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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2018
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich arrives for a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople meeting in Rome to discuss how the church relates to young people appear to believe Catholic teaching on conscience deserves more attention.

A round of reports from the synod’s working groups was released on Tuesday, and some of the English-language groups suggested that young people will benefit from understanding Catholic teaching on conscience, while others seemed to worry that individual believers could be encouraged to rely on their own consciences even if they are at odds with church teaching.

The group moderated by Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago who was chosen by Pope Francis to be present at the synod, reported that it held a “substantial discussion” about the role of conscience, adding that it would like to see “a clearly Christian explanation, perhaps something that is both anchored in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and which is accessible to young people.”

Back in 2014 and 2015, when Pope Francis urged bishops from around the world to discuss issues important to families, the role of conscience was front and center, animating debates about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and how church leaders should respond to the pastoral needs of L.G.B.T. Catholics.

Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.

The group moderated by Cardinal Blase Cupich held a “substantial discussion” about the role of conscience. 

Cardinal Cupich was present at the 2015 synod, and he made headlines for a press briefing during which he talked about meeting with Catholics who feel marginalized, including divorced and remarried and gay Catholics. He noted that he makes it a point to respect their consciences when it comes to their life in the church.

“The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions,” he said at the time.

Catholics believe that following one’s conscience is paramount—and that believers should do their best to form their consciences in the light of reason, experience, Scripture and spiritual formation, always with the help of church teaching.

Another working group, moderated by Cardinal Joseph Coutts, the archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan, reported that it “appreciated the emphasis in the [synod’s working document] on the respect for the freedom and conscience of the person being accompanied.”

“We would like these concepts to be more fully developed,” the group added.

That group also said that those providing “accompaniment” to young people “should also be free to offer ‘fraternal correction’ when necessary, without losing the respect for freedom and conscience.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is moderating another English-language group, which also includes Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.

While agreeing about the importance of conscience, which the group called an indispensable “ingredient in any act of vocational discernment,” it appeared to take issue with how the synod’s working document defines conscience, fearing that it may give the impression to young adult Catholics that they can simply live by rules they set for themselves.

The report from Cardinal DiNardo’s group said the group is “concerned that the language used in the document might give the impression that conscience is an individualistic affair, a matter merely of a given person’s feelings and will.”

“We felt that the introduction of the simple phrase, ‘a well-formed conscience’ might serve to hold off any concerns regarding subjectivism,” the report stated.

The statement appears to be a nod to the debate over whether Catholics have a duty to follow their conscience even if it tells them to act in a way that is against church teaching—or if such a conscience has not been fully formed.

The synod’s working document invokes Vatican II, which called conscience “the most secret core and sanctuary” of human beings, where they are “alone with God.” The document goes on to say, “the exercise of our conscience is a universal anthropological value: it challenges every man and woman, not just believers, and all must respond to it.”

During the 2015 synod, some bishops feared that the final document was being written in a way that allowed Catholics who do not follow all church teachings to cite Catholic teaching on conscience when deciding, for example, if they should take Communion. The final report from Pope Francis appeared to endorse that view, leaving open the possibility for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion after a period of a discernment with a spiritual director or pastor.

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Michael Barberi
5 years 8 months ago

The internal forum or the informed conscience is a Catholic moral law that I have been using in many of my arguments regarding:
> Changes in the teaching about the treatment and salvation of LGBT Catholics, or in its pastoral application, and
> Responsible changes in the teaching Humanae Vitae (and its condemnation of artificial birth control), or in changes in its pastoral application. During the 1970s, many priests have counseled faithful Catholics, often during a pastoral guidance session, to use their informed consciences with respect to the use of a birth control method. I can attest to such a session with my pastor in the 1970s. Not surprising to me, this has not changed as I have discussed the issue of birth control with two of them (in two different parishes) over the past 8-10 years. They told me that all couples that want to marry in the Church must attend sessions on NFP and understand the teaching of the Church. The decision about birth control should be carefully considered by all married couples, but in the end it is up to them and their informed consciences. Nevertheless, many priests don't bring up the informed conscience and counsel couples what the Church teaches, its rationale, and the benefits of NFP. Nevertheless, we all know that HV is not received by 80% of worldwide Catholics.

