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After much free and honest talk—what Pope Francis in his final address to the Synod on the Family last October praised as “a spirit of collegiality and synodality”—and the revelation of significant divisions among the world’s bishops, we now await the ongoing discussions in preparation for the second session of the Synod on the Family in October. Unfortunately, none of the synod fathers sought to defend the long-standing Catholic way to make a moral choice, namely, individual conscience, the “law inscribed by God” in human hearts, “the most secret core and sanctuary of man...[where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depth. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16).

The Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, commented on this passage: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”

Thomas Aquinas, in his book of Sentences (IV, 38, 2, 4), established the authority and inviolability of conscience in words similar to Father Ratzinger’s: “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.” For any Catholic in search of truth, no stronger statement on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience could be found, but Aquinas goes further. He insists that even the dictate of an erroneous conscience must be followed and that to act against such a dictate is immoral.

Seven hundred years later, the last hundred of which saw the rights of individual conscience regularly challenged in the church, Vatican II’s “Decree on Religious Freedom” embraced Aquinas’s judgment on the inviolability of conscience: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a 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” (No. 3). In the 1960s, such words were seldom heard in Catholic magisterial circles, but the undoubted reality is that they are ideas that are deeply rooted in the Catholic moral tradition and, indeed, are constitutive of it.

From Aquinas we learn that conscience is related to reason. Reason distinguishes humans from all other animals, and together with the will is deeply involved in the process of coming to truth. All knowledge begins with experience and proceeds through understanding to judgment and decision, which is actualized in action. Conscience is the rational act of practical judgment that something is right or wrong, to be done or not done. It acts in two ways. It directs us to do or not to do something; and, if some action has been done, it tests whether that action is right or not right.

Two Approaches to Conscience

In a church that is truly catholic or universal, we find different theological approaches to many noninfallible teachings. Here are examples of two major approaches to conscience through the teachings of two well-known moral theologians. The theologian Germain Grisez holds that the only way to form one’s conscience is to conform it to the teaching of the church. “In morals,” he writes, “a faithful Catholic never will permit his or her own opinions, any seemingly cogent deliverances of experience, even supposedly scientific arguments, or the contradictory belief of the whole world outside the faith to override the church’s clear and firm teaching.” For Professor Grisez and theologians who agree with him, including St. John Paul II, conscience is ultimately about obedience to church teaching. John Paul’s apostolic exhortation “On the Family” is wholly rooted in the truth of sexuality and marriage as taught by the church and the obligation of the laity to make that truth their own and to obey it, a position he strongly reinforced in his encyclical “The Splendor of Truth.”

The revisionist theologian Bernhard Häring, C.Ss.R., is diametrically opposed to that stance. In the context of his overall approach to moral theology, which stresses God’s summons to all women and men to goodness and each individual’s response of a moral life, conscience, “man’s innermost yearning toward ‘wholeness,’ which manifests itself in openness to neighbor and community in a common searching for goodness and truth,” must be free and inviolable, and “the church must affirm the freedom of conscience itself.” Church doctrine is at the service of women and men as they use conscience in their search for goodness, truth and Christian wholeness; conscience is not at the service of doctrine. “It staggers the imagination,” Häring writes, “to think that an earthly authority or an ecclesiastical magisterium could take away from man his own decision of conscience.”

An important, and sadly oft-ignored, corollary flows from the foregoing. One lone theological voice does not make a tradition; and if a sincere and right conscience is inviolable, then the sincere and right consciences of theologians like both Grisez and Häring are inviolable. Both stances must acknowledge this broad Catholic conscience-tradition and open themselves to mutual dialogue in the search to expand and deepen their own and the diverse Catholic understandings of moral goodness and truth.

What Pope Francis writes in “The Joy of the Gospel” is profoundly pertinent here: “Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But, in fact, such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” We hold with Aquinas that the moral life and the spiritual life are not separate. The Christian moral life is also the Christian spiritual life, and the strategy of ethics and moral theology, according to Aquinas, “is not primarily to assist us in making good decisions or to help us in resolving problems of conscience,” still less to win points in debate. No, in response to God’s call, its goal is “the total transformation of ourselves into people who can call God’s kingdom their home.”

The judgment of conscience, then, comes at the end of a rational process of experience, understanding, judgment and decision. This process includes a natural, innate grasp of moral principles that Aquinas calls synderesis. He never makes these principles clear anywhere, for he believes they are self-evident and indemonstrable. To make a right decision of conscience on a moral question involves both a grasp of first principles, like “good is to be done and evil is to be avoided,” and the gathering of as much evidence as possible, consciously weighing and understanding the evidence and its implications, and finally making as honest a judgment as is humanly possible that this action is good and to be done and that the alternative action is evil and to be avoided. A moral action is one that comes as the outcome of such a process.

