CONSCIENCE: THE GUARDIAN OF HUMAN DIGNITY AND FREEDOM
Man by his very nature seeks to establish a society in which he can live freely, in accordance with his religious beliefs, philosophy of life and values, i.e., according to his conscience. Therefore, it is a matter of concern that the rights of citizens to express themselves freely on some sociopolitical and philosophical issues are being increasingly stifled. A certain exclusiveness is also noted by individuals or individual interest groups who do not hesitate to publicly disparage beliefs and attitudes that are contrary to their philosophy of life and ideological convictions. In such an atmosphere, we are witnesses to the increasing invocation of the concept of “conscience” in regard to some key issues related to the common good in Croatia, primarily when it come to issues of values and worldview or orientation. Therefore, the Justitia et Pax Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops deems it necessary to express its position on the understanding of what conscience is, but also the right to conscientious objection. It does so because it considers a lack of respect for personal conscience and convictions to be an intolerable attempt to jeopardize human freedom and directly threaten human dignity. At the same time, it recognizes the deep roots of many problems facing the Croatian society.
- Moral aspect. Every person has a conscience as the final subjective measure of his specific moral agency. Conscience is not an autonomous instance but is formed during life according to the norms of the objective moral order, to which people of different cultures come in different ways. Christians also form their consciences on the basis of the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church magisterium, which interpret the objective moral order. The Church, therefore, teaches that conscience is
“the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, No. 16). In this sense, conscience is the expression of the dignity of every person, and in the Christian sense it is an essential dimension of man’s “similarity to God.” Acting according to conscience is, therefore, every person’s obligation because it requires a human being to act as homo moralis. To act contrary to the dictates of our consciences, especially if we sense that it is evil, is truly a sin. Therefore, there is no forum, institution or political party that can instruct a person to do something that according to his conscience is inadmissible or harmful. Such an attempt would be a serious violation of human dignity, by which we would open the door to total relativism and, ultimately, to conformism.
Conscience and freedom go together, i.e., man’s freedom is based upon his conscience, which must be constantly formed in truth. This is necessary in order to avoid misconceptions and misapplications of the term conscience in concrete life. Therefore, conscience cannot be equated with a personal understanding of good and evil, with a concrete individual judgment toward everything and, thus, toward values. Thus, it is not possible for someone to believe that he is permitted by the power of his personal conscience to kill an innocent human being, steal, lie etc. This applies to every person, especially Christians, and particularly applies to elected representatives of the people who have assumed responsibility for the common good, regardless of the political party to which they belong. Even someone who is not a believer is obligated to form his or her conscience according to the objective criteria of morality. These objective criteria certainly include what constitutes the general good of the community.
- Legal aspect. Freedom of opinion and expression of thought, as well as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, are fundamental human rights. In this respect, the right to conscientious objection is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia and international law, and has been reaffirmed on several occasions in the practice of the European Court of Human Rights. States have the obligation to respect every individual’s right to conscientious objection, both through the appropriate legislation and through shaping policies that must promote the freedom of the expression of conscience. This particularly relates to situations in which decisions made on the basis of conscience come into conflict with the dictates of the authorities and the actual or presumed majority that decides on questions of public interest, i.e., the common good.
Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish an individual’s right to conscientious objection from respect for the decisions of a particular political party or the expectations of superiors. Party political life in a democracy assumes that an individual will act according to the rules of the party, until they are changed through a democratic procedure. Without these rules, democracy could not function. However, when it comes to issues of value orientation, an individual’s freedom of conscience has absolute priority over the so-called “party discipline.” Not only is a comparison between “party discipline” and the right to conscientious objection inadmissible but it is also very dangerous for the future of democracy in Croatia. We, therefore, urge the political figures in Croatia not to link the current political or other interests with the right to conscientious objection.
History is acquainted with outstanding witnesses of conscience, from the early Christian martyrs to Thomas Moore (1477‒1535), whom St. John Paul II declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen. Moore, like the early Christian martyrs, was prepared in the name of his conscience and for promoting the truth to endure suffering, humiliation and death. For centuries, they have been venerated and honored as shining examples of moral integrity. In Croatia, it is evident that conscience is undervalued in public and political life, and has become a mere formality. Still enslaved by certain ideologies, we give priority to party discipline and narrow sociopolitical interests, and, thus, in a democratic society sacrifice what is the ultimate goal of every democracy, and that is human freedom. This fact must be a cause for concern to everyone who wants the Croatian society to develop democratically and liberate itself from the enslavement of conformism.
Expressing concern about the situation, the Commission urges and encourages all responsible persons and institutions in the Croatian society to unconditionally respect the right of freedom of conscience as a prerequisite for genuine human freedom in a democratic society.
In Zagreb, June 18, 2018
+ Đuro Hranić
Archbishop of Đakovo-Osijek
President of the Justitia et Pax Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops