A Man For All Seasons, originally a play and eventually made into an excellent film, is about the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, the courageous chancellor of England who refused to cooperate with King Henry VIII's rape of the holy Church. This is a selection from the play; the Duke of Norfolk, Master Secretary Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, are interrogating the imprisoned saint.
NORFOLK Oh, confound all this ... (With real dignity) I'm not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names ... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?
MORE (Moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
CRANMER So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?
MORE I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one.
The ability to respect others' consciences, and to reverence one's own, seems sadly eroded nowadays. Of course, it may only be nostalgia that makes older periods seem any better; or it may equally be considerable exposure to authors like Chesterton or Lewis, who quite definitely had the power of respecting conscience in themselves and others, and may have been as exceptional in their own time as they would be today. But, whether it bloomed more fruitfully in the past or no, it is a skill which we have a responsibility to learn.
There are a thousand examples -- as, for instance, a dearly loved friend who wishes to become a missionary to Moslems, and also harbors a definite animosity for Muhammad. This is worrying to me, for it is questionable whether any meaningful dialogue, missionary or otherwise, can take place between any two people if one of them believes the other, or the other's beliefs, to be evil. There would be no need for dialogue unless one party thought the other wrong; but wrong is not the same thing as evil. Evil cannot be argued with like heresy, it can only be exorcised like a devil. And freelance exorcism is not always appreciated, nor notable for its success.
However, the point that I will take as exemplary for this post is the fact, much protested, that the Catholic Eucharist is a closed Eucharist. Walk into most Protestant services, and anyone may partake, provided that they are Bible-believers. Some churches regard even that restriction as excessive. But walk into a Catholic Mass, and you will likely find a note in the bulletin or missal asking that only Catholics in good standing partake of Communion. And this is exactly what the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church declare and expect.
There are exceptions, which are usually made for those communities of Christians (for instance, the Eastern Orthodox) who are already known to believe in the Real Presence. But of course one cannot build a theology by relying on the exceptions; the norm must come first, and then the exceptions. But the same why underlies both, in this case as in theology generally, and that why is a matter of conscience.
But stop a moment. Conscience, like tolerance, is one of many god-terms in our culture. By god-term, I mean a term that resembles God: in that if you attach the term to something, that thing becomes inviolable; and in that the term itself is a counter for something that nobody understands. We are in need of a refresher on its real meaning. Conscience does not mean what we happen to feel like doing, although few would be so bone-headed as to actually say that. It does not even necessarily mean doing what we find morally comfortable. Some moral choices, though perhaps fewer than we would like to believe, are fraught with complexity, and there are some which genuinely ought to cause us discomfort even when we make the right choice. Corrie ten Boom, in her heart-wrenching autobiography The Hiding Place, recounts one such circumstance when she lied to Nazis in Holland: "Only as I walked out of the building did I begin to tremble. Not because, for the first time in my life, I had told a conscious lie. But because it had been so dreadfully easy."
To paraphrase several authors (including the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1776-1802), conscience is the capacity for discerning and acting upon what is right and wrong. This can often bring us out of our comfort zone, thereby risking our lives. In all seriousness, obedience to conscience can be highly painful, and the whole point of someone's being a martyr is that it can indeed cost you your life to obey your conscience.
This means that conscience is, or involves, three things. First, we have right and wrong as they really are, objectively, in the outside world; or, if you prefer your terminology Platonic-Augustinian-Berkeleyan (you nerd), in the mind of God. Second, we have the human faculty for discerning what that truth is. Third, we have the pressure exerted by the conscience upon the human will to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.
Note how this brings together the will and the intellect. Catholics speak often about formation of conscience. This sounds difficult to understand, but it simply means how well-trained our ability to perceive the truth about good and evil is. Someone who has been taught from childhood that sex outside marriage is perfectly all right, and believed it -- because, after all, the authorities have said so -- that person would be said to have a poorly formed conscience, at least with regard to chastity. They would believe things that are, in fact, erroneous. However, because their conscience was badly formed, they would be significantly less guilty for, say, fornication than someone who was properly trained about chastity. (This is not to say that they would escape all moral guilt by any means, particularly if they had the opportunity of correcting their conscience on their own initiative and failed to do so. Nor is it to say that they will escape the practical negative consequences of sexual immorality -- any more than a child who was never warned not to climb too high will escape the pain of falling down, despite the fact that they do not have the moral guilt of a child who was warned and did it anyway.)
