By M.A. in Human Rights Student, Gillian Richards
Father Kevin Flannery spoke to the Master’s in Human Rights capstone course this past Friday on his essay, “Synderesis, Conscientia, and Human Rights.” He began by discussing the etymology of synderesis and conscientia, and the controversy surrounding these terms. What we call “conscience” today does not quite correspond to what was understood by conscientia in the Middle Ages. Originally, as Father Flannery pointed out, conscience was understood in a more objective sense. And synderesis is understood as an objective basis for conscience. The solid, enduring principles in human nature, as Peter Lombard observed, are identified with synderesis. Indeed, there must be something essentially good in human nature for Jesus to have become man—this is understood as synderesis.
What is synderesis? Some argued it is a power of the soul, associated with the will. This is going in a more subjective direction—since each individual’s will is uniquely his or hers. If synderesis is associated with the intellect, this preserves its objective nature in the sense that intellect is something we all share. Aquinas would argue synderesis is a habit. It is not a power, but rather rides on a power, and is thus more objective. As Father Flannery writes, “The close association of conscientia with reason rather than with the will is characteristic of Thomas’s understanding of both conscientia and synderesis – and distinguishes his analysis from that of both Peter Lombard and Philip the Chancellor.” Aquinas believed the contents of synderesis include a practical version of the principle of non-contradiction: that good is to be done and evil avoided. Further, “the first principles of practical reason are inscribed in the habit of synderesis.”
The objective nature of synderesis, in turn, provides the basis for understanding rights as primarily objective. As Aquinas established, the object of justice is ius, which differentiates justice from other moral virtues. While other moral virtues are about perfecting the individual person, justice is concerned primarily with the proper ordering of relationships with others. Father Flannery distinguished between particular and general justice—the object of the latter is the common good. This ultimately is a reflection of human nature, which is essentially political or communal.
It was a privilege hearing from Father Flannery. His analysis of synderesis helped bolster my understanding of rights as primarily objective and based in justice. It was also fascinating hearing about his experience working with Mother Teresa. On behalf of the Master’s in Human Rights cohort, we are grateful to Father Flannery for sharing his valuable philosophical insights, which provide the basis for a Catholic vision of human rights as based in justice and the fundamental dignity of the human person.