Monday, February 24, 2020

Since When Has Conscience Become A Dirty Word

So, this morning, I saw a well known§ opponent of abortion post on Facebook, saying we shouldn’t vote according to conscience, but according to “conviction.” This post was aimed at encouraging people to vote for her preferred candidate instead of a minor party. In fact she implied it would be morally wrong not to vote for her candidate. I’ve addressed that sort of nonsense before, so I won’t repeat my objection to those arguments. But the fact that this personality—who is Catholic—could have such a malformed idea of conscience, makes me think I should discuss it, and why it is vital to follow it.

I understand why some people are suspicious of invoking conscience. Many do abuse the term, treating it as a mere feeling. But Conscience is not a feeling. It’s not a case of “I like X,” or “I don’t like Y.” Conscience is something that compels us to act or not act. “I must do X.” I must not do Y.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking. (1766; 2071)

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: (1749)

For a person to say they will act on conviction, not conscience, especially if they urge others to act against conscience, shows that they are either grossly ignorant of what conscience is, or they are saying that they are choosing or advocating to others disobedience on what they feel morally obliged to do. That’s deadly serious, especially when trying to pressure others. Our Lord had some words about that, involving a millstone. 

Conscience must be formed by following the teaching of the Catholic Church of course. That means if the teaching of the Church seems to go against our conscience, we need to see if we have properly understood the teaching. If we have not, we need to learn the true teaching. But if we have not misunderstood, we should see if we are being honest about what we’re labeling “conscience.” We might find it’s not conscience at all, but simply our feelings or preferences that we don’t want to surrender.

Can conscience err? Yes. But if we don’t know the truth, and have no way of knowing (invincible ignorance). then we are not condemned for having a faulty conscience (see Gaudium et Spes #16). Not knowing the truth is not an automatic free pass, however. If we are Catholics, we should know that the Church is established by Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18) and that we are bound to listen to her (Luke 10:16) as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). So rejecting Church teaching is not a result of a properly formed conscience. As Donum Veritatis tells us:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.

So, if the Church teaches “X is morally evil,” then anybody who is Catholic and knows that teaching, yet freely chooses to do X cannot claim that they are following a properly formed conscience. But note this: I said if the Church teaches. I did not say, “if some guy on the internet says…” The sad thing is, there are a lot of Catholics out there who confuse their preferences and political beliefs with Church teaching. If they think caring for the poor means voting for higher taxes, they will often argue that opposing taxes is “rejecting the Church.” If they think that opposing abortion means voting for party X, they will treat any Catholic who has moral issues with voting for party X is “rejecting the Church.” We should always remember that it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him who represent Church teaching, not some social media personality or blogger—and, yes, I include myself in that*.

The Catholic whose conscience forbids an action that others have no problem with should not let themselves be bullied by a theological “Karen on Facebook” who thinks their preference is doctrine. If we seek to do what is right, according to Church teaching#, then the fact that others draw a different conclusion from us is not automatically proof of their error. 

If we try to pressure such a Catholic to violate his conscience because we fear the political consequences of his actions^, we had better start preparing our fitting for the millstone, because we will be pressuring that person to do what he or she thinks is evil in God’s eyes.


(§) As always, I omit the names involved to prevent people from thinking that my opposing an idea is an ad hominem attack. My blog is about defending Church teaching, not political infighting.

(*) I will always do my best to present Church teaching accurately. But if the Pope or bishop decides on an interpretation different from mine, follow them, not me!

(#) Scrupulosity is something to be aware of. If one is in doubt about their position, consulting with the pastor could be a wise move.

(^) As a personal example, my conscience forbids me from voting for a candidate that supports abortion. But that doesn’t mean I feel I am automatically obliged to vote for the other major party. If my conscience forbids it, I must not do it.

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