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Conscience and Church teaching: Getting it right

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Father Jonathan Mitchican - published on 08/22/23

Are Catholic politicians able to play the "conscience card" when it comes to abortion?

In June, 31 Catholic members of Congress released a statement in favor of abortion rights, in stark contrast with the Church’s teaching. They see no contradiction between the position they are taking and their Catholic faith because, they say, “The role of informed conscience is at the very heart of our faith … We are called to follow our conscience.”

Can following your conscience lead you to reject the teaching of the Church?

These lawmakers quote from Number 1790 of the Catechism: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” But they leave out the very next sentence: “Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.”

An uninformed or misinformed conscience can be dangerous. It can lead us to harm ourselves and others.

A useful tool

In his excellent series on the conscience for Aleteia in 2020, Fr. Robert McTeigue pointed out that “the work of conscience is primarily the work of reason.” The conscience is part of our intellect, not just a gut feeling we follow regardless of the facts.

St. John Henry Newman referred to the conscience as “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” He meant that through the conscience, God speaks to us directly, and therefore it precedes the teaching of the Church in turning us towards what is right. This is reflected in the language of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et spes, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”

Think of the conscience as being like a pre-digital era radio. If you want to listen to music you have to adjust the knobs until the signal comes in clearly. Move the knobs too far to the right or the left and all you hear is static. The conscience is a tool, and like any other tool it is only useful if used correctly.

It is easy for our consciences to become faulty, much as it is easy for the components of a radio or a computer to become damaged or broken. Our consciences can be misled by false information or swayed by appeals to our emotions. We can also sear our consciences through sin. The first time a person steals, he may feel bad about it because his conscience tells him it is wrong, but the second or third time he feels less bad, and by the 10th time he may well have constructed for himself a believable narrative about why his theft is actually the right thing to do.

The Bible and Sacred Tradition are markers against which we test our consciences. A person may convince himself that stealing is good, but the seventh commandment stands in judgment of that conviction, showing that the conscience is in error. Likewise, the Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, applies what God has revealed to new and ongoing situations. The job of the Magisterium is not to usurp the conscience but to inform it. If you say to me, “I am going to jump off this cliff,” I can say, “OK, have fun,” in which case I am not showing love for you; or I can tackle you and tie you up, in which case I am not respecting your freedom. Or, I can show you rationally why jumping off a cliff is a bad thing, and if you respect me you will listen to me. This is what the Magisterium is supposed to do with our consciences, not binding but equipping it.

But we are supposed to question

Obedience does not mean blind acceptance though. We are free in the Church to ask questions and even to offer challenges. As Newman explains in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, the Church’s teaching develops over time, in much the same way as a child grows into an adult or an acorn grows into an oak tree. Along the way, a teaching grows, but it must always remain rooted in the Word of God and what came before to be legitimate. If an acorn grows into an aardvark, something has gone wrong along the way.

As a teaching develops, disagreement can actually help as the clergy and the people of God discern together how the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church into greater apprehension of the truth. Once a teaching becomes definitive, however, that recognition of the truth should be the guiding force of all discussion. A teaching reaches that state when the Church is able to recognize clearly and consistently, over a long period of time, how the Word of God applies to a given situation.

Along the path of development, it is possible for a person’s conscience to be in tension with a teaching of the Church without that person being disloyal or disobedient. Even principles clearly defined by the Church might require applications to daily life that are complex, and therefore there may be more than one morally acceptable choice in certain situations.

No one, not even the pope, can tell you what your conscience says nor compel you to go against it.

Is this the case with abortion?

But is this the case when it comes to the Church’s teaching that abortion is contrary to the moral law?

The first direct example of this teaching came in a document called The Didache before the end of the 1st century, and that teaching has been reiterated many times since. It has been taught definitively not just by one pope or one council but by many popes and many councils. It has a clear and easily demonstrated root in God’s Word, particularly the fifth commandment. If your conscience is leading you to reject this teaching, it is far more likely that there is something wrong with your conscience than that God is saying something unique to you that goes against what He has said to the whole Church consistently for 2,000 years.

Sometimes we have to wrestle with reconciling our consciences and the Church’s teaching, but in our individualistic era many of us skip this step by denying the Church has any authority to teach us in the first place. “I’m going to jump off this cliff, and you have no authority to tell me it is a bad idea!” It is not the voice of God speaking to our consciences that inspires such thoughts, but rather our inclination towards sin. 

“When men advocate the rights of conscience [today],” says Newman, “they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all.” To exercise our consciences properly as Catholics, we must always be willing to accept the Church’s teaching as a corrective to our individualism.

As Newman puts it, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”

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