I am happy that the issue about the informed conscience has been raised in the Synod on Young People. The entire role of the "informed conscience" must be fully developed and explained so that all Catholics, young and old, can understand it and apply it prudently and properly, perhaps under the guidance and accompaniment of a skilled priest, when confronted with a moral decision in circumstances.

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

The internal forum is not the same as the conscience. The internal forum can be utilized to secure a judgement from an church authority on a sensitive matter which the church leadership will allow privately, but will never admit to in public. Certain marriages are secret, likewise some marriages are deemed non-sacramental (but only privately.) The value of the internal forum exists because (1) some people think they need permission from a priest to realize their own right to self-determination, and (2) the church is willing to grant some of these exceptions on a case by case basis, as long as it never has to admit publically to its leniency toward some people, but not others. This way the church can hold up rigid moral absolutes on the altar, and secretly give permission to some select people to behave differently.

Michael Barberi
5 years 8 months ago

The internal forum is a broader concept than the informed conscience. Nevertheless, the properly formed and informed conscience is at center of Amoris Laetitia. As to your comments, I highly disagree with your description of the internal forum and why it exists. Let me try to put this concept in my own words, recognizing that I am not describing every detail here.

The internal forum is a pastoral process involving a Catholic and a skilled pastor about a tension between the teaching of the magisterium and a person's properly formed and informed conscience. The process involves discernment, mercy, education, circumstances and a sincere and honest evaluation by the priest that God is speaking to this person in the depths of his heart and conscience. While no one knows whether God is speaking to a person or not, a skilled priest attempts to determine this as best as humanly possible.

In the words of Pope Francis, what the person is doing now in circumstances may be all that God is asking of him at this time even though this may not be the ideal. An example of this is a divorced and remarried Catholic who has matured, admits of his past sin and error in his first marriage and seeks forgiveness. The priest seeks to understand if this person is in a successful and fruitful second marriage with children and whether the person has and continues to properly care for his first wife and other children. Also, the priest attempts to discern if this person cannot go back to his first spouse as he/she is remarried or the circumstances are so acute that this is not possible....or if going back to his first wife is possible, but leaving his second wife and children would be highly immoral. In other words, the person is in a moral dilemma.

This person must sincerely want to come back to the Church and follow all the obligations and responsibilities of a good marriage despite such circumstances. Additionally, if this person believes that while he/she is not in an ideal situation, God is speaking to him in the depths of his informed conscience, then the priest may permit this person access to Holy Communion if the priest believes he/she has a properly formed and informed conscience.

Keep in mind that the person as described above had made a voluntary attempt to speak to a priest because he/she wants to come back to the Church. He/she must show remorse about a sin or error and sincere sorrow for offending God and others. In such circumstances and under certain conditions, a divorced and remarried Catholic may receive Holy Communion according to Amoris Laetitia (AL).

AL does not change doctrine. It changes the pastoral application of doctrine. As Cardinal Schornborn said, AL changed nothing but it also changed everything.

As to your comments about secrecy et al, AL is not a secret. There are outreach programs for the divorced and remarried in many parishes. Of course, the meetings with a priest are by necessity confidential and secret (not disclosed publicly). However, AL is public for all to read and it admits to mercy and forgiveness in circumstances. Guidelines for the internal forum were approved by Pope Francis and are also not secret (e.g., see the guidelines of the Argentina bishops that are online). The dioceses that follow AL also do not secretly give permission to some select people while holding up rigid moral absolutes on the alter. Granted, many dioceses and Conferences of Bishops around the world support AL while others do not. Unfortunately, we have to realize at the current time that we live in a divided Church and in a crisis of truth. Nevertheless, in my opinion this issue will eventually lead to a more welcoming, compassionate and merciful Church.

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

Michael, I realize that my 'spin' is certainly not how a pastoral minister would explain the internal forum to someone who might actually benefit from it. But this is truly how I feel about the matter. This is likely due to my perception that others will benefit from it (and I am happy that is the case) but I will probably never be afforded the same mercy. Mercy is not evenly distributed on this earth. Also, as a matter of principle, I don't know why good advice needs to be secret.

I do have a few questions for you. You write that... "While no one knows whether God is speaking to a person or not, a skilled priest attempts to determine this as best as humanly possible." Why do you differentiate between a priest and a skilled priest? Are most priests actually skilled in this area? And why does a person with intellect and reason need to rely on the opinion of a priest, regardless of his skill level? If someone does need help sorting out complex personal issues, aren't there other role models in the community to help?

