Atticus is not wrong

“Atticus, you must be wrong.” “How’s that?” “Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong.” “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee’s novel hailing from 1960 has been lying on my desk for quite some time. Its placing was preceded by quite a long and impressive list of novels. After Greene’s The Heart of the Matter – one of the best Catholic novels of the last century – it was Lee’s turn.  The novel takes us to the Deep South and explores human nature through a story about racial inequality. My reading coincided with the anniversary of the execution of Franz Jaggerstatter, the Austrian peasant executed on August 9, 1943 because of his decision in conscience to refuse serving in Hitler’s army. Both Atticus and Jaggerstatter chose to abide by their consciences, the latter even giving up his life to do so. Conscience is the sacred sanctuary deep within each one of us where we are face to face with God and consequently face to face with our true selves. No arbiter is more supreme.

Atticus rightly said that the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience

The cynic may say that conscience, unlike the law, can be subjective and thus open to all forms of abuse. It is true that many abuses have been made in the name of conscience. But it is equally true that many abuses have been made in the name of liberty, God, democracy, the Church, love and the law. You name it and you will surely find that it has been abused. But abuse does not take away the usefulness of what has been abused.

We all have our personal dramas with which we have to struggle while sometimes playing a hide and seek game with our conscience. Scobie in The Heart of the Matter is the example of such excruciating negotiations.

But then there are the socio-political dramas. The divorce referendum and gay marriage are two examples. The final guide for the Christian in such circumstance, particularly if the individual concerned is a politician, is conscience enlightened by the Word of God, the teaching of the Church and one’s relationship with God through prayer.

During the divorce referendum there were those in the Church who wanted to make conscience subservient to the law. They were saying that anyone who votes for divorce legislation commits a mortal sin. The discussion matured and the primacy of conscience was affirmed in a statement signed by a number of priests and publicly approved by the Archbishop.

The discussion about conscience during the gay marriage debate was tinged by a strong dose of intolerance. The holier-than-thou brigade were ready to defend the conscience of he who voted against while abusing with all sorts of insults those who decided to vote differently.

For them conscience is only valid if it directs people to do what they think should be done. This is the antithesis of the belief in the supremacy of conscience which can guide different people to decide in a different way because they legitimately interpret the facts of the matter differently. Jaggerstatter is to be admired for his conscience based decision but this does not mean that every German was obliged to take a similar decision. Thomas More told the Duke of Norfolk, who had a radically different position from his: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Many refer to a conscience vote as mainly a vote about issues connected with the beginning (e.g. surrogacy) or the end of human life (e.g. euthanasia). This is very restrictive. Isn’t a vote about the economy or taxation or corruption or the environment or the expenditure on education or health also a conscience vote? All such votes affect human dignity, social justice and fairness. All these are a matter of conscience. What happens between the beginning and the end of life is as important as what happens at these two extremities. Conscience has to do with these matters as well and its supremacy should be fully respected even in such votes.

Speaking of votes… A very strong majority had given Richard Nixon a second term as US president. This week marked the 43rd anniversary of his ignoble resignation. His misdeeds caught up with him in a clear indication that the majority dictates who rules but it is not the arbiter of what is right or wrong.

Atticus rightly said that the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience. And fortunately so, I add.

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