Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Misrepresenting Conscience

Me, reacting to Catholics who claim that they are free to do what the Church condemns.

After the Supreme Court decision overturning the injustice against a Colorado bakery, I encountered many Catholics on social media who argued that the real Catholic position was in opposing the bakery. The arguments showed a profound confusion about what conscience is, and our obligation to follow it. 

Putting it briefly, when our conscience says we must or must not do something, we must obey it. Doing otherwise is to act in a way we are convinced is morally wrong. Now conscience is not infallible. A person can think that a morally neutral area is evil and refuse to do something that they could morally do. It is even possible that a person who, through ignorance they cannot avoid (i.e. somebody who has no way of learning the truth, but would if they could) feels obligated to do something wrong—like idolatry—because they think they do evil if they don’t do it.

We must not confuse this with a person who deadens their conscience so they do not hear it when they do evil. All of us have the obligation to seek out the truth and follow it—not to just presume that the absence of warning means an act is okay. As Catholics, we profess there is objective morality. Some things we must never do, regardless of circumstances. Other actions can become evil if we do them with an evil intention or under inappropriate circumstances. Again, we have an obligation to learn these things and do right.

Gaudium et Spes #16

Here’s the important thing to remember. Church teaching is how we properly form conscience. If we recognize that the Catholic Church was established by Our Lord and given the authority to bind and loose, then we cannot invoke our conscience as a justification to disobey the Church.

Donum Veritatis #38

It is true that a non-Catholic, not recognizing the authority of the Church, will not realize that the Church is a trustworthy source of learning what we ought to do. But that does not excuse them from failing to seek out and live according to the truth to the best of their ability. So, the state has no right to compel a person to do what they think is evil. But note that this is not the same as the state tolerating things that disrupt the public good. This often gets distorted by people who confuse conscience and preference. The state can forbid the person who thinks abortion is acceptable from performing or acquiring one. After all, thinking something is “okay” does not give one the right to do it. But the state cannot coerce a person who thinks abortion is wrong into performing or acquiring one. The first case is an example of the state promoting the public good. The second violates conscience.

The state can also prevent discrimination against one group of people, but this involves some distinctions. We do not mean that we must accept whatever evil a group might support. What we mean is the state cannot allow one group to be treated as less human than another. So, the state can forbid actions that treat people with same-sex attraction as less than human. It does not mean the state can force people to treat homosexual relationships the same as heterosexual relationships. The state simply has no right to legitimize things that go against objective truth.

So what we had in the Colorado bakery case was not a case that refused to serve people with same sex attraction. We had a baker who refused to participate in certain events: “same sex marriage,” Halloween, and bachelor parties. The Catholic would probably disagree with him on Halloween. Assuming it is not used to celebrate the occult, this is a morally neutral area. I think he makes a good point on bachelors parties. Given how the modern tendency is to use them as an excuse for debauchery, a Christian might decide not to supply those events because of scandal. As for the case of “same sex marriage,” the overlooked issue is that the demand that the baker supply a cake is a demand to recognize “same sex marriage” as being equal to real marriage. No informed Christian can accept that or act in a way that appears to support it.

When it comes to knowing, loving, and serving God, we cannot choose to do wrong or refuse to do good when a properly formed conscience demands it of us. Meanwhile to avoid an improperly formed conscience, we are obligated to constantly seek out and follow what is right to the best of our ability. But feigned ignorance and refusing to learn will lead to judgment.

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