Michael Barberi
5 years 8 months ago

A Fielder - I don't know what you meant by "I will probably never be afforded the same mercy". If you are referring to how homosexuals are treated by the Church or how a divorced and remarried Catholic is often treated despite Amoris Laetitia, I can understand.

I used the term 'skilled priest' when I was referring to the internal forum in light of Amoris Laetitia (AL). By that I meant a priest who was educated and knowledgable about Pope Francis's approved guidelines for conducting the discernment and accompaniment process for the divorced and remarried (e.g., see the guidelines online by the Argentina Bishops what Pope Francis approved). In other words, I was aware that not all priests know these guidelines and many will not conduct such a process as many bishops do not support AL.

I also replied to your question on another blog about conscience and gave you a detailed explanation of what a properly formed and informed conscience is as well as one suggested process one could follow when a person's conscience is in tension with a teaching of the magisterium.

I agree with you that every person has intellect and reason. However, I was not talking about sorting out personal issues that most of us have from time to time. I was talking about very complex moral issues such as sorting out same sex marriage, contraception, divorce and remarriage. This is not so easy for most Catholics to fully understand, not only what the Church teaches but also the different moral arguments that underpin the teaching and those moral arguments that disagree with the teachings of the Church.

IMO, it is often highly valuable to discuss these complex issues with a priest and when possible a moral theologian (if you have such a friend or colleague). This does not mean that you should follow the priest's advice but it is one very valuable input you should consider. In my experience, I spoke to 3 priests over the years about contraception. I also had a private counseling session with one parish priest about same sex marriage and civil unions and all the questions, et al, I had. In other words, if you are a faithful Catholic you should seek out a priest that is knowledgable in such issues. For example, if I was a homosexual I probably would seek out a priest who ministers to this community. This does not mean that you should search out a priest that you think will tell you what you want to hear. Rather, I am suggesting that you might talk to a few priests that represent the spectrum of pastoral thought on the issue or teaching in question, especially if you disagree with the Church's teaching. For example, in my education in moral theology, I chose two mentors, one was a traditionalist (a very conservative moral theologian who was an apologist for the Church) and a revisionist (a progressive moral theologian that respected Scripture, Tradition and Church teachings but had a different interpretation of things). I choose to do this because I wanted to fully understand both schools of moral theological thought and then make up my own mind about various issues.

When I disagree with a teaching of the magisterium, I also continue to be open to further education. I also pray frequently over such issues. This process often takes a lifetime, even though my properly formed and informed conscience may not change. Hence, I try to listen to other's arguments and be respectful of the Church. Keep in mind, you can disagree and still be a faithful Catholic.

I hope this was helpful.

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

Michael, consider that “the personal issues we all have from time to time” are the same ones that are “very complex moral issues” that you live with every day, and that over the years you have heard priests offer the gamut of pastoral care, things like “you have to put those thoughts out of your mind right away” or “I would not worry too much about that” or “I hope you find your way.” These three approaches are all very different, and also mostly useless except to reveal that even among priests there are people who will parrot the party line, tell you to ignore it, or hope that you will eventually figure it out on your own with no help from him. You think to yourself “Thanks for nothing, Father.” Then there is the merciful sentiment, "You can always come back." And I think to myself "to what? more public shaming."

So then you spend $60k to study graduate theology where you will meet a Jesuit who is willing to blackmail you for sexual favors in exchange for discretion in the face of his indiscretion and your moral bind. It took two very long painful years to recover from the PTSD.

If priests are unwilling (or unable) to offer helpful counsel in public, why would we expect anything more valuable in secret?

Vince Killoran
5 years 8 months ago

I'm happy that the Synod is focused on this aspect of Catholic faith formations. It needs much more articulation in school children and adult education. Most Catholics don't know anything about it.

Frank T
5 years 8 months ago

Finally, the "wiggle room' that Catholics have been looking for these many years,
For better or worse, where was this idea 60 years ago?

Reyanna Rice
5 years 8 months ago

It has been a part of the teachings of the church for a long time. It was referred to as the internal forum. The past two papacies, especially that if JP2 downplayed the role of comscience in the life of a Christian.

