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Debates about primacy of conscience show the need for truth and freedom

By Andrew Hamilton - posted Thursday, 30 October 2003

Archbishop George Pell has expressed reservations about the appeal many Catholics make to the primacy of conscience. In a recent speech, he said that, while individual conscience is important, the “misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected” and “conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy”.

Although made in the terms of a long-standing debate among Roman Catholics, this touches 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 can decorate the flags of quite different philosophies. To bring it into useful conversation we need to specify what we mean by conscience, what it has primacy over, and under what conditions it has primacy.


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 engages the hunger for truth and goodness that are the core of humanity.

When we speak of the primacy of conscience we imply it must take precedence over some other things. In spelling out where conscience has precedence, Archbishop Pell and his critics 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 on the importance of conscience is significant, because in Australian national life today religious freedom and the lonely conscientious voice need all the support they can find. When so many people find government policies and their execution morally repugnant, we need a moral framework that expects and honours conscientious dissent and the religious freedom of minorities.

If conscience has primacy over religious coercion and over comfort, the aphorism “conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy” needs to be qualified; for the commitment to religious freedom could be interpreted that a true faith must yield to conscience inspired by false beliefs.

It is not helpful to see truth and conscience as rivals for precedence. When placed within the play of conscience truth does have primacy. When we ask what we should do, we affirm the value of truth. When forming our conscience, we enquire about the truth. After we recognise the truth, we choose to follow it but remain open to changing our way of acting if what we believed to be true turns out to be false. So truth does have primacy within conscience over self-interest and arbitrary choice. Our decisions are well made when they follow our recognition of truth.


This helps address Archbishop Pell’s major concern: the relation between the conscience of Catholics and the church to which they give allegiance. The archbishop claims that in committing themselves to the Catholic Church it is unreasonable to accept that God’s guidance is given through church teaching and simultaneously to appeal to the primacy of conscience to dismiss that teaching.

He cites those who dismiss the teaching of the Catholic Church about doctrines like the divinity of Christ, about moral issues like contraception, and about pastoral regulations that forbid offering the Eucharist to non-Catholics or to the divorced. He also instances those who, on the basis of conscience, justify remaining in the church while working to overturn such authoritative church teaching as the prohibition of homosexual practice or euthanasia. This kind of appeal to conscience leads him to argue that the principle of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected. He claims that because Catholics recognise that truth is to be found within the teaching of the church, they should give precedence to that truth in forming their conscience.

The Archbishop’s argument depicts a church that has been corrupted by a culture hostile to faith. I respect his judgment, but do not recognise in it the Australian church with which I am familiar. Although there is a crisis of authority within the Catholic Church, as in society, I believe that it touches a relatively small area of faith and life, and has more to do with the style of formal teaching than with its content.

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
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This is an edited version of an article published in Eureka Street. Click here for the original text.

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About the Author

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the consulting editor for Eureka Street.

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