In short, how responsible a man is for his actions depends, not only on whether he obeyed the pressure on his will to do what appears to be right, but upon his understanding of what is right, and where he got that understanding. St Thomas Aquinas justly carried this principle very far: if I recall accurately, he even taught that someone who, mistakenly but honestly, believed Christianity to be untrue, would be morally culpable for converting to it. The fact that what they did, considered externally as it were, was right, cuts no ice. They believed themselves to be doing wrong, and they are for that reason guilty; for the intention of offending God is always wrong, and is in fact the essential constituent part of the wrongness of every sin.
Now, let us plug that back into the example selected earlier, that of the closed Catholic Eucharist. Many Protestants are offended by this; I was at first, but when I considered it from their perspective that ceased.
The Catholic Church believes herself to be the one true Church, i.e., the sacramental manifestation of the Body of Christ. She is a sign of the Church, and, like the Eucharist, she also is what she signifies. This is why the Eucharist is normally reserved to Catholics.
But she resembles the Eucharist in another way. We do believe that, when the bread and wine are consecrated, they cease to be bread and wine and become Jesus Christ's body and blood, soul and divinity. No part of Him is missing. Yet His being is not exhausted by the rite. It is not the sort of thing that could be. It is not a material, of which we have only so many ounces; it is an identity, without number, weight, or measure. We do not have "less Jesus" if we receive a fractured Host or abstain from the Chalice. His whole self is totally present in every part of the matter; just as, though it may have a sort of interface with the brain in particular, your soul is not locally present in that one part of your body and absent from the others.
Likewise, though the Catholic Church is (we believe) the Church, it does not follow from this that those outside of the Catholic Church in a visible sense are outside of the Body of Christ. We cannot judge another person's reasons for being outside the visible Body of Christ, and therefore we do not presume to comment on their eternal destiny; man looketh on the outward appearance, but God upon the heart. Yet we are sternly warned by St Paul, in I Corinthians 11, that one who eats without discerning the Body and the Blood eats and drinks judgment upon himself. For this reason, he says, many among you are weak and sick, and some have died. As it is none of our business to comment on their immortality, so it is none of our business to risk their mortality. The state of a given non-Catholic Christian's conscience, with respect to the Catholic Church, may be positively spotless -- but how can we be asked to take responsibility for it?
This was why I was so hurt when a godly woman of my acquaintance, a year or two ago, came out with an uncharacteristic and startling harshness against the fact that the Catholic Eucharist is closed. She spoke of it as arrogant, as judgmental, as an assertion that it is "our" table rather than Christ's. Quite apart from being offended on the basis of what we believe (which is my own problem), I was extremely wounded by her failure to consider the position of our consciences. I had, and have, no objection to anybody thinking that the Catholic perspective is in fact wrong. But when considering whether our behavior is proud, or hypocritical, or judgmental, or anything else, what counts is not primarily what the person making the evaluation thinks true, but what the person or institution being evaluated thinks true. The Catholic Church believes certain things about the Eucharist, and her disciplines reflect those beliefs. Whether those beliefs are true is, while terribly important, beside the point when we are asking specifically whether those disciplines are arrogant. Even if wrong, we are obliged to do what we perceive to be right. And that, though it may easily be done in an arrogant way -- we are all sinners -- is not arrogance itself.
Of course, the point is not simply to defend the Catholic practice of a closed Eucharist. The point is that, when discussing anything or judging any act, we must consider not only our own moral feeling but the state of the other's conscience. Magnanimity -- that is, giving others the benefit of the doubt; being generous in the face of suspicion; putting the best interpretation upon others' words and deeds -- is not merely a social pleasantry. It is a responsibility of charity. Even, perhaps, of justice.
CRANMER Then the matter is capable of question?
CRANMER But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty -- and sign.
MORE Some men think the earth round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.
CROMWELL (Leaping up, with ceremonial indignation) Then you have more regard to your own doubt than you have to his command!
MORE For myself, I have no doubt.
CROMWELL No doubt of what?
MORE No doubt of my grounds for refusing this oath.