Prudential Judgments

Since conscience is a practical judgment that comes at the end of a rational, deliberative process, it necessarily involves the virtue of prudence, the virtue by which right reason is applied to action. Aquinas locates prudence in the intellect along with synderesis and conscientia. Synderesis provides the first principles of practical reason; prudence discerns those principles, applies them to particular situations and enables conscientia to make practical judgments that this is the right thing to do on this occasion, with this right intention. Prudence, therefore, needs to know both the general moral principles of reason and the individual situation in which human action takes place. It is the task of prudence to monitor the process of deliberation and judgment to ensure, for instance, that this is the right occasion, the right person and the right intention for reaching out in compassion toward the poor. Prudence is a cardinal virtue around which all other virtues pivot, integrating agents and their actions.

Unfortunately, in the human condition all judgments, even the most prudential practical judgments of conscience, can be in error. Ethicists note that there are two poles in every moral judgment. It is always a free, rational human person or subject who makes a judgment, so one pole of the judgment is a subjective pole; but every judgment is made about some objective reality—poverty or sexual activity, for instance—so there is always also an objective pole. The subject arrives at his or her judgment either by following the rational process outlined above or by negligently shortchanging that process.

If the rational error of understanding and judgment can be ascribed to some moral fault, taking “little trouble to find out what is true and good” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16), for instance, then the wrong understanding and practical judgment of conscience flowing from it are both deemed to be vincibly ignorant, and therefore culpable, and cannot be morally followed. If “the reason or conscience is mistaken through voluntary error, whether directly or from negligence,” Aquinas posits, “then because it is a matter a person ought to know about, it does not excuse the will from evil in following the reason or conscience thus going astray.” If the error cannot be ascribed to some moral fault, then both the understanding and the practical judgment of conscience flowing from it are deemed to be invincibly ignorant and non-culpable and not only can but must be followed, even contrary to ecclesiastical authority. Subjects are bound not only to conscience but also for conscience—that is, they must do all in their power to ensure that conscience is right.

There is one final consideration to be added here. The morality of an action is largely, though not exclusively, controlled by the subject’s intention. A good intention, giving alms to the poor because the poor need help and to help them is the right and Christian thing to do, results in a morally good action. A bad intention, giving alms to the poor because I want to be seen and to be praised by men (Mt 6:2, 5; see Lk 18:10-14), will result in a morally bad action.

To Know Together

A decision of right conscience is clearly a complex process; and although it is an individual process, it is far from an individualistic process. The Latin word conscientia literally means “knowledge together,” perhaps better rendered as “to know together.” It suggests what human experience universally demonstrates, that being liberated from the confining prison of one’s individual self into the broadening and challenging company of others is a surer way to come to right knowledge of the truth, including moral truth, and right practical judgment, including moral judgment, of what one ought to do or not do. This communal search for truth, conscience and morality builds a sure safeguard against both an isolating egoism and a personal relativism that negates all universal truth. The community-relatedness of consciences has been part of the Christian tradition since Paul, who clearly believed in the inviolability and primacy of conscience and who wrote to his beloved Corinthian Christians that the “stronger” members of the community in conscience should be sensitive to and careful of the “weaker” members, whose consciences might easily be “defiled” by the stronger conscience’s most conscientious actions (1 Cor 8:7-13).

At this point a final and sometimes pressing question arises. Among the communities to which Catholics belong is the Catholic Church. Though that statement appears obvious, when we try to clarify it further by asking what is specifically meant by “church,” it actually becomes less clear, for there are several distinct meanings of the word in contemporary Catholic theology. For our purpose here, we focus on the two major ones: church as institution and church as communion. Between the two Vatican councils (1870 -1963), the dominant understanding of church was the institutional, hierarchical one. In 1964, with the publication of Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” a new model, or more accurately a renewed model, became available—namely, the model of church as a communion of the “people of God” (No. 9-17).

The ecclesiologist Yves Congar, O.P., demonstrated that the communion model of church effectively prevailed in the West during the first 1,000 years of Christian history, whereas the hierarchical model dominated only between the 11-century reformation and Vatican II. These two models continue to be available to anyone who asks about church teaching and conscience and they confuse the answer to a final question here: How are Catholics to behave in conscience when their understanding of a noninfallible teaching of the magisterium differs from that proposed by the magisterium—as the majority of Catholic faithful now do, for instance, on contraception and Communion for the divorced and remarried? Congar points out that when the church is conceived as a hierarchical institution, obedience to church authority is called for; when it is conceived of as a communion, dialogue and consensus are called for. These same two answers to our question continue to be offered in the church today.

