What Is Conscience Protection For?
By Aaron Matthew Weldon
If you follow commentary on the court battles over religious liberty here in the United States, you will occasionally read statements that refer to a need for “balance” on matters of conscience protection. The thinking for some seems to be that people of faith, or even simply people of good will, should be able to compromise on their convictions when those convictions don’t conform to the expectations of the broader culture. For example, the ethics committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has argued that health care professionals should simply refer patients to other providers for services, such as abortions, to which they morally object. It’s as if they are saying, “Sure, you may feel like abortion is evil, but this is a pluralistic society, so you have to give a little. Nobody’s asking you to perform abortions, so just keep quiet and let women make their own choices.”
But conscience is not a bargaining chip in a negotiation.
Conscience is not merely a feeling, as if I am acting in good conscience whenever I do what feels good. Rather, conscience is a means by which one grasps the truth. In political matters, my conscience guides me to the truth about how I ought to act with respect to family, neighbors, local community, and nation.
The right to follow one’s conscience is more than a right to be left alone. It is the right to pursue the truth and to act in accord with that truth. When we follow the dictates of our consciences, we act in accordance with the truth as best as we can understand it. In other words, we submit to the law of our loving Creator, not to a coercive agent such as the state. When we obey our consciences, we conform our lives to the truth that makes us truly free.
When the state attempts to coerce individuals and entire communities to act against their consciences, as it is doing now with the HHS “contraceptive mandate,” it is usurping the place of truth as the guide for the lives of its citizens. However, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, affirms, “truth is not a product of politics.” When a state seeks to order the lives of its citizens as if truth were a product of politics, then it has radically overstepped its bounds. It becomes a tyrant rather than a servant. People who seek to do what is right, who order their lives to the truth, cannot compromise on conscience, for such a compromise suggests that one should willfully act against what is right.
We need to be clear in our actions and our witness about what we are for. Court battles may be necessary to seek protection from a state that would seek to step beyond its proper boundaries. But the freedom that is gained in a court victory is a freedom from coercion. Ultimately, religious liberty is freedom for the pursuit of truth and of lives lived in accordance with what is good. In all our actions, as entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, construction workers, and public servants, we must be people who seek the truth and strive to perform the good in all that we do. We can refuse to compromise on matters of conscience and work to protect our right to religious liberty with confidence, knowing that we do what we do so that all people may seek to live the truth.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information on the bishops’ pro-life activities, please visit www.usccb.org/prolife.