Ordinary Conscience Cannot Exempt from the Church's Moral Law
by Rudolph Lohse
The classic definition of “conscience” in the Catholic Church is that of Thomas Aquinas, for whom “conscience is the mind of man passing moral judgments.” It is the voice of reason, separated from feeling, emotion and desire. Conscience is imbedded in the intellect which apprehends and interprets the moral law. It is not an immediate internal illumination of each person for himself without reference to an objective norm found outside of man and independent of his subjective persuasion. It requires development and careful training for knowing the laws of God. We have an obligation to educate it.
Today, many “Catholics in Name Only” (CHINO) use an appeal to conscience to try to justify their aberrant behavior, in violation of the moral law as taught by our Church. A typical statement, often counseled to the laity by misguided priests is: “The Church says that if a teaching is not designated as a dogma, and if two or three moral theologians hold a contrary opinion, a Catholic is not conscience-bound to follow the teaching of the Magisterium.” These priests insinuate that sin only happens when people have failed to follow their conscience. So if, personally, you do not think that an objective sin is really a sin, these priests claim that it is not a sin for you. Such comments completely misrepresent Church teaching, because they are gross and irresponsible oversimplifications. This is a serious error, which misleads people into thinking they are avoiding sin, when in fact they remain quite guilty of their immoral actions.
While the primacy of conscience is a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church, viz., that a person must follow his or her conscience in all things, it is also an incomplete description about what the Church teaches and could therefore mislead. It fails to acknowledge that ordinary individual conscience cannot determine what is moral and immoral unless it is correctly formed through education about the Word of God. There are absolute principles that exist independently of one’s own opinions and feelings–a morality binding on all men. In this context, the goodness and evil of human acts are learned from Revelation (Scripture and Tradition), as authenticated by the Church’s Teaching Authority, the Magisterium. Man suffers culpability in varying degrees if his moral ignorance is due to his own lack of trying to determine the goodness or evil of the acts in question. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings, who are subject to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgments and to reject authoritative teachings.
Before rejecting a Church teaching, we all have a duty to nourish our faith by understanding more fully what the Church teaches and why. That means we must refrain from acting on our disagreement with the Church’s teaching while we are in the process of seeking a better understanding of it. Often by attempting to live out a difficult Church teaching, we gain a greater insight into the truth of that teaching.
The person experiencing doubt must also be rigorously honest about the motives behind the difficulties. Sometimes our struggles with Church teaching reflect more our desire to live our lives as we would have them, and not as God wills them to be. It is not so much that we cannot live in accordance with the Church, but that for many different reasons, we lose the motivation to try.
Thus the primacy of one’s own conscience is always “conditional” on the “informed good faith” of that person. Otherwise, one is afflicted with Moral Relativism.
From The Educated Catholic: Forever Catholic by Rudolph Lohse. Rudy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.