The Catholic Conscience – March 2007

As Catholics, seeking to do God’s will, we are called upon to examine our consciences frequently.  In fact, a daily examination of conscience, in which we review our day in the light of the Gospel, is as important to our spiritual well-being as a periodic physical exam is important to our bodily health.  But, it bears emphasizing: we are called to examine our conscience in the “light of the Gospel’.

In the past several decades, we have experienced, both in society and in the Church, a crisis in the meaning of conscience.   In the Church, “Follow your conscience”, came to be code for pursing personal preferences against Church teachings, especially in sexuality, bioethics, remarriage and communion.  Since 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, wide spread dissent has often been justified by such appeals to the supposed supremacy of conscience over obedience to Church authority. “Follow your conscience” was used as an “escape hatch” – to evade the responsibility of following a particular hard or sensitive teaching and thus claimed “immunity” from reasoned argument or moral law. “Follow your conscience” has been perhaps the most flawed advice given in the post-Vatican II era.  It has lead to many disastrous personal decisions – and has brought ruin to the Church’s pastoral life.

While the “freedom of conscience” has been rightly emphasized (it is an offense against the dignity of the human person to coerce him to act against his conscience), conscience is not “free” to disregard moral truths or objective norms, anymore than a physical body is “free” to ignore the laws of gravity.  If conscience is to be more than just a “blind guide”, it must mean more than just one’s subjective inclinations or personal preferences.  If conscience is to guide the human mind in choosing the good or the godly, it must be rightly formed – accurately mediating and applying the “natural law” written in the human heart. Every human being is bound to seek, embrace and live the truth faithfully.  In other words, we are have the duty to rightly form and inform our consciences – taking responsibility for our actions and seeking to always discern the right choice to make is part of the challenge of human maturity.

In meeting that challenge, Catholics cannot freely dispense with Church’s Magisterium – her teaching authority in matters of faith and morals.  As Catholics we seek to form and inform our conscience through the obedience of faith, submitting our experience, insights and wishes to the judgment of the Gospel.  As the Second Vatican Council taught, conscience must be properly formed and educated by ensuring it is “dutifully conformed to the divine law and submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.”

The Gospel does not burden the conscience but “enlightens” it and thus allows it to grow to fuller maturity – and freedom. The faith and morals of the Church are normative for anyone who wishes to belong to her.  Once we belong to her, certain practices and beliefs “come with the package”, so to speak.  This is why we can say that you cannot be pro-abortion and a Catholic – or pro-euthanasia, or pro-cloning, or pro-gay marriage.  Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor reaffirmed Vatican II teaching that Christ and the Church can, have and do teach definitively in moral matters. A well formed Christian conscience will be informed by such authoritative teachings. And so, we are called to “examine our consciences” in the light of the Gospel, always ready to reform ourselves according to the mind of Christ as authentically transmitted by the Church.