Monday, December 27, 2010

Dissenting Catholics and the question of conscience

This is what I will call a "reference post" -- bookmark it and refer to it anytime a Cafeteria Catholic tells you that as long as one follows his conscience, he is in good standing with the Church.

Ummmmm, not exactly.

We've had a fascinating discussion in the comments section of a previous post. At one point, atheist commenter Tony linked to an anti-Catholic article* riddled with errors, which put forth this (commonly accepted) falsehood:
In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views. 
Again, not exactly.

Let's briefly discuss what the Catholic Church actually teaches about conscience, beginning with this statement about moral conscience from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which quotes the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (16):

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."  [emphasis mine]

So, our conscience is where we hear the law of God which has been written on our hearts. Our conscience moves us to do good and avoid evil, and judges whether an act is moral or not. 

Another Vatican II document says:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.     Dignitatis Humanae (3)

Okay, so we must follow our consciences in all things. We must not be forced to act against our conscience, nor must we be stopped from acting according to the dictates of our conscience.

That sounds about right to me!

But wait.... Then don't those dissenting Catholics who reject the moral teachings of the Church have a point? They claim that their conscience is the final authority, after all.

Actually, the dissenting Catholics always leave something out. They like to talk about always following one's conscience, but they forget to talk about one's obligation to correctly form one's conscience in the first place! That's a pretty big omission.

Okay, so what happens if someone (perhaps a dissenting Catholic) wants to be ignorant of the moral law? Well, willful ignorance is itself a sin:

This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. (Catechism, 1791)

In other words, if one has a poorly formed conscience because he refuses to seek truth, or if he has deadened his conscience by repeated sins, or if he willfully rejects Church authority -- then he is culpable.

The dissenters who say that Catholics may follow their consciences with impunity "even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views" are actually ignoring Church teaching, which states explicitly that personal conscience "should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church." (Catechism, 2039)

We are responsible for seeking truth. Then, once we have found truth, we are responsible for conforming our lives to it. To the extent that we decide not to seek truth in the first place, we are accountable for that unfortunate decision.

I have personally known Catholics who have declined to learn more about Catholic morality precisely because they don't want to be held accountable for their actions. But of course, God doesn't play games like that. He knows every human heart and its intentions. And a soul who is willfully clinging to "ignorance" is not truly ignorant at all.

If, on the other hand, a soul is invincibly ignorant of the moral law (i.e., their ignorance or poorly formed conscience exists through no fault of their own), then they are not culpable for those sins, even though their actions are still objectively sinful.  

One can only be responsible for what he knows or what he should know. He cannot be responsible for what he is incapable of knowing. That's justice. Wouldn't you agree?

From the Catechism (1793)

[If] the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.

That last sentence is why we Catholics must learn and then teach our Faith. 

So, to sum it up, there are really two parts to the discussion of conscience: 

1) We are obligated to form our consciences properly. 
2) We are obligated to follow our consciences.

Pretty simple, huh?

The end!

*The source of the article is the well-known and misleadingly-named "Catholics For a Free Choice." This is not a Catholic group and it has been roundly denounced by the U.S. Bishops. It's sort of like if there were a group called "Vegetarians For Meat-Eating" -- are they really vegetarians? Commenters should always consider the source and please use only authentically Catholic sources when attempting to represent Catholic teaching.


  1. This is what I would call a bubble smack down! ;) I love this post and I can not stand Catholics for choice....

  2. Heh, I love the graphic at the end. I usually refer to this mindset as "Jiminy Cricket Catholicism."

    It makes no sense, really. If a priest claimed that he sexually abused children because his conscience told him that was okay, would "Catholics for a Free Choice" find that acceptable? I think not. It's a very hypocritical stance.

  3. This was the hardest concept to convey to students when I taught RCIA. It's the "well-formed" part that was most often ignored.

  4. Brilliant! Thank you Leila. I'm saving this.

  5. Wonderful post Leila, and great example Joanna - If my pastor is doing something I know to be wrong, then I not obligated to ignore or condone - we are a church not a cult!

  6. From Arlene: I think that this also refers to "natural law". There is a law that God places in our hearts and our consciences that tells us that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. Murder is wrong not only because of the teaching of the Church or Scripture but also natural law. Despite the efforts of many to deceive others and themselves, abortion is not only wrong because the Catholic Church teaches that it is wrong or because Scripture teaches that it is wrong, but also natural law teaches that it is wrong. The same goes for rape, incest, adultery, stealing, and lying.
    The teaching of the Catholic Church does refer to the primacy of conscience, but it is of informed conscience.

  7. Once again excellent post. This supposed conscience "loophole" has been jumped through by way too many Catholics. I've even heard errant priests endorse it in some kind of misplaced sympathy. Properly formed consciences don't just happen. They are NOT our instincts, inclinations, whims, or habits - it is supposed to be THE VOICE OF GOD. In other words our consciences should tell us what GOD wants which is NOT necessarily what we want. Holiness is the melding of the two minds ours and His - or when we eventually and truly seek what God does. I find this "conscience argument" used mostly for the justification of the use of artificial birth control and am, quite frankly, exhausted by the misinterpretation of what the Church truly teaches. Thanks for the clarification!

  8. At our Christmas Masses this year, a donor in our parish gave each family (~ 1,500 families) a copy of the book, "Confessions of a Mega Church Pastor," about a former Methodist minister's conversion to the Catholic Church. I just read it yesterday (it's a quick read), and it was wonderful!

    The reason I mention it is that this issue was one of the major points that brought him to Catholicism. He asked himself, how can millions of different people follow their own individual (different) consciences and all be right? How can they all be pleasing God? How can more than 33,000 separate Christian "churches" deciding on their own what is right and wrong all please God? Where is Truth?

    Cathy BB

    P.S. The author is Allen Hunt if anyone wants to look it up.

  9. When I talk to people about this issue, I try and find what is hindering them.
    What is keeping them from the education or acknowledgement of a well informed conscience? What is keeping them from coming to agreement with Church teaching?
    Many times it seems to be selfishness. I point out to them that it is also called Pride. "You have met yourself and he is Pride." I usually don't get complimented for my tact! :)
    But some people just need the direct approach.

    Am I off base here?

    Casey in Alaska

  10. Cathy BB, that is awesome!

    Casey, I think that approach works well with some (that's what would have worked for me when I was floating around in sin). It depends on the person and the personality type. That's what I've learned... You've got to meet them where they are.

    But I happen to love the direct approach!!! :)

  11. Love this post! Bookmarking it!

  12. Haha, I like the title in the code better than the one on the page. I thought it was a new post...but it's great to be reminded of this reference post!!!

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. i think you make an interesting point.

    the whole conscience thing is misguided and misused. its meant i believe only after lots of prayer, discernment, intentional challenging conversations, and really seeking out the truth w everything you've got. THEN humbly being obedient to God's calling. who many people do you really think do that, and wrestle w truth?

    instead some catholics choose to use the whole conscience theology to appease their own conscience. and allow them to be tangled in their own sin.

  15. The Church asks for informed obedience, not blind obedience.

    We are to follow our conscience first. The liberals are right on this point. This is because people can misunderstand the Church's teaching go blindly charging off at full speed in the wrong direction.

    But we also have an obligation to inform our conscience. To study Church teaching. To try to understand it.

    So following our conscience is not a license to do what we please, but to seek the truth.


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