The holy people of God, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” teaches, share in Christ’s prophetic or teaching office. “The body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when from the bishops down to the last member of the laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (No. 12). The Holy One referred to is, of course, the Holy Spirit of God, “the Spirit of truth” whom Jesus first promised (Jn 14: 16-17; 15:26) and then sent to the apostles and to the entire church (Jn 20:22). That sending is both signified and effected in the Catholic Church by the anointings in the sacraments of initiation. Each and every Catholic, therefore, carries within herself and himself the Spirit of truth to lead her and him into all truth, including moral truth. Therefore, as John writes to the faithful of old, “The anointing that you received from [Christ] abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you...his anointing teaches you about all things” (1 Jn 2:20, 27).

The International Theological Commission, an arm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently taught (“Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” 2014) that the faithful “have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice and to reject what is false.” The “instinct for the truth” the commission refers to is the “sensus fidei” so emphasized by the Second Vatican Council. “Banishing the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity,” the commission continues, “and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching church (ecclesia docens) and the learning church (ecclesia discens), the council taught that all the baptized participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest and king. In particular it taught that Christ fulfills his prophetic office not only by means of the hierarchy but also via the laity.” The attainment of moral truth in the Catholic tradition, therefore, involves a dialogical process in the communion-church in “a spirit of collegiality and synodality” from the “bishops down to the last member of the laity”; and when that process has been conscientiously completed, both the highest bishop and the last member of the laity are finally “alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16) and has to make that practical judgment of conscience that this is what I must believe or not believe, do or not do.

To repeat the opening of this essay, no Catholic is “to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor...is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” No. 3) or moral. Joseph Ratzinger pointed out that “not everything that exists in the church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition.... There is a distorting as well as legitimate tradition.” The long adherence of the church to teachings on the taking of interest on loans, slavery and religious freedom are well-known examples of distorting moral traditions that it now rejects. Father Ratzinger concluded to what is obvious: “consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and places both the council’s and the church’s teaching beyond doubt: women and men have “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (No. 1782). In his homily at the synod’s closing Mass, Pope Francis told the assembled bishops that “God is not afraid of new things. That is why he is continuously surprising us, and guiding us in unexpected ways.” The authority and inviolability of a well-informed and therefore well-formed conscience is not among those new things; it is the long-standing Catholic way to choosing the true and the good.