Danny Collins
5 years 8 months ago

Hard to take such comments seriously when they come from someone McCarrick pushed for.

McCarrick has never come clean and issued a real apology for his actions. I imagine his conscience told him abusing seminarians and adolescents was OK because he needed release.

Of course, America Magazine knew about McCarrick. Fr. Martin excuses doing nothing about McCarrick, in spite of being told from multiple sources whose accuracy he never questioned. What did Fr. Martin's conscience tell him about covering up for McCarrick's abuse?

Reyanna Rice
5 years 8 months ago

There is absolutely no proof that the pope made Archbishop Cupich a cardinal at the behest of McCarrick. In fact, anyone who knows anything about the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio finds that a laughable notion. The man has a history of being his own man and owning his own decisions. He will consult widely but decides independently.

John Chuchman
5 years 8 months ago

Conscience is primary as long as it is in agreement with church teaching????
What a sham!

John Chuchman
5 years 8 months ago

Surely if there ever was a perfect catch-all phrase,
it is teachings-of-the-Church.

  It includes everything from defined dogmas,
items in the Apostle's Creed,
1752 Canon laws,
opinions of the Pope
(like steam locomotives are the work of the devil),
 every one of the 2865 items in the Catechism,
 to the thoughts of cranky old bishops
like Burke and Molino. 

It has become a universal cliché 
of the hierarchy to discourage dissent.

 Falling into the same catch-all basket of against
The Teachings of the Church
 are those who disagree with pre-Vatican II liturgical norms and language, contraception,
mandatory celibacy for priests,
collective bargaining,
just war and torture,
women's ordination,
same sex unions,
the resurrection of Jesus,
the nature of the Trinity,
and if God really exists.  

Note that some Teachings of the Church
are slippery, time-bound, and culturally-colored.

At stake here is the power and authority, 
originating from the community of the Church
and appropriated by unelected leaders 
to set the rules for who is in and who is out. 

By voting a certain way, you could be considered out
according to The Teachings of the Church.
By not behaving/believing  according to the bishop's instruction,
you are obviously against the Teaching of the Church.

Some (bishops?)
believe good teaching is the attempt to influence,
even coerce,
the faithful into believing what is being taught.  

But the criteria for effective teaching involves rather
if the teaching makes sense and is received by the faithful.  

If you do not accept that all contraception is sinful,
or legalizing same-sex unions are wrong, 
or only men can be ordained,
or contributors should have a say in how their money is spent
and who should be responsible,
or the language of prayer should be strange or contorted,
or bishops should tell us how to vote,
you are dissenting against
the teachings of the Church.

Without careful and intelligent scrutiny,
accepting every teaching of the Church
is similar to checking the box
I agree
to observe every privacy/usage rule for downloading new software/ upgrades.  

Study the reasoning behind Church teachings,
consult and observe how your Catholic community receives them,
and judge for yourself.  

Follow your own well-formed conscience,
as fallible as it may be.

"Who is going to save the church?
Not the bishops, not the priests and religious.
It is up to you the people.
You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save Her."
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Tim O'Leary
5 years 8 months ago

Conscience is being very misrepresented here. People (and some clergy) are mixing it up for one's opinion. It cannot overturn the clear teachings of the Church, or of Holy Scripture. Conscience doesn't decide the truths of the faith - it decides the application of the faith to one's particular circumstance and situation. If the teaching is that there are 3 persons in the one God, one's conscience cannot decide that there are 4 persons. If one says that one cannot take communion unless one is in a state of grave/mortal sin, one's conscience judges not the rule, but if one is indeed in a state of mortal sin. When one mixes up one's conscience with one's opinion, then all teaching ceases to be binding. It becomes suggestions. This is the path the Episcopalian Church has tried to go down, with tragic consequences.

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

I think it would be helpful to clarify here that "conscience" is really "moral conscience" and is properly concerned with judgments about what is right and wrong. Articles of faith, on the other hand, can only be know by revelation, and not reason. Prudence is a virtue which depends on reason and involves making practical decisions about what to do in a given context, taking all relevant circumstances and good counsel into account. Tim, if you do understand what conscience is you have not explained it very clearly here.

I have always found it interesting the Natural Law methodology assumes that all people have reason and intellect, and therefore does not require or admit the existence of an "authority" to decide for the entire group what is right or wrong.

