Losing our Conscience in “The New Moral Order”

In his excellent article just released in Catholic Insight on November 10, 2008, Dr. Douglas Farrow of McGill University exposes what he calls the “The New Moral Order” being developed in Canada today. In this new order, Farrow argues, the older categories of:

1) natural law [the universal aspect common to all],
2) religion  [the covenantal aspect under which all are created], and,
3) conscience  [the personal aspect of moral response] 

are steadily being replaced respectively with the new categories of:

1) pluralism [i.e., the only thing universal is that we are all different);
2) secularism [i.e., rather than life under and before God, it is life without God]; and,
3) autonomy or individualism [rather than a personal adherence to a norm, it is personal adherence to oneself].

Now my own Barthian/Reformed sensitivities still prevents me from buying into my Doktorvater’s commitment to a notion “universal natural law” as is predominantly taught in Roman Catholicism. [The Cathecism of the Catholic Church says that “natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history” and is “a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.” (Catechism, art. 1979)]. I still prefer to think along the more Reformed (especially Calvin’s) notion of “common grace.” Yet even if you replace “natural law” with the idea of “common grace” which understands that the world “is not only created by God but upheld in its created existence and nature by his grace” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, 117), I think that Farrow has rightly identified the three purely secularized replacements vying for recognition.

But beyond the way in which Farrow brought these three fundamental ideas together (along with their parodies) in such a precise fashion, I  found it especially illuminating how Farrow notes that conscience, traditionally understood, is the discipline of the self subjecting itself to a higher order. Conscience was, in other words, the testing of oneself–of “me”–to see if I was living in alignment with that which Iknew and believed to have binding authority upon me. To live and act according to conscience was in effect to say, “I will do what I know to be right and good on the basis of my acknowledgement that something or someone is higher than me.” Indeed, conscience, when it is working properly, is precisely defined (imagine that!) by Barth as “the place where man becomes one with God’s will” (CD I/1, 202).

But now, with autonomy and individual rights increasingly reigning the day, it has come to the place where even conscience must be obliterated, lest we find ourselves testifying even in a small way that we are subject to something outside of ourselves. To speak of conscience, in other words, is to admit that something (or heaven forbid, someone) is judging me. So, the last triumph of “human rights” talk will be when the conscience is completely redefined from “a moral agent’s internal compulsion to act in accordance to external authority” to mean “submission to one’s self, and to one’s self alone”–without the hassle of having to conform oneself in any way to something external or higher or larger or, to be sure, divine. As Luther, in his own characteristic fashion, once put it, “Conscience is an evil beast which makes a man take a stand against himself.” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 7:331).

Though I encourage you to read the article in its totality on your own, I thought that Farrow’s penultimate paragraph was worth reproducing here:

What then shall we call this new morality, if not the morality of despair?  And with what shall we confront it, even and especially where it is most menacing, if not with the gospel of hope?  For despair, as Kierkegaard argued in Sickness unto Death, is the refusal to be oneself before God, and Christian hope is the right antidote to that.  Christian hope is grounded in the knowledge that God himself is for us in Christ, not against us, so that in Christ we may indeed be ourselves, and be ourselves before God. This, I think, is what Pope Leo XIII also had in mind when he said in Jesus Christ the Redeemer:  “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

[You may also want to read Farrow’ previous article (also in Catholic Insight) where he comments on how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is attacking the freedom of conscience of individual physicians to not perform procedures such as abortions.]

5 thoughts on “Losing our Conscience in “The New Moral Order”

  1. Farrows and your comments are helpful. The only part I would quibble with is the statement, “are steadily being replaced.” It seems to me that, at least #1 and #2 are well entrenched in the larger part of the Canadian populace. Considering the state of our legal system, I am inclined to think #3 is increasingly operative as well. It seems to me that the church has only recently began to acknowledge these changes in the society around us.

    The challenge we face today in the church is reshaping our mission to function within this new order. The question of ‘which god’ is replaced with ‘why not any god’. The question of “life under God” is replaced with “god under life” (god as a disposable concept). The question of a moral norm (defined externally) is replaced with individual judgment–‘who are you to tell me anything.’ I would be inclined to despair except for one fact that the shift in society cannot alter–it is man that has changed, not God. Perhaps our blindness has increased. Then again, perhaps we now see it as it is.

  2. David,

    Thank you for not buying into Farrow’s universalism. It’s a dead idea, anyhow. Regarding Farrow’s concern with the loss of conscience, I wonder if today’s concept of conscience is not so “individual” as he seems to think. The young generation of scholars I meet at universities and colleges these days seem to be fanatically committed to social causes (homelessness), global causes (ethical trading and green issues), and their own circle of friends. My read of theologians and philosophers from ancient times until today tells me that we’ve always been concerned with conscience and who we are accountable to (God, gods, society, or ME). I don’t think that part of the world has changed one bit.


  3. Thanks, GMAC. Just to be clear to everyone: Farrow is not “universalist” in the sense of believing that everyone will be ultimately redeemed. When you say Farrow’s “universalism,” I assume you mean his commitment to the presence of “universal natural law” in the world and for all people. And I’m not so sure the idea is yet dead, but perhaps you might tell me what you mean that it is a “dead idea”…

    Your comment on conscience, though, is a good one. There is a type of collective “social conscience” at play. I will have to think about that a bit…

  4. Yeah, I didn’t use the term universalism to mean everyone will be redeemed. I was thinking of the universal natural law as you assumed. I do think it’s a dead idea. I’ve not read anyone recently who is searching for anything universal. On the contrary, there seems to be a push to find everything that is unique or individual. In fact, I think there is a universal fear of universal natural law, outside of the Catholic world at least. So perhaps it’s not a dead idea, but it is one that I see a lot of fear about.


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