The theonomic nature of conscience
by Ken Myers
On Volume 158, theologian Matthew Levering discussed his book, The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology (Eerdmans, 2021). In the book’s final chapter, “The Path Forward,” Levering contrasts the work of two contemporary theologians whose work presented two very different understandings of the nature of conscience. Levering clearly believes that the description of conscience offered by one of these thinkers — Reinhard Hütter — is more in keeping with conscience as traditionally understood.
Reinhard Hütter was a guest on Volume 149, discussing his book Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 2019). The Friday Feature for October 20, 2023, presented a lecture by Hütter entitled “Freedom of Conscience as Freedom in the Truth: Conscience according to Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman.”
Here is a precis of Hütter’s ideas about conscience as summarized by Matthew Levering:
“In his 2004 Bound to Be Free, written as a Lutheran ethicist, he [i.e., Hütter] argues that if Christian freedom obeys no universal moral norms, then such freedom is a mere sham. He cannot accept that Christ merely sets us ‘free to do what we want, as long as we have a “good will” (are motivated by the “gospel”) and thereby intend “something good” in what we do.’ He is concerned to counter the modern understanding of ‘freedom’ as lawless and therefore inevitably as ‘the law of our unexamined desires.’ If we simply are called in Christ to follow wherever our hearts lead, then there is no need for a theological discipline of ‘ethics’; ‘moral theology’ as such becomes impossible except as a rubber stamp to whatever the Zeitgeist or our personal desire proposes. Such antinomianism ends by becoming a strict legalism, though now a legalism based upon the unlawfulness of criticizing whatever desires happen to be culturally approved.
“According to Hütter, anthropocentric ethics cuts against Scripture and the tradition’s theocentric, teleological ethics. Moral theology properly has at its center God, active in the creative and redemptive past, in the ecclesial and sacramental present, and in the eschatological future. In fact, freedom and moral flourishing are ordered to God and enabled by God. Such freedom takes shape in virtues and is impeded by vices. Furthermore, it is God’s law — God’s commandments — that instructs us in the path of true (relational) freedom; law and love are correlative.
“Hütter became a Catholic in December 2004, and his first book as a Catholic appeared in early 2012, titled Dust Bound for Heaven. Here, he defends Thomistic hylomorphism as a biblically faithful path between the extremes of angelism and animalism. The key is Aquinas’s awareness that ‘the passions do not act exclusively on the soul, but rather on the whole human composite. According to angelism, the passions merely distract the immaterial intellect’s life; whereas according to animalism (grounded in Epicureanism, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume), the intellect — here simply material — exists to express and serve the passions. For Aquinas, by contrast, the intellective power governs the passions, making it possible for the passions to offer their proper contribution to the true flourishing ‘of the whole human being’ under the healing and elevating grace of the Holy Spirit.
“In Bound for Beatitude (2019), Hütter examines Aquinas’s theocentric understanding of conscience and prudence. Hütter integrates these topics into the fuller framework of the Christian moral life, including nature and grace, eternal law and natural law, the saving power of Christ’s cross, charity, faith, hope, the virtue of religion, the virtue of chastity, and our hope for resurrection and eternal life. He emphasizes that sinners, headed toward death, need the redemption that Christ brings and the transformative faith, hope, and love that his Spirit imparts.
“Notably, he warns that absent a proper understanding of human ‘finality’ or body-soul ordering toward beatitude, ‘the late-modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate . . . gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control.’ Real conscience has no place in either of these distorted self-images. Real conscience, after all, judges our actions and often condemns them. Real conscience does not give free rein to a person’s desires.
“What is needed, Hütter says, is for Catholic moral theology to move away from ‘the denial of the finality of nature and the consequent metaphysical evacuation of nature itself.’ By ‘finality’ he means theocentric teleology, our ordering toward the Good, toward God as our ultimate end who brings to fulfillment our body-soul creaturehood by accomplishing in us the real truth of our being. Universal human nature derives from the Creator. Insofar as the human race is a unity, God has given us a nature, whose natural flourishing has distinctive exigencies. The same is true for the ‘supernatural new nature’ that we receive through grace. On the path of beatitude, conscience helps us to recognize our fallenness, to hear God’s moral law regarding our true flourishing, and to pursue this practical truth through the virtue of prudence.
“As Hütter observes, the ‘typically modern crisis of moral motivation’ involves the question: ‘Why should I pursue the good? Why should I be moral in the first place?’ When beatitude is not foregrounded, human beings can feel trapped by human nature and embrace the supposed freedom of either angelism or animalism. Hütter terms this situation ‘subjective sovereignty.’ By contrast, when the Good is firmly at the center, we can see the proper value of synderesis (especially when illuminated by faith) and conscience in communicating to us the eternal law. We can recognize that conscience’s judgments are not mere condemnations but rather are an opening to repentance and hope. The reason to do the good is that God wants us to share in his joy everlastingly. Christ reveals this to us, but we need conscience to help lead us toward it as a real possibility. This work takes place through supernatural prudence, which the act of conscience serves.”
— from Matthew Levering, The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology (Eerdmans, 2021)