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Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Matter of Conscience

A matter of conscience
November 14, 2010, 4:32pm

MANILA, Philippines – On March 29, 1990, the Belgian Parliament approved the legalization of abortion by a majority vote. Prime Minister Wilfried Maertens, head of the ruling party, the Social Christians, had opposed the law, but they were overpowered by the Liberal and Socialist parties in the Parliament.

For this law to be ratified, however, the King had to affix his signature. King Baudouin vehemently refused, declaring that he could not, as a Roman Catholic, sign a new law permitting abortion. He would rather abdicate his throne than go against his most cherished beliefs. The Parliament was in a quandary, but the King was adamant in his position.

Anticipating the inevitable criticism of his action, King Baudouin defended himself by asserting his right to freedom of conscience. He declared: “I know by acting in this way I have not chosen an easy path and that I risk not being understood by many of my fellow citizens. To those who may be shocked by my decision, I ask them: Is it right that I am the only Belgian citizen to be forced to act against his conscience in such a crucial area? Is the freedom of conscience sacred for everyone except for the King?”

The nation faced a constitutional crisis. The Parliament did not want to lose their King, but it insisted on the ratification of the law. Prime Minister Maertens, following the provisions of their constitution, convoked the parliament on April 4, 1990, and declared the throne vacant due to the king’s incapacity to govern because of a serious problem of conscience. With the throne vacant, he presided over a Council of Ministers that ratified the controversial abortion law. The following day, the parliament promptly declared that King Baudouin could once again resume his constitutional royal powers.

Although King Baudouin invoked freedom of conscience as the main reason for his refusal to sign the abortion law, it was his uncompromising religious conviction that motivated his action. He wrote later: “If I had signed it, I would have been miserable my entire life for having betrayed the Lord.” When he died in 1993, even his most severe critics praised him for his integrity. He was willing to sacrifice his self-interest, even the monarchy, for the sake of his religious beliefs.

Many Catholics today will see in him a strong argument to their facile catch phrase: “Follow your conscience.” But King Baudouin understood this differently. He knew that conscience is not an infallible guide to moral conduct. Conscience does not ask us whether an action is morally good or bad. Rather, this question must be answered BEFORE conscience can speak. The proper formation of conscience is, therefore, extremely important. His holistic formation in Catholic doctrine and morals enabled King Baudouin to stand by what he believed in, despite the sacrifice it entailed.

Sadly, our legislators who noisily invoke freedom of conscience in support of some abhorrent provisions in the RH Bill seem oblivious to the need for the proper education of conscience. They thus mistake for conscience the voice of their self-will, self-interest, or, worse, their ignorance.

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