Conscientious Objection

It is increasingly the right thing to do



Pope Francis recently spoke to health care workers and raised a note of caution about conscientious objection. “The decision to object,” Francis warned, “must be taken with respect, so that what should be done with humility does not become a reason for disdain or pride, so as not to generate a similar disdain in those who observe, which would impede comprehension of the true motivations that drive you.” He added, “It is good instead always to seek dialogue, especially with those who have different positions, listening to their point of view and seeking to transmit your own, not like one who gives a lecture, but as one who seeks the true good of people.” As one who has lectured much, and dislikes being lectured to, I acknowledge the Holy Father’s point.

Indeed, we would all do well to keep in mind the words of T.S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket: “The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Nonetheless, conscientious objection, in an aggressively secular culture of death, is increasingly the right thing. The International Theological Commission recently observed that “The church expects that its members can live their faith freely and that their conscience rights will be safeguarded,” and insisted that “Living the faith can sometimes require conscientious objection.”

All things considered, and reconsidered, it strikes me that conscientious objection should markedly increase. It should be public as well as private. When public it becomes a key element of evangelizing the culture.

Conscientious objection is a matter of both the head and the heart. Francis suggested as much: “The practice of conscientious objection is based therefore on the personal need to not act in a way contrary to one’s own ethical convictions, but also represents a sign for the surrounding healthcare environment, as well as in relation to the patients themselves and their families.”

Sober conscientious objection calls for critical analysis. Some examples are recurrent and challenging. Let’s think carefully about the distinction between proximate and remote cooperation and apply the distinction to our roles in medical care and corporate life. Let’s carefully assess military actions in light of the “just war” criteria and do so in a way that addresses military readiness and military service. How many of our fellow Catholics are aware that Pope Francis has said that even the possession of nuclear weapons is wrong?

But there is more: Conscientious objection is a matter of the heart, rightly understood. Yes, drawing clear distinctions and insisting on personal and institutional limits is critical. But conscientious objection also often expresses an ethics of witness. None of us are mere creatures of the State. All of us, in contrast, have a vocation that we are to honor. An old acquaintance once said, “I was an ambulance driver serving dirt poor people. Why should I fight a foreign war and be trained to kill complete strangers?” And one of my earliest employers, a woman religious, was and is an ardent educator. She moved from conscientious objection to civil disobedience. Close to age 80, she again joined with a band of intrepid friends to trespass on a dangerous weapons site. For her, it was a matter of witness and vocation.

Both the ethics of limits and the conscientious witness of vocation give us much to reflect on in this established disorder. As novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, sometimes “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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