The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 49
The Catholic Conscience
The Catholic Conscience.
It is not these minor and subsidiary objections to the system of State schools—their alleged expensiveness, their tendency to supplement themselves with public high schools and colleges, or the insinuation of their necessarily immoral influence (which, if the insinuation could be sustained by proof, would be anything but a minor objection)—that constitute the real strength of the Catholic protest against the public school system. Its strength lies in the claim that the Catholic conscience is violated and oppressed by this system. This is a claim which demands the most patient, serious and candid attention of every just man. No matter whether the claim of an aggrieved conscience is made by a great party or by an obscure and unsupported individual, it is a claim which commands instant and reverential heed; and no institution can be solidly built or stable which rests on disregard of one man's outraged conscience. Unless the foundations of the school system are laid on the rock of absolute equity and impartial justice, it is built upon the sand, and must fall; and the examination of the soundness of its foundations cannot be postponed, if only a solitary voice is raised in solemn protest against it.page 68
Nevertheless, it does not follow that every protest made in the name of conscience must be obeyed or yielded to, even if made in most absolute and unquestioned sincerity. Conscience itself is under law; it is bound to be reasonable. So far as the individual is concerned, his private conscience, whether in fact reasonable or not, must be obeyed; for it is to him the expression and measure of his moral reason, beyond which or above which he cannot go. But so far as his claims on other men are concerned, his individual conscience is not and cannot be the ultimate law of their conduct They too have consciences, as sacred to them as his to him; and the one common law of reason is binding on all alike. Hence the Catholic's claim of an injured and wronged conscience is not of itself a sufficient warrant for the immediate abandonment of the school system; he must first prove it to be a just and reasonable conscience. Un-instructed and perverted consciences are altogether too common in this world,—foolish and wrong things are too often demanded or done in conscience' name,—to make it either wise or right to give up a great public institution of proved beneficence, or to surrender the necessary conditions of its existence, the very first moment that it is challenged. Despite his infallible standard of right and wrong, the Pope's ex cathedra deliverances, the Roman Catholic in this free country must waive his divine authorities of Pope and Church, and consent to plead his case before the bar of the universal reason of mankind. This Bishop McQuaid did last Sunday; from this platform he addressed his plea to the public intelligence of the country, just as if no Pope had ever sat on the throne of the Vatican; and he never once quoted the authority of his infallible Sovereign as the supreme confirmation of his own words. The Catholic Church itself, Pope and all, must do the same; it protests against the page 69 school system, and addresses the protest to the general intelligence of the country; and by the verdict of this intelligence the protest must stand or fall. Therefore I say that the Catholic claim of an outraged conscience, with the tacit but evidently implied sanction of Bishop McQuaid and every other Catholic who consents to reason his case before the public, must be judged by the laws of reason; and, if it is adjudged to be unreasonable, such Catholics cannot without tergiversation repudiate the legitimacy of the verdict they have invoked and thereby sanctioned in advance.
What, then, is the essence and the rational ground of the claim that the Catholic conscience is wronged and trampled on by the maintenance of the public school system?