The Whole Truth

Christian author Corrie Ten Boom tells a story of the time her family, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, took in Jews and hid them in their cellar. When the Gestapo came a-calling, the kitchen table was pulled over the trapdoor. An office asked Corrie’s sister, Betsie, a direct question: “Are you hiding Jews in this house?”

Betsie’s Christian convictions forbade her from speaking a deliberate lie, even for a purpose as noble as saving the Jews. So she affected the most ironic tone possible and sighed: “Yes of course we are! Can’t you see they are under the table?”

“Don’t play silly games with us, woman!” snapped the officer, and moved on.

The Catholic moral tradition has always held ambiguous views about whether one must answer truthfully in all circumstances. The relevant commandment forbids “false witness”, which points to high-stakes situations such as courtrooms and oaths. The wider moral tradition considers questions of lying to ‘those who have a right to know the truth’.

When penitents come to me pained that they have lied to spare a friend’s feelings, I never tell them that doing so is permissible.  Nor do I state that it is clearly sinful – but they have identified it as sin and they are the one who has mentioned it in confession. I counsel them to find creative answers which are not direct responses to the questions asked, or perhaps to respond with, “Do you want my honest opinion?” before proceeding.

I have to recognise that the English language is used in certain conventional but non-literal ways. “How are you?” is an invitation to give a stock response to establish conversation, not to offer a comment on my actual state of well-being. As for “How do I look in this dress?”, I won’t begin to analyse what that might actually mean! As an Aspie, it grieves me that language is used so cavalierly in non-literal ways. As a scientist, I note that sociolinguists such as Erving Goffman have documented how language is used in different contexts. As a Christian, I wonder if we are acting outside the Lord’s injunctions to be straightforward (Mt 5:37). The Lord is Truth Himself; surely Jesus would not speak thus! (Yet in some contexts, such as ‘cut off your sinful hand’ Mt 5:29-30, I recognise that he must surely be exaggerating for effect. The behaviour, not the hand itself, must be amputated.)

There will also be contexts where I haven’t realised that there’s a non-literal convention going on in the way others use language. And how does the fact I am a priest influence things? If a terminal patient asks “Am I going to die?” is it my duty to provide false hope, or to prepare a soul to meet its Maker quite imminently?

And then there was the time I appeared in court as a character witness. I swore to tell the ‘whole truth’. How did I know the accused? “I was his spiritual adviser, but I asked his permission to waive confidentiality when his lawyer asked me to appear.” For this 100% honest response the jury was sent out and I was lectured by the judge about proper speech in court; I had breached some rule about indicating that a witness had been in contact with the accused. Clearly the Court did NOT want the whole of the truth which I had just sworn on the Bible to provide!


“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

These words, article 1776 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, briefly summarise paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes.  They loftily declare that conscience is heard as God’s voice echoing within the depths of a person.

Really? I’ve never heard it within me.

The official Catholic definition of conscience and morality is a bit muddy and complex, but seems to go like this: There are God-given principles of morality. Insofar as we understand what these principles are, we must apply them to each and every moral decision we must make. Having reached a decision about whether a particular course of action is moral or not, we are duty-bound to avoid choosing any wrong course. Choosing to carry out an action we know to be wrong is, by definition, sin.

The ‘resounding voice’ of conscience apparently might do one of two things. It might tell me what one of the principles of morality is. Or it might shout Don’t do that!” when I contemplate a particular course of action.

What must I do if the teaching of the Church conflicts with one or more of the principles which I think my inner voice is telling me? I have a duty to form my conscience. If such a conflict occurs, I should doubt that the inner voice is speaking accurately, and trust that the Church’s teaching is more reliable. The inner voice is to be held sovereign when applying established principles, but not when establishing them in the first place.

The Church’s teaching is always about principles, not specifics. In the case of intrinsic evils, the distinction is semantic. For example: Should I procure an abortion? The Church intervenes, not to say directly “Don’t do it” but to say “Abortion is wrong in all circumstances”. I apply the principle to my life’s circumstances. Here of course, there is only one possible outcome. Nevertheless, it is an important point of principle that the Church only teaches the moral principle, and I remain morally responsible for applying it.

When the main thing going on in your head is a busy ‘reasoning centre’ equipped with a moral rulebook (written by your parents, the Church, the Bible and your lived experience), moral decisions are pretty straightforward. You apply the rules and get on with it. I seldom do a lengthy examination of conscience at bedtime, because to do so would only be to repeat the same moral calculus applied earlier in the day. If an action had turned out badly because of information unknown at the time, I would shrug and rationally conclude that I couldn’t have done differently there and then. More rarely, if my ‘feeling centre’ had exerted an unusual warning tug, or I might have allowed a thought, word or deed to be directed by a passing wave of sexual arousal, feeling of irritation, or gluttonous appetite, then there would indeed be cause to review an action which might not have been the best course.

I can’t say I have ever heard the resounding voice of conscience. Perhaps at times I have had a dull awareness of ‘this doesn’t feel like a good idea’ when pushing through some course of action. But as a preacher and teacher, it is hugely significant that my lived experience of conscience doesn’t match with what the Catechism says.

It strikes me as I write this post that despite my wide scientific reading, I have never come across discussions of the nature of conscience, or whether it works in the same way for everyone. A little Googling gives some quick results:

  • A reductionist biological view, of course, pre-supposes that the conscience, as an aspect of brain function, can treated like any other trait which evolved in modern humans. Darwin himself pondered the conscience in Descent of Man.
  • One Oxford psychologist was acknowledging that conscience might develop differently in different people back in 1961, in a journal intriguingly titled The Modern Churchman.
  • Some research papers have considered how we become more or less lenient in making moral judgments when our state of mind is coloured by a sense of disgust or awareness of physical purity.

The question of how human beings experience the workings of conscience is an empirical one, and therefore the proper domain of science, not theology. Do we know whether there are qualitatively different kinds of conscience, or only a single spectrum of one kind of conscience working more or less strongly?

Only once we can clearly state what human faculty we are speaking of, can we properly theologise about how that faculty may or may not mediate God’s will, either because God speaks supernaturally into that faculty, or the natural workings of that faculty are an aspect of humans being “made in the image of God”.

Wikipedia reminds me that scholastic authors spoke of the ‘spark of synderesis’ – but is their starting point an assumption that we all experience conscience in the same way?

Documenting how conscience works in the typical human will be a necessary chapter in the Aspie’s Humanity 101 Manual! But for moral philosophers, there is a wider question to ponder about the diverse nature of conscience itself.

I’ll finish this post by quoting paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes. Apparently I am supposed to experience conscience as something unlearned within me, as intrinsic to a human being as the Three Laws of Robotics are to Isaac Asimov’s positronic brains. Perhaps my experience of being human is rather like the story of the robot Caliban, who chooses to behave morally despite lacking an intrinsic set of laws.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.