What is a Catholic conscience? Depends on who's answering

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Props to the National Catholic Reporter for a super-informative piece on the meaning of the word "conscience" in Catholic tradition--and the differing accounts of it, depending on who is writing about it. David DeCosse of Santa Clara University really lays the issue out clearly here, and I think anyone (regardless of your position on the "contraceptive mandate") could learn something by his step-by-step explanation. Of particular interest to me is DeCosse's account of the role of "practical reason" in the use of conscience--the faculty of dealing with the on-the-ground facts, realities, and possible good and bad outcomes--and its relationship to the principles of the moral law, particularly as defined by the church's teaching office.

A taste: "An openness to practical reason [in the case of the final HHS rule] -- and to facts like huge majorities of Catholic and American women rejecting the Church’s doctrine on birth control -- might also offer a welcome dose of humility to the Church in its reflections on this matter: Is this a prudent place to make a stand?

"The principle of cooperation also asks whether there is a 'proportionate reason' to justify involvement with the moral evil at hand. Here comparison and scaling of values are unavoidable. What may be a sufficient reason to justify cooperation with artificial birth control may not be a sufficient reason to justify involvement with abortion.

"Here also attention to the full range of goods at stake in a situation is crucial. So we might ask with an eye toward the fundamental purpose of the institution: 'Would the failure to provide insurance coverage for birth control impair the morale of female employees and hence inhibit the good to be accomplished by the institution in question?' And we might also ask, with an eye toward the values of citizenship: 'Does the moral ideal of equality before the law mean that if an insurance policy provides prescription coverage to men for Viagra the policy ought also to provide prescription coverage to women for birth control?'

"In any case, it’s neither relativism nor radical secularism that inspires consideration of such matters. Instead, it’s an imperative of the close link of practical reason and conscience long part of the Catholic tradition."

Read the whole thing: It's a short course in Catholic moral theology, and DeCosse sheds helpful light on this thorny topic.