The idea of obedience has gotten a very bad reputation after the destruction of the Nazi state in Germany. During the Nuremberg war crime trials, over and over again rational and seemingly moral men said that they did very irrational and immoral things because they were told by someone in authority to do it. In a place named Zamocs, for instance, medical personnel administered poison injections to children younger than 3 years old and watched them fall to the ground dead. The bodies were then piled in wagons and carted off. How can intelligent people (they were trained in medicine to save lives!) do such horror to innocent and little children who were only concerned about being reunited with their mothers! Blind obedience to authority became a horrible, immoral decision.
Hence, the importance of following your conscience even when an authority orders you to do it. This makes great sense and I do not have any issue with that. But that does not mean that authority is always wrong and conscience is always right. For objectively there is a right and a wrong. Because our conscience tells us something is right does not mean that it is in fact right. This is hard to understand in a world of subjectivism and relativity. It is not simply that something is ‘right for me but not for you’. If it is wrong that I kill someone because he bothers me that does not mean it is right for someone else to do so. So how do we know that the right that I feel in my conscience is the true ‘right thing to do’ that is true for everyone? There must be an external ‘authority’ that guides me to that truth. An authority that is enlightened by revelation by God and that has brought together the sages of the ages to reflect on the question. Belief in a revelation of God and respect for the wisdom of the community creates the authority to which I submit my conscience to see if it is accurate in its decision. For Catholics this authority is Scripture, interpreted through Tradition forming the Magisterium of the Church’s teaching. A lot of thought and faith has gone into this and I would be a fool to not check out my opinions against this aggregate of Wisdom and Revelation.
Can my conscience be wrong? Conscience is developed over time and susceptible to may outward pressures. An unexamined cultural factor may alter the reliability of our conscience development. Two examples can be sited.
One of the most popular movies in American History is “The Godfather”. We all enjoy the logic and the sense of inverted justice of Don Corleone and his son Michael. Their consciences told them that sometimes you have to do ‘business’, that is apart from the values you teach your children. This ‘business’ may involve killing people. Is that wrong? Don Corleone’s badly formed conscience says ‘No’ as long as it is ‘business’ and I make an offer you can’t refuse. So Michael, at the Baptism of his nephew can renounce Satan while his men are killing all his rivals. No qualms of conscience there! Is he right to just follow his conscience? Did he not need to check with a priest and the Church’s authority whether he, in truth, had the moral ‘yes’ to his actions? His conscience was badly formed by the acceptance of some elements of the Mafia Culture that are flat out wrong and immoral.
Another example is the cultural bias in the German Psyche that obedience to the father must be held inviolate.
As already cited, this idea goes a long way in explaining how such a cultured and intelligent nation could be so sidetracked by a ‘gangster’ like Hitler and how it could do such horrible things that go against the grain not only of their humanity but also of their great learning.
No, both conscience and obedience need to be carefully limited by human reason so that neither holds complete sway. Conscience can be wrong but so can authority. That is why the Magisterium is so important. For it is the consensus of authority over time that has the opportunity to develop a self-criticism that is important for our search for the truth of God’s revelation.
So when someone says “I don’t agree with the Church on this” one needs to be very careful since he or she is disagreeing with centuries of applied wisdom. The first thing I ask when someone says this is: “Where did you get your information?” Often they have read it in an article of a newspaper or on a blog. Many of these writers have their own starting point and reason for reporting that begins with a negative assessment of all that the Church stands for. They are often not educated in theology and, I suspect, have not read the Church’s response to an issue completely. So a reader gets an uneducated opinion of the teaching in a prejudiced context after minimal exposure to the source material itself!
What I often say to someone who comes to me with the words: ‘I don’t agree with the Church on this’, is “Have you read the whole document?” This, of course, presupposes that I have read it as well. Only then can we have a meaningful conversation about the content of what the Church is trying to get at.
People, for instance, who condemned Pope Benedict for his Regensburg talk often never read the whole talk but based their opinion on a secular newspaper’s account of the opening example that the Pope uses in the talk (that on the surface seems to criticize Islam). The point of the whole speech is the very valid point that reason has to be involved with Faith in order to get to the Truth of Religion—any religion.
So clearly God gave us a mind and we need to use it and not be a lazy disposition and contribute to confusion in the world. Both Authority and Conscience need to be seen in a creative tension whose resolution is found in an act of reason.