The Right to Act in Conscience

**Originally published here;

When I was an undergrad, Christian social justice was the focus of my final, capstone course. A self-defined practicum, the course granted academic credit for helping a couple guys found Honolulu’s first Catholic Worker house, Saint Damien House of Hospitality. Ever since,Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has been the central lens through which I understand Christian social justice.

The most important contributions of CST to the conversation on selective conscientious objection (SCO)are the twin imperatives of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person. Sanctity of life is likely familiar to many of us already; it is for this reason that war is to always be a last resort. The importance of just war teaching itself cannot be underplayed (in a later post, I’ll go into more detail about how contingent pacifism, one way of looking at SCO, is synonymous with Just War).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authorized teachings of the Roman Catholic tradition, comments broadly on human dignity, and specifically affirms that people have “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (my emphasis). Thus, the official teaching of the largest single denominational body in the United States suggests that “autonomy of conscience” be recognized as a right exercised personally, and that to deny such a right directly affects the human dignity of the person so denied.

Just as the president must practice moral judgment, so too must the individual believer. And this is not just what the Catholic Church believes; many other denominations have much to say as well.

Autonomy of conscience is based on the very nature of the dignity of the human person, since for even a legitimate authority to refuse moral agency is to impose psychological slavery upon the person refused. American Christians interested in social justice have been struggling against this imposition since at least 1971, when the petition of Louis Negre, a young Catholic draftee, reached the Supreme Court.

Negre was a French immigrant whose family opposed the French War in Vietnam and, ironically, fled France to escape conscription. The Supreme Court ruled against Negre in U.S. v. Gillette, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the regional Catholic hierarchy, reaffirmed, seven months after the Gillette decision, a position stated in 1968, that there needed to be:

A modification of the Selective Service Act making it possible for selective conscientious objectors to refuse to serve in wars they consider unjust, without fear of imprisonment or loss of citizenship, provided they perform some other service to the human community.

In case you think this teaching might not apply to today’s world, the same concern for human life and dignity prompted this call by the U.S. Catholic bishops just three years ago, in a statement about the war in Iraq:

There is a moral obligation to deal with the human, medical, mental health, and social costs of military action. Our nation must also make provisions for those who in conscience exercise their right to conscientious objection or selective conscientious objection.

SCO is both a moral and social imperative. Many denominations, not the least of which being the largest faith community in the United States, recognize this to be the case. Beyond being merely an issue of legalistic or juridical importance, this is an issue that draws directly from our history of progressive social justice for and by the people. The church has led the way before, and we can do it again.

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