"The fundamental polarity of human life between what is and what ought to be, between lack and fulfillment, between determination and freedom, is not abnormal; it is the norm. Every person is exposed to it because of the inescapable structure of human formation." (Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 172.)

Conscience, hope and the double bind

Michael Whelan SM


One of the most wonderful gifts one human being can give another is the sense of realistic possibility. The presence of faith, hope and love tends to do this for us – especially when we are young and vulnerable. When others – typically parents – communicate faith in us, hope for us and love no matter what, it can awaken a realistic sense of our own dignity and worth and allow us to engage the world with some confidence and honesty. It tends to engender in us a life-giving sense of possibility, preparing us for adulthood ...

where we are confidently responsible and accountable for what we do and say.

One of the most destructive things we can do to another person is to rob them of a sense of realistic possibility.

When faith, hope and love are more or less inadequate to the child’s real needs or are replaced by over-control, cynicism, lack of care or even violence, it is highly likely that the child will grow up with a more or less poor sense of self and what is truly possible for them. In this way, a person’s ability to be open to the future with a good measure of joy and grace, freedom and hope, will also be more or less diminished.

William Lynch SJ reminds us of the critical connection between a sense of the possible and hope – and by implication, the connection between a sense of the impossible and despair:

“... hope is, in its most general terms, a sense of the possible, that what we really need is possible, though difficult, while hopelessness means to be ruled by a sense of the impossible. Hope therefore involves three basic ideas that could not be simpler: what I hope for I do not yet have or see; it may be difficult; but I can have it – it is possible. Without this way of feeling about ourselves and things, we do nothing. We do not act or function. There is no energy.” (William Lynch, Images of Hope, University of Notre Dame Press, 1974, 32.)

Lynch goes on:

“One of the best safeguards of our hopes ... is to be able to mark off the areas of hopelessness and to acknowledge them, to face them directly, not with despair but with the creative intent of keeping them from polluting all the areas of possibility. There are thousands of things that we cannot do, thousands of things that some can do and others cannot. To keep the two, the possible and the impossible, in place is to stay free of intolerable burdens. Thus with hope and hopelessness. We must have both. We all have areas of hopelessness, areas where we know that we are helpless or incompetent. We all know that there are situations we cannot handle, things we cannot do, tasks which for us would be hopeless. But it contributes enormously to our well-being to keep all of these areas and problems sorted out from the things we can do, or can at least do with help. Thus, I repeat, the hopelessness does not get into the hope, nor do the areas of adequacy get into the areas of inadequacy. I know what I can do. It is good to come to rest in the possible, letting the other people be, leaving them to the secret of their own possibilities. I stay within the human and leave the rest to fools and angels.” (Lynch, op cit, 62)

A particular obstacle to a healthy sense of the possible – and therefore hope – can come through the double bind. (See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Ballantine Books, 1972/1985)). In a double bind a person is faced with:

  • • a repeated pattern of communication within a more or less closed system (eg family),
          involving conflicting messages by a person in authority or power within that system (eg parent),
          making a vulnerable member of that system (eg a child) a victim (ie bound).
  • Further,
    • once established, the double bind tends to be activated every time a similar communication takes place – potentially for the rest of the victim’s life;
    • the victim of the double bind finds herself/himself caught:
     - by feelings of anger and even hatred at both the binder and themselves;
     - in confusion (behaviour, thought and feeling) and guilt;
     - with a more or less impaired capacity for honest and free relationships.

The person must be vulnerable before the bind can take effect. Thus, the most common victims of double binding are children. However, when those children become adults they can carry the effects of double binding for many years, even a lifetime. They may even become double binders in their own communications. Thus, being robbed of possibility and hope, they in turn rob others of possibility and hope. Consider the following examples:

• a parent, who is inconsistent in behaviour patterns and/or ambivalent in expressions of affection, puts an arm around their child, and says, “But you know that I love you darling”;
• a priest – or other representative of the Gospel – known for his authoritarianism and intolerance, says, “God loves you!”