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John Daly
9 years 1 month ago
Professors Lawler and Salzman, Please read Pope Benedict XVI's address to the United States Bishops presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops in February of 1991 in Dallas, Texas when he addressed them as Cardinal Ratzinger. It may enlighten you to what he meant by conscience. He clearly does not intend to mean it as you're stating it without qualification. He clarifies his views in this address. You can read his speech here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/ratzcons.htm
Henry George
9 years 1 month ago
Several points: a) Not sure Synderesis means what you said it meant. Rather it is the awareness that a moral situation is at hand. Thomas seems to have misunderstood the Greek roots of the term. b) Perhaps it is just me but I have never read or heard an explanation of Conscience that justified "Following your "Conscience" no matter what the rest of the world says. After all a Sociopath may well be following his "Conscience" as ill formed and evilly intentioned as it may well be - is he to be excused every moral aspect of his actions ? If we were to use your stated criterion for following one's conscience - are not students then allowed to ignore the Laws of Physics, the Axioms and Logic of Mathematics in working out their preferred answers ? But nature will not respect their scientific conscientious answers - as such why should I, or anyone, respect your obviously immoral choices that you made in willful disregard to the simple ethical fact that the majority is usually correct in most moral matters ?
E.Patrick Mosman
9 years 1 month ago
Since Vatican II the liberal wing of the Catholic Church has promulgated the superiority of one's own, or the subjective conscience, and in February 1991 Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the Church's response in his presentation 'Conscience and Truth" delivered at the '10th Workshop for Bishops; in Dallas Texas. A brief summary if his conclusion is found in the following extract, "It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth - at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity." Unfortunately many "Catholics" use their own 'subjective conscience' to repudiate teachings and beliefs of the Church while they express belief in its being, one and holy every time they attend Mass and recite the Creed. . It is evident that a number of Catholics believe that their own subjective conscience gives them the moral authority to decide which actions, behaviors, are right, which are wrong, which Church teachings can be rejected so as not to inhibit their secular life style in other words, to follow the crowd not the Church. "Conscience and Truth" is a lengthy discourse and in another part the Cardinal relates a conversation about which he wrote "The erroneous conscience also would allow the false and utterly despicable conclusion, "Nazi SS would be justified and we should seek them in heaven since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience." There is no doubting the fact that Hitler and his accomplices who were deeply convinced of their cause, could not have acted otherwise. Therefore, the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their albeit mistaken consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation." Cardinal Ratzinger concludes this section by writing "Since that conversation, I knew with complete certainty that something was wrong with the theory of justifying power of the subjective conscience, that, in other words, a concept of conscience which leads to such conclusions must be false. For, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples which follow therefrom do not justify man. Furthermore, "No one may act against his convictions, as Saint Paul had already said (Rom 14:23). But the fact that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting, does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at - in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis(an inner repugnance to evil and an attraction to the good) of being." Many believe that Vatican II provided this decision making authority but the authorities did not plaster over the wall of the Sistine Chapel on which Michelangelo's "The last Judgment" appears. If a copy of The Last Judgment were to be placed behind the altar in every Church, the Sunday Sermon be could be reduced to the priest pointing to the painting and saying "That all folks. We report, you decide".
David Laroche
9 years 1 month ago
Many of the comments on this article equate individual formation of one's conscience with individualism. If you carefully read the article and carefully understand the work of Bernard Lonergan, that understanding would be far from the truth. The formation of conscience is a dynamic interchange of the individual and the church. Our experience and understanding should include the church's teachings and other moral authorities, along with our own individual experiences and reflection. Also, the article includes reference to prudence which is critical to good judgement... No matter how much one wants to, you cannot wish away the role of subjectivity in moral decision making and the development of conscience.
John Daly
9 years ago
"No matter how much one wants to, you cannot wish away the role of subjectivity in moral decision making and the development of conscience." You're confusing moral acts with culpability. There are acts that are always evil and whether a person is culpable or not highly depends on many circumstances, which is why this article misses the whole point on the development of a conscience in line with what is actually good. For if as humans we are to determine this alone, we'll all fall into some sort of relativistic perspective/position. It's only through The Church and its guidance is one able to discern whether something is good and whether one's conscience has been truly influenced and formed by the revelation Christ gave us.
Taylor Stuart
9 years ago
Well said
John Fitzgerald
9 years ago
Contrary to some other commenters, I don't think the authors are suggesting that differences in conscience on a specific matter, e. g., artificial birth control, mean that the different positions are equally valid. They are simply saying that individuals are ultimately bound to act in accordance with the judgement of their conscience. They also have a responsibility to form their conscience well. And they are saying that this is Church teaching. This does not mean that whatever one feels like doing or not doing is ok.
Barbara Sirovatka
9 years ago
I'm confused by the authors' examples of contraception and Communion for divorced & remarried as "non infallible" teachings. What are those, if not matters of faith and morals?
Wayne Sheridan
9 years ago
The authors not only quote the Pope Emeritus out of context, but they do the same for Aquinas. All that they quote from Aquinas is accurate; however, both Aquinas and Aristotle, from whom the former drew much of his reasoning on moral philosophy, emphasize that conscience and practical reasoning, the use of which is necessary to make a decision based on conscience, can only be developed adequately through education and experience guided by a master teacher or teachers. For Aristotle the teachers were in effect older, wiser citizens of the "polis," for Aquinas they were representatives of the Church, either clergy or "professors," most of whom were clergy, acting under the Magisterium of the Church. So, a person who does not form their own conscience under the guidance of such a Magisterium cannot, except by pure accident, have formed a right conscience. Also, the authors posit two views of the Church, one "hierarchical" and one we may call "horizontal," encompassing all members (although they do not say what constitutes "membership.") They then say: "The containment of moral truth in the Catholic tradition, therefore involves a dialogical process in the communion-church in a "spirit of collegiality and synodality" from the "bishops down to the last member of the laity"; and when this process has been conscientiously completed, both the highest bishop and the last member of the laity" are finally "alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths." (from the "Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World," No.16) and must make that practical judgment of conscience that this is what I must believe or not believe, do or not do." This, again highly selective use of sources, does not give enough weight to that process of moral doctrine formation, leaving it to the still unformed, or perhaps in the case of someone who rejects the moral doctrine thus developed, morally defective conscience, the final say. Also, does this interpretation of the authors on how moral doctrine must be developed also mean the individual Catholic conscience is now free to reject all those moral doctrines developed in the past centuries that did not conform to their interpretation of how moral doctrines must be developed in the Church? Their view of the role of conscience for Catholics is confusing, misleading and based on a highly selective reading of past Church writings on this crucial topic.
Lisa Weber
8 years 1 month ago
Good article. "Consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically" is worthy of repetition. Considering church tradition both affirmatively and critically will be necessary if we are to see how the message of Jesus is new for those now alive. Church tradition too often is about power-seeking. One's conscience cannot be made to affirm teaching that is more about power-seeking than about the truth.

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