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Prof. discusses HHS law, conscience

Abi Hoverman | Monday, April 2, 2012

Amid national controversy over the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contraception mandate, members of the Notre Dame community discussed the development of conscience in the Catholic faith Monday.

Led by David Clairmont, assistant professor of moral theology, the talk provided context for understanding the debate over the mandate requiring employers to include contraception in their insurance packages.

“The bishops want to have the specific effects of the mandate on Catholic institutions eliminated so Catholic institutions will not be in the situation of providing things that go against Church teaching, even if there are varieties of opinions among Catholics about those preferences,” Clairmont said.

Mary Daly, program coordinator for the Office for University Life Initiatives, said the HHS mandate passed under the Affordable Care Act also requires coverage for Plan B, sterilization and education on family planning methods. This goes against the conscience of Catholic employers, including universities, charities and hospitals, she said.

“[The mandate] requires individuals to perform immoral acts against their consciences,” Daly said.

Daly said the event, which was cosponsored by Campus Ministry, the Center for Ethics and Culture, the Center for Social Concerns, the Gender Relations Center, the Institute for Church Life and the University Life Initiatives office, aims to improve understanding of the key assertions in the debate over the HHS mandate.

“People were coming at this from different angles of not understanding what the church was teaching,” she said. “We thought the most helpful thing we could provide for the students was what it means to form your conscience. We thought that would be the best starting point for students for thinking and talking about these issues.”

Clairmont referenced one of the most frequently cited descriptions of conscience, the Second Vatican Council, which describes conscience as human beings’ attempts to live in ways that bring them ultimate happiness with God.

“Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey,” Clairmont said. “His voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil.”

Clairmont said people must work to improve their consciences by studying witnesses in the Church, like saints, and learning from the Church’s teaching authority.

“[Conscience] needs to be developed throughout one’s whole life,” he said. “It’s never fully formed. It’s life-long work … There are always ways we can develop our moral conscience.”

Clairmont contrasted this Catholic idea of conscience, rooted in never-ending improvement based in the Catechism, with the modern, secular belief that conscience is entirely individual.

“Formation in conscience comes through studying the teachings of the Church on the matters pertaining to human happiness, and by studying the lived examples of other Christians,” he said. “Formation in happiness requires one to be constantly open to having one’s own experiences interrogated.”

Addressing the pro-mandate argument that many Catholics do not adhere to the Church’s anti-contraception values and so do not oppose the mandate, Clairmont said conscience can always change and be improved.

“It’s not as if conscience wells up in a pure judgment, saying, “This is what I must do,'” he said. “This is a judgment at this time, in light of what I know and the experiences I have already had. Those experiences might change.”

Clairmont said he hoped the conversation about Catholic conscience would have long-term positive effects.

“We have opportunities to shift the discussion slightly … as an opportunity to teach people in the wider society how Catholics understand religion and religious freedom, how we understand conscience,” Clairmont said. “Conscience has a very particular place in the logic of the faith’s presentation. And that is something that is relevant to the public discussion.”