A podcast and radio show I often listen to called Catholic Answers LIVE once took a question from a caller during a “Q&A Open Forum” episode which was inadequately answered by the respondent (Tim Staples) and which I also felt was deeply puzzling. More recently I think I stumbled upon the answer. The question was this: in relation to Natural Law theory in ethics, which is the standard Catholic position, one would think that God could not command anything which was actually immoral. However, God commanded the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites. Putting aside the question of whether this is justifiable (which the caller seemed to agree it may be) the questioner asked: “what if I were to take a time machine and go back to that point and place in human history – would it be morally incumbent upon me to involve myself in the massacre – even though my conscience would dictate not to?” Tim Staples answered, as I recall, by simply saying that the counter-factual wasn’t helpful since it is not the case that anyone will go back in time and be confronted with that situation, and that such special commands cannot be made in the new advent since special revelation is closed – but that answer is a mega-dodge as far as I’m concerned. One can more easily imagine, perhaps, being put in the same position as Abraham was in when God tested him by requiring of him the sacrifice of Isaac (a theme Søren Aabye Kierkegaard famously deals with at length).
Here’s my answer: the Catholic tradition seems to propose that it is never morally legitimate for man to act against his moral conscience. For:
1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.
~Catechism of the Catholic Church
since the conscience in man is: “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (Catechism, 1778). However, it is also the case that:
1801 Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.
~ Catechism of the Catholic Church
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience.”
~Gaudium et Spes
Now, the ambiguity comes in the word ‘certain’ in paragraph 1800 of the Catechism. However, some Catholic theologians, at least, maintain that conscience cannot ever be legitimately disobeyed, even when its formation is so poor that it seems to restrict one’s morally legitimate choices to error. This is extremely controversial, and the Catechism is quick to qualify any implication that man has a duty to follow his conscience with the additional duty of man to form his conscience properly (thus avoid vice and follow the Church’s teachings, etc). Thus, man bears the responsibility of any act, under the compulsion of a malformed conscience, if (and/or to the extent that) man is responsible for the malformation of his conscience. However, imagine for argument’s sake that a person has a malformed conscience for which they are ‘invincibly innocent‘: this would entail, it seems to me, that the person would have to act according to the dictates of their conscience, and would be judged thereby. This makes perfect sense to me on one level. Consider by simple analogy something I have proposed previously:
Two children at the dinner table are eating supper with their parents. The first rebels against the parents’ commandment to ‘eat everything on your place’, and thus is denied dessert. He, compelled not to finish the culinary concoction presented before him, goes to his room. Minutes later, the second admits that she cannot bring herself to eat any more either. The parents consider for a moment the quality of the food, and eventually collapse and change their mind, telling the second child she doesn’t have to finish her plate, and neither did her brother. The parents thus permit her to have dessert, and also ask her to tell her brother that he can have dessert. She, however, is so preoccupied with obtaining and enjoying her dessert that she forgets to tell her brother. He, then, decides connivingly to sneak into the kitchen and steal dessert. He is caught doing so by his parents, who have discerned that he intended to steal. Thus, even though his actual act was permissible, he was acting against his conscience (for he knew better than to steal).
One can easily imagine a scenario where the converse is true, and I think it illustrates the point: that apart from whether one’s action is ‘naturally’ right or wrong, it remains wrong to disobey the clear dictates of one’s conscience.
Having said as much, it may be the case that ancient peoples were often just in a socio-cultural/political situation in which their consciences were no so formed, through no fault of their own, as to agree with modern sentiment – thus the Israelites may not have had the kind of moral concern with killing the Canaanites as we might typically expect people in a Christian (or even post-Christian) culture to have. Thus, Abraham may not have felt quite the same existential tension as Kierkegaard. Further, one can imagine that, counter-factually, if Abraham’s conscience dictated to him that he could not legitimately kill his son under any circumstance (or at least under his circumstance) then God would not (and perhaps could not) have required it of him, even as a test. Therefore, if I were to, with a conscience conditioned by modern temperament, go back in time and space to some such Biblical episode, God would either not require it of me that I participate in the military campaign(s), or else would so form my conscience that it properly accorded with his will and his dictates. Such a view helps one to make sense of such things as God permitting the moral evil of divorce in the Torah, or other such apparently uncomfortable features of Biblical theology – as God intends, through it, to introduce trajectories towards the fullness of revelation to be completed in Christ, such that the Jews were not morally responsible for properly forming their consciences in ways which were to be informed by divine revelation not yet fully introduced.
Thus, the problem left is merely the problem of justifying the event itself, which as I’ve argued elsewhere can be done (though it is becoming rather unpopular to do, as poor Dr. Craig’s example bears witness).