or should abortion and euthanasia be permitted and even promoted as “best” (or “least bad”) solutions to personal difficulties and social problems? Should we preserve in our law and public policy the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal union-the partnership of husband and wife in a bond that is ordered to procreation and, where the union is blessed by children, naturally fulfilled by their having and rearing offspring together? Or should we abandon the conjugal understanding of marriage in favour of some form of legally recognized sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership between two (or more) persons, irrespective of gender, to which the label marriage is then reassigned?

Coming to terms with modernity is one of the fundamental issues of our age and the choices we make in facing this challenge are of such importance that the future of our civilization is truly at stake with the choices we make. The questions posed above are not the only ones which we have to face up to in meeting this challenge – they are currently the frontline questions across many jurisdiction and in the Irish parliament today, one of them is being voted on marking a stage in that nation’s answer to modernity.

But there is a more fundamental Rubicon facing the all those who undertake the care of the Common Good of their peoples in the public square and it is the question of their attitude to that one universal guiding principle which has kept mankind safe from chaos from time immemorial. It is that principle which when he has resisted it, fudged it or abandoned it, has reduced to rubble the community for which he has taken charge or control. This is the principle of conscience.

For over the half of the past decade the world has been grappling with economic chaos. We are still suffering – whether innocent or guilty of the acts which brought it about – in the midst of that chaos. But the common denominator among the primary perpetrators of this disaster was the abandonment of private conscience in relation to their acts. When Gordon Geko declared that “greed is good” he was thought outrageous. But nevertheless, millions followed his example and abandoned the principle of conscience which told them the “No, greed is not good. It is evil”.

The opening paragraph is a quotation from Robert George’s new book, Conscience and its Enemies. In it, mainly in an American context, he says that disputes surrounding those questions posed in relation to life’s beginning and end, and the institution of marriage in between, reflects the profound chasm that separates opposing worldviews. People on the competing sides use many of the same words: justice, human rights, liberty, equality, fairness, tolerance, respect, community, conscience, and the like. But they have vastly different ideas of what those terms mean. Likewise, they have radically different views of human nature, of what makes for a valuable and morally worthy way of life, and of what undermines the common good of a justly ordered community.

There is a truth all too rarely adverted to in contemporary “culture war” debates-namely, that deep philosophical ideas have unavoidable and sometimes quite profound implications for public policy and public life. Anyone who takes a position on, say, the ethics of abortion and euthanasia, or the meaning and proper definition of marriage, is making philosophical (e.g., metaphysical and moral) assumptions- assumptions that are contested by people on the other side of the debate.

It is precisely here that conscience is betrayed and where the phenomenon of groupthink – without our even noticing it – takes control. Once that happens, conscience is diminished or obliterated completely. In that surrender of the free will to the will of some spirit of the age, some party apparatus, or even some leader – be he charismatic or bullying – that personal integrity, supported by an informed and articulate conscience, is forfeited.

All this is not a question of modernity, good or bad? It is simply a question of what kind of modernity? Modernity resting on the truth of our nature as free rational beings and beings whose acts will be guided by reasonably exercised free will, not guided simply by naked and untrammelled emotions, or by the dictate of party apparatchiks.

This is what Ireland faces today. This is what the entire world has to contend with or we will all take that perilous road predicted in the words which Robert Bolt put in the mouth of Thomas More, “Any public servant who would forsake his private conscience for the sake of his public duty leads his country down the short road to ruin.”


Seeds of Faith and Reason sown by “a gentle scholar, swathed in white”.

It is always the same. Why were we surprised? I suppose it is a bit like the Olympics cycle, the World Cup cycle and all those other high profile recurring events which travel the world every few years. Prior to it all taking place the predictions are dire. This time it really is going to be a disaster – the stadiums are not ready, the security nightmare will scuttle it, the infrastructure of the chosen country will never cope with the crowds. But as always – well, I can’t remember  any predicted disaster which actually materialised – it works out well on the night. If disasters occur – like in Munich in 1972 – they are never predicted.

So what was the dire prediction this time? The Pope’s visit to Britain of course. For months we had been fed stories of impending disasters – poor planning, big security problems which were going to cripple the whole event, embarrassing protests by brigades of the New Atheism movement and the disaffected “faithful”. They were at it up until the very eve of the visit when the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper got lost in translation. He seemingly suggested that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism.

And what actually happened? Did it all go pear-shaped? Emphatically no. It was, in the words of a number of Vatican people, the best trip of the pontificate so far. Certainly, in the shorter term view it could hardly have been better. In the longer term view we can also say, at the very least, it is full of promise. As always with promises – or to be a bit evangelical about it, the sowing of seeds, – time has to pass to see what the effect will be. There is no question but that there was a very widespread sowing going on – tens of millions throughout the Anglophone world  are estimated to have watched and  heard what the Pope said over those days. And the response was palpably positive for all but the die-hard sceptics.

The Guardian, one of the most hostile organs prior to the visit was reduced to a grudging concession in the wake of the event. “The pontiff’s taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope’s power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain’s high politics. Yet the rapprochement required today is not so much between Protestant and Catholic as between the religious and the rest, and Benedict leaves without denting that divide.” They probably hope so, but one feels that there can be something more than a dent in this if the necessary cultivation and harvesting is attended to. There are already reports of many lapsed Catholics coming to parishes and asking for baptism for their children. There are reports of enquiries from people who want to know more about the faith they saw witnessed to by those few hundred thousand attending events during the visit. Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ reflection on the visit gives some insight into this and what needs to be done now.

The New Atheists of course saw the whole thing as a big opportunity for them to spread their gospel. What happened? Firstly, their fellow-travellers were profoundly embarrassed by their antics and are probably now deserting them in droves. Their so-called rationality revealed itself to be the height of irrationality.  Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed that “All in all, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain over the weekend must have been a disappointment to his legions of detractors. Their bold promises notwithstanding, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens didn’t manage to clap the pope in irons and haul him off to jail. The protests against Benedict’s presence proved a sideshow to the visit, rather than the main event. And the threat (happily empty, it turned out) of an assassination plot provided a reminder of what real religious extremism looks like — as opposed to the gentle scholar, swathed in white, urging secular Britons to look with fresh eyes at their island’s ancient faith.” That image, as a counterfoil to the hate-filled rants which spewed from the motley crews on the protest platforms, spoke volumes to all men of good will.