OPINION: Catholic bishops who attribute an absolute value to conscience are trying to force others to accept their position on abortion.
Catholic archbishops of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly, and Tuam
released a public statement on December 18th that included this general
principle: “No one has the right to force or coerce someone to act
against their conscience. Respect for this right is the very foundation
of a free, civilised and democratic society.”
I do not think they believe that. Nor do I.
could mean many things but it is usually understood as referring to the
judgment of an individual about significant moral and religious
Unfortunately it is possible for someone to decide in “their
conscience” that politically-motivated murder is acceptable in some
circumstances, and the archbishops presumably do not mean the conscience
of a murderer obliges a democratic state not to interfere in their
behaviour, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.
A free, democratic state has to decide which kinds of behaviour it will allow and which it will not allow.
if the archbishops believe what they wrote they should apply it
immediately to the consciences of women who believe that in certain
unusual circumstances it is morally permissible to have an abortion.
current situation in Ireland is that the religious beliefs of the
majority of the citizens “force or coerce” some women, against their
conscience, either not to have an abortion or to travel abroad.
Irish statute law was changed to allow for abortion in certain
circumstances it would allow those women whose conscience or moral
values is inspired by Roman Catholic moral teaching not to have
abortions and it would allow other women whose conscience is otherwise
informed to follow their conscience too.
Unless they are
inconsistent, therefore, the archbishops do not really believe each
conscience is so precious that “no one has a right to force or coerce
someone to act against their conscience”.
In the context of abortion we
struggle with an ethical issue about which well-informed citizens hold
fundamentally different views and – as the report of the expert group
showed, in appendix III – most other western democracies provide for
abortion in certain circumstances.
It seems at least rash to conclude
that the legislators in Spain, France, Denmark, Germany, Norway,
etcetera all lack the ethical insights to which we exclusively have
The archbishops would like Irish legislators to coerce all
women resident in Ireland to accept their moral views.
The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae claimed bishops had
authority from God to interpret the “natural moral law” that applies to
all people and not just Catholics. But such an authority rests on a
religious faith not shared universally.
To accede to the archbishops’
request would amount to the establishment of their religion in Irish
The statement of the archbishops appeals to a distinction
between “direct and intentional killing” and other kinds of taking life.
For most moral philosophers, however, it makes no sense to claim we are
not responsible for actions that result in someone’s death simply
because we do not “intend” it or because the consequences are
We are taken to intend all the likely and foreseeable
consequences of our actions and we cannot escape responsibility for some
specified consequences by some kind of private mental activity in which
we disavow some of them.
Here again the archbishops seem to wish to
enforce their ethical views, no matter how implausible they may be, on
others who reject them for good reasons.
It should at least be
obvious, after almost 30 years of discussing this issue in Ireland and
elsewhere, that no one can claim to have an exclusive hold on the truth
(including this writer), and that the judgments of well-intentioned,
morally informed experts in ethics and the law, internationally, have
come down on the side of legally permissible abortion in certain
If we follow that pattern it should be because our
values as a free, civilised and democratic society conclude it is the
best way to legislate, rather than because we attribute some absolute
value to the consciences of individuals.
Desmond Clarke is emeritus professor of philosophy at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy