“Always let your conscience be your guide” (Jiminy Cricket, from the movie Pinocchio, 1940).
“One of the key pastoral problems facing us is the widespread misunderstanding of the role of conscience, whereby individual conscience and experience are exalted above or against Church teaching” (Blessed Pope John Paul II, Address to Bishops of New England, September 21, 1993).
While most people would agree with Jiminy Cricket’s advice to Pinocchio, Blessed Pope John Paul II’s quote illustrates that, in certain cases, the recommendation could be problematic. One look at various newspaper editorial pages will illustrate a growing belief among Catholics that an individual’s conscience trumps Church teaching, especially if they are in opposition to each other. Adding “fuel to the fire” is a plethora of Catholic politicians who, while professing the importance of their Catholicism, adamantly support positions that are directly opposed to Church teaching. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find numerous Catholic politicians who support abortion and same sex “marriage”. It is also relatively easy to locate Catholic acquaintances who disregard Church teachings on everything from weekly Mass attendance to artificial birth control. Let’s look at the official Catholic position on conscience and see if it’s ever permissible to obey one’s conscience when it conflicts with Church teaching.
Using conscience to determine right from wrong is hardly a new matter and can be witnessed in Adam and Eve’s Old Testament encounter with the serpent. In the garden, God gave Adam permission to eat the fruit from any tree except the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:17). Eve also indicated her familiarity with this command (Gen 3:3), although she ignored it when the serpent offered a contrary opinion. Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” and decided to eat the forbidden fruit, sharing it with Adam (Gen 3:6). This episode gives us an example of two individuals who decided to follow their conscience, even though it was in opposition to God’s command. Unfortunately, just as the Lord warned, the results for Adam and Eve were not good!
Objectively speaking, the Church teaches that we must always obey our conscience. There is little disagreement among Catholics that deliberately carrying out immoral actions is sinful. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly affirms this fact and indicates that by acting in opposition to the certain judgment of one’s conscience, we “condemn ourselves” (CCC 1790). However, there is another piece to this teaching that is often overlooked: It is possible that our conscience can make an incorrect judgment that “departs from reason and the divine law” (CCC 1786). Just like Adam and Eve, our conscience can allow us to make the wrong decision. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS), Blessed Pope John Paul II stated that “Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” (VS 60). Therefore, we must always strive to educate and inform our conscience in accordance with God’s commandments.
According to the Catechism, the education of our conscience is a “lifelong task” (CCC 1784). The Vatican II document Dignitatus Humanae (DH) instructs that in forming our consciences “the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” (DH 14). It is precisely here that we see the contradiction in the position of those who claim that it is possible to “follow their conscience”, even when it conflicts with Church teaching. The Magisterium clearly teaches that we must form our conscience in accordance with the teaching of the Church, thereby eliminating a major argument in the arsenal of those who use “freedom of conscience” to dissent from Catholic teaching.
While the above citations make it clear that it is never morally acceptable to disobey Church teaching based upon one’s conscience, why is it done so frequently? When Catholics refuse to obey Church teachings, it is often due to their failure to recognize the living presence of Jesus in His Church. To many people, the Church is a hierarchy composed of hypocritical and fallible human beings. Why should we listen to the same bishops who “made so many bad decisions” concerning the priestly abuse crisis? Why should we obey the men who are “anti-women” and “anti-gay” and who affirm that position by refusing to admit women or homosexuals to the priesthood? Unfortunately, short-sighted positions such as these completely overlook the fact that the Church is ultimately a heavenly, not an earthly, institution. While the Church on earth is comprised of imperfect humans, the head of the Church is actually Jesus Christ who sent His Holy Spirit to keep her free from error. This is a hard concept for many to grasp, but it is critical to accepting the authority of the Catholic Church. The reason we should listen to the Church is that, by doing so, we listen to Christ.
If the above reasoning still isn’t enough, there is a sobering statement in the Catechism that should get the attention of anyone who has chosen to disobey Church teaching based upon their own conscience. This statement pertains to those who claim immunity based upon limited knowledge of Church teaching. If someone “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good”, they can still be held responsible for the evil action committed (CCC 1791). This matter becomes especially serious when the sin committed is grave (or mortal). While space doesn’t permit me to list all possible variations, such things as deliberately missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation, living together outside of wedlock and the use of birth control could all potentially fall into the “mortal sin” category. Being in the state of mortal sin is extremely troublesome when one considers the following two statements: “Therefore, you must also be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44) and “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell” (CCC 1035).
None of us know when we will be called home to be judged by Almighty God. I can imagine nothing more frightening than suddenly appearing before the Lord and having to explain why we didn’t listen to Jesus speaking through His Church, especially if it caused us to be in the state of mortal sin. There is no earthly pleasure, pride or indulgence that is worth the price of eternal pain and suffering. By obeying the voice of Christ as spoken through the teachings of His Catholic Church, we can be assured of not being in that terrifying position. Instead, we will one day stand before God, eagerly awaiting these longed-for words:
“Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your Master” (Mt 25:23).