Sunday, September 16, 2012

Revisiting dissenting Catholics and the excuse of "conscience"

[Forgive my absences! I'm battling some back pain that makes it difficult to sit at the computer. In the meantime, in light of this season of open dissent by Catholics in politics and elsewhere, I thought it good that we revisit this Little Teaching from December 27, 2010, with a few edits. This is the Church's answer -- your answer -- to any dissenting Catholic who uses "primacy of conscience" as their excuse to contravene Church teaching.]

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 conscience 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.

Well actually, the dissenting Catholics always leave something out. They like to talk about always following one's conscience, but they never talk about one's obligation to correctly form one's conscience in the first place. That's a pretty big omission!

In fact, when dissenters say that Catholicism teaches that Catholics may follow their consciences with impunity "even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views", they 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)

Pretty clear, no?

Now, what 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 precisely because he refuses to seek truth, or if he has deadened his own conscience by repeated sins, or if he willfully rejects what he knows to be legitimate Church authority -- then he is culpable.

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 their 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 first obligated to form our consciences properly. 
2) We are then 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 "Vegans For Meat-Eating" -- are they really vegans? Commenters should always consider the source and please use only authentically Catholic sources when attempting to represent Catholic teaching.



  1. Thank you for this blog, Leila, as I was trying to explain it to someone the other day and was struggling with context, so now I have better ammunition.

    I truly believe many "Catholics" who spout conscience ideals are merely trying to use the word "Catholic" to back up their own skewed beliefs and made no effort to learn what the Catholic Church teaches. They wield the word "Catholic" as if it makes whatever they say right. Of course, I'm thinking of Caroline Kennedy and her pretext of, "As a Catholic Woman..." I don't think her conscience really had anything to do with it. She just wanted to invoke the word "Catholic" to make it look like she was speaking for the rest of us. For shame.


  2. "We are responsible for seeking truth."

    That alone is a powerful statement. And as a catechist, you on your forum and me in my 7th grade classroom, we are responsible for dispensing the truth. Thank you for making that easier.

    Here's another powerful one for you: first the setting: a group of about 20 Catholic catechists attending a formation meeting. Our ending was to Bless ourselves with Holy Water and say these simple words in front of these witnesses:

    "Lord, I AM listening."

  3. I am especially "bothered" by the Catholics who use their conscience to justify abortion or, as those in Massachusetts are doing on the proposed ballot issue, to justify euthanasia. Apparently their conscience has never read CCC 2280: “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of."

  4. 1) We are first obligated to form our consciences properly.

    Sticking point. But much easier than (2)

    Forming it is not as difficult as following it, IMO.

    (I'm offering up some Hail Mary's that your back pain ceases!)

  5. This is a good point about having a well formed conscience. But my question is, what about a Catholic who has a well formed conscience, and that comes to hold different beliefs than the Church as a result of listening to that conscience?

  6. Women for All Seasons, then the person's conscience is actually not well-formed, but misinformed. A well-formed conscience is one that conforms to the moral law and the teachings of the Church. Remember, the Church claims something extraordinary: She is founded by Jesus Christ Himself (God) to teach Truth to the nations.

    My response assumes that you are talking about teachings of the Church that are part of the unchanging Deposit of Faith (what we believe [doctrine] and how we live [the moral law]).

    On issues of Church discipline, Catholics are free to believe that the Church law or discipline should change.


      This explains the difference between doctrine and discipline.

  7. I wonder if it is possible to have a "malnourished" conscience in the other direction? I mean, if it is possible to be so "obedient" or "loyal" in some sense to the hierarchy of the Church that you fail to see places that you should be pushing for improvement? For example, there is no doubt in my mind that there is still much work to be done in the area of child abuse, yet I see people defend Fr. Groeschel's obviously indefensible words on the subject, even after the apologies and explanation of growing difficulties, and they do so in name of "loyalty to the Magisterium".


    I'm saying this from the outside looking in, but what do YOU all think? Is it possible to have a malformed conscience the opposite direction?

  8. Elizabeth, definitely. A malformed conscience is a malformed conscience. I can't speak to people who defend Fr. Groeschel's words (which are due to a head injury, and like you said, apologized for), and I'm not sure that falls under any matter of doctrine or morals ("One must defend Fr. Groeschel" or not…or "the Church has not done enough on child abuse" or not… that is pretty vague). But you are right in the sense that the schismatic groups such as SSPX do set their consciences against the Magisterium while actually believing they are in line with the True Church! So, yes, definitely. Malformed consciences can take many shapes, and the "we're more Catholic than the pope" group is an example.


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