Michael Barberi
5 years 8 months ago

Tim - You are the one that is misrepresenting and misunderstanding the role of a properly formed and informed conscience. It is not about "one's opinion". This may be an easy talking point, but it is misleading. A decision of a properly formed and informed conscience and the process one must take is about whether God is speaking to a person in the depths of their conscience. It is about whether the actions that the person is taking is what God is asking of him at this time despite the fact that this may not be the ideal. It is also about whether a teaching such as Humanae Vitae that is claimed by the magisterium is the absolute moral truth and Divine Law, and whether practicing contraception for good reasons is a mortal sin.

A properly formed and informed conscience does not seek to overturn a Church teaching or Holy Scripture (although it might be about an interpretation of a moral law in Scripture or whether a teaching is the absolute moral truth). Conscience is not concerned about deciding the truths of faith. Conscience is often about the morally right thing to do in complicated circumstances of moral dilemma.

Your comment about taking Holy Communion is almost incoherent. First, there is the question about the
whether the person is in mortal sin or culpable of sin. Let's take another example besides Humanae Vitae. Amoris Laetitia permits Holy Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics under certain conditions..see my comment to A. Fielder. The Church may continue to teach that anyone that is divorced and remarried is in mortal sin, but this does not mean that the person is culpable of mortal sin. Keep in mind that the Church teaches that one must never go against one's properly formed and informed conscience even if it is going against a moral teaching of the magisterium. It is also not about whether an informed conscience is right or wrong. Even if the informed conscience errs (something that the person does not believe), there is no culpability if the person is abiding by his/her properly formed and informed conscience. That is what Aquinas taught us and what the Church teaches us today. Hence, you should never say....this person is wrong and guilty of sin in such circumstances. Also, if there is not culpability for sin, then what is the point of the argument...that the Church is right all the time relative to its moral teachings and every Catholic who disagrees based on their informed conscience is wrong. Such an argument is pure folly.

Keep in mind that moral decisions of conscience should always be in the consultation of a skilled priest. Sometimes this means during the accompaniment and discernment process and internal forum explicated in Amoris Laetitia.

I agree that a decision of an ill-formed and uninformed conscience is often about 'opinion and subjectivism''. However, we are not taking about subjectivism or mere opinion here. Finally to conflate the properly formed and informed conscience and its process with the path the Episcopalian Church took is highly misleading and specious.

John Chuchman
5 years 8 months ago

Teachings of the church are not infallible and can never override Conscience.
They are but one source of guidance that can be used to help inform conscience.

Sandi Sinor
5 years 8 months ago

Exactly. From the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church

1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."53

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.

Al Cannistraro
5 years 8 months ago

What interests me (or would interest me were it discussed) is the role of conscience in deciding how much weight to give to good faith historical findings based on good historical method (without respect to Church teaching) vs. Church teachings that entail historical assertions based primarily on tradition and on outdated historical methods and claims.

In other words, can honest and solid scholarship done in good conscience, which leads to a radical but plausible re-framing of Christian (and Jewish) origin narratives, ever be entertained? I have in mind the silenced thoughts of bible scholar Fr. Thomas Brodie, who apparently remains a Dominican (and a Catholic) despite his historical findings regarding Jesus and Christian origins.

Forgive me if this posting is deemed too off-topic, but I honestly do think it's related to the current discussion of how to discuss conscience with modern young minds in mind.

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

Al, what you are describing is called "historical-critical" scholarship. I am not familiar with the work of the one scholar you mention, but this methodology is used quite frequently in contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship, with the blessing of the magisterium, often in conjunction with other methods also. (http://www.catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp1.htm)

It helps me to remember that the gospels are about passing down our faith, not our history. The incarnation and the resurrection, for example, are mysteries that transcend what any historical method can illuminate. These mysteries belong to the church as much as the bible and our sacraments. The stories in scripture help to form and give identity and purpose to a people, a church community. And it is as a community that Jesus is saving us. The synod takes up the question of vocational discernment in community and, from what I can see, is struggling with the challenge of how to encourage individuals to discern fruitful vocations for the good of the whole church community and also for each individual. These difficult decisions in our own historical and cultural contexts often rely on the role of conscience, both for the ones discerning and for those who help.