Double binds can be very destructive because they establish uncontrollable patterns of reaction in a person that tend to dominate and capture their abilities to respond graciously and freely. A potentially double binding communication can be countered:

• by becoming aware of what is happening in us; the truth of what is happening – paradoxically – holds the key to our freedom from the bind; the awareness must be experiential – merely rational analysis is not enough;
• by using open questioning to facilitate an inner conversation with the feelings that are emerging aids experiential awareness; the point of an open question is that we do not answer the question, we simply listen;
• by explicitly naming the incongruity and discussing the communication;
• making a humorous response exposing the incongruence – eg giving a manifestly incongruent message in reply.

Sadly, within the Catholic Church, the remarkable teaching on conscience has too often been vitiated by introducing the double bind when conscience is spoken of.

Here are some examples of the Church’s remarkable teachings on conscience:

• “In the depths of our consciences, we detect a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For we have in our hearts a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of the human person; according to it we will be judged (cf. Rm 2:15-16). Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a human being. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths (Pius XII, on the correct formation of a Christian conscience in the young, 1952). In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour (cf. Mt 22:37-40; Gal 5:14). In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of the human family in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for those who care but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes (1965) (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), #16)

• “In all our activities we are bound to follow our conscience faithfully, in order that we may come to God, for whom we were created. It follows that we are not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to our conscience. Nor, on the other hand are we to be restrained from acting in accordance with our conscience, especially in matters religious.” (Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae (1965) (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”), #3.2)

• “The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience”. (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993), #64)

• “People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it.” (Pope John Paul II, Message for World Peace Day 1999.)

Implicit in these teachings is the fact that conscience demands time. Conscience entails an inner journey, that can be very difficult at times, yet it has to be made if we are to be truly adult. No one can make it for us. People must be encouraged, enabled and trusted to take that time and make that journey of reflection and thoughtfulness. We do well to remember St Thomas Aquinas’ observation, that “every conscience, whether it is right or wrong, whether it concerns things evil in themselves or things morally indifferent, obliges us to act in such a way that he who acts against his conscience sins” (Quodlibetum, 3:27).

Telling people, on the one hand, to follow their conscience, then, on the other hand, telling them this is what they must do, has the capacity to double bind them by frustrating their need to take the necessary time and make that very personal journey. When double binding is brought into matters of conscience by representatives of the Church, it not only tends to frustrate the individual’s right and responsibility to make an adult decision, it tends to add a sense of impossibility and despair for that person – even if she/he is not aware that this is happening. The Australian Catholic Bishops implicitly recognized this when they offered pastoral guidance in 1974 on the teaching of Humanae Vitae:

“It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in the matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he/she would certainly not have cut himself /herself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his/her conscience he/she could be without subjective fault.”

Pope Francis writes similarly in Amoris Laetitia:

“Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.” (#303)

The Catholic Tradition’s teaching on conscience, exemplified in the quotations above, asks courage and magnanimity of us, critical thinking and responsible action. The best Catholics are not predictable “Yea-sayers” or “Nay-sayers”. They are thoughtful participants in a mighty enterprise of the Holy Spirit, a colloquium salutis (“dialogue of salvation”) as Pope Paul VI called it in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (1964); they are people who take their responsibility to be thinking adults with the utmost seriousness; they recognize that truth can never be the enemy of truth; they also recognize that conscience is not a way out but ultimately the only way in. Pope Benedict put this nicely:

“My encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself.” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (2007), #33)

Conscience is at the service of all our relationships. It is waiting to be engaged in every moment of every day, every encounter, every disappointment and every triumph, every pain and every delight, in all the tedium and all the rewarding stuff too. Life is constantly beckoning us. The Spirit is always bearing witness with our spirit (see Romans 8:16), repeatedly asking us: “Where are you? (see Genesis 3:9) Are you hiding? Are you being real? Are you being honest? Are you letting Love into the world or are you blocking it? Are you working for God’s Kingdom or your own or someone else’s kingdom?”