Like many others here, I am also glad to see the topic being discussed as there is widespread misunderstanding on the topic. I remember a homily on Good Shepherd Sunday a few years back in which the priest clearly said, "Don't follow your conscience, follow the word of God." I was appalled; this sentiment is certainly not consistent with authentic church teaching. I have no idea if this foreign born priest went to failing seminary, or if he was just a very poor student who has now mislead hundreds if not a thousand parishioners.

Al Cannistraro
5 years 8 months ago

A FIELDER: Thank you very much for your reply, and particularly for the link to the document.

If you are interested in Thomas L. Brodie, see the following

A Fielder
5 years 8 months ago

"In other words, can honest and solid scholarship done in good conscience, which leads to a radical but plausible re-framing of Christian (and Jewish) origin narratives, ever be entertained?"

Al, thanks for sharing these links. I think your question above is operative. And the answer is yes, of course, but when the academy itself has many different opinions on many different questions, who determines what passes as "solid scholarship." It's not just church authority which has called a foul here, even within the academy Brodie's conclusions are contested.

Christology can be a difficult topic to study, especially when we start asking questions about the historical Jesus. Having struggled through some of those confusing times, I am now much more comfortable to admit that we really do not know exactly what is historical, mythical or a little bit of both. But, and this is important, it does not matter. Our modern conception of history, is just that, a modern concept. Historical fact was not really a significant category for ancient people. It was much more important to discuss the meaning of those events, not simply the events. Certain gospel stories are told in ways that resemble ancient ways of telling stories. The Greek work for story is mythos. This does not mean that the event underlying the story is not historical. It means that ancient story tellers did what they could, with the tools at their disposal, to communicate the profound significance of what they experienced. I can not recount all of the historical details of Jesus' life. But we do have access to the literary witness of the early church community. And from reading this literature, I am pretty sure that something amazing happened. There is no other way explain the extraordinary phenomenon and faith of the early church community. To think that we today can share this same faith in a God who is with us and stronger than death is pretty incredible.

Al Cannistraro
5 years 8 months ago

A FIELDER: Again, thank you very much for your thoughtful and respectful reply. And thank you especially for your forthright explanation of how you ground your faith despite historical ambiguities. Rather than offer a contrasting or opposing opinion (which I easily could), I'll just think about what you have shared.

Phillip Stone
5 years 8 months ago

Not to make too fine a point of it, my Border Collie has a conscience and most of the dogs I have lived with after raising them from pups were the same. All my children followed the same path of development, they learned my rules and obeyed under scrutiny.

What does this word conscience have to do with being a disciple of Jesus?
The "gospel" of sin management when taken as the core basis of belief is simply another sect of Judaism.
Catholics are alleged to be Christians and are to be led by Christ as his apprentices into becoming persons who can rejoice in living in the kingdom of God enjoying avoiding all acts which are against the law as transmitted through Moses and the Prophets and acting with total freedom as workers in his eternity.

Colin Jory
5 years 8 months ago

Conscience has always been a rubbery concept. The term occurs much in Acts and the Epistles. It occurs most famously in Romans 2:14-15, which states that Gentiles "who do not have the Law" nonetheless "show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them." Here it is taken for granted that conscience is a guide to objective (Christian) moral truth; and that the prompting of conscience is a prompt to seek and to do what is objectively right. There is no recognition here, or anywhere in the scriptures, of a "wrong" conscience which is at odds with objective moral truth, let alone that anyone is obliged to follow a wrong conscience. Conscience can be non-culpably wrong, but this was only recognised by the Church later. Unfortunately, from this truth arose the falsehood, which has been hugely toxic since Humanae Vitae because it is seen as a justification for defying the Encyclical, that knowing objective right, and knowing the "voice" of conscience, are distinguishable and opposable in the mind; that a Christian can therefore recognise when confronted by a moral issue that relevant Church doctrine conflicts with their "conscience" in relation to the issue; and that in this circumstance the person has an objective right and duty to follow conscience and thus knowingly defy the authoritative Church teaching. This is absurd. In reality the only way it can be true that a person is both obliged to do what is objectively right and obliged to follow conscience is if "following conscience" is recognised as a loose concept, a metonym equivalent to the expression "one must follow one's heart" in that its meaning is not and cannot be literal. One cannot literally follow one's heart; one cannot literally follow one's conscience. "Following conscience" can only mean recognising that there is objective right, and (fallibly) seeking to know and do it.

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