22 October 2010

On conscience and the magisterium

The relationship between an individual's conscience and the authority of the magisterium is often easily confused and intentionally distorted.   

Let's start with a definition:  "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. . ."(CCC, no. 1778).

Conscience "perceives and recognizes" moral truth.  Contemporary Catholics often seem to believe that conscience is the ability to choose freely among available moral options.  So long as I preface my choices with something like, "In good conscience, I believe. . .," I am safeguarded from error.  This is false.  Conscience is not the ability to magically turn an evil choice into a good choice.  Conscience is what helps us to perceive the Good and recognize that Good in making moral choices.

When I walk into a bookstore, I perceive and recognize items that we call books.  I do not walk into a bookstore and choose to perceive the books as squirrels and recognize them as squirrels.  If I do this, I am in error.  Announcing my erroneous judgment about the books with, "In good conscience, I perceive and recognize this collection of paper and cloth bound pages of printed material as squirrels," does not magically transform the books into squirrels.  

Catholic teaching holds that the morality of human acts is as real as the books in a bookshop.  Calling the intrinsically morally evil act of abortion "good" is the same error you make when you call a book a squirrel.*  Conscience empowers you to perceive and recognize abortion as evil.  If you do not perceive and recognize abortion as evil, then you are either ignorant and need to be instructed, or your conscience has been twisted into folly by sin and you need both instruction and confession.

The Church's role in conscience formation is to present the truth of the faith.  Ideally, a Catholic will immediately perceive and recognize the truth and act accordingly.  But because we have been mislead for a generation or two about the nature of conscience, many Catholics fail to perceive and recognize moral truth when they see it.  Basically, we have been told for decades now that conscience makes truth, or that conscience assigns truth value to moral acts according to subjective, private standards of judgment.  This is how we end up with pro-abortion Catholics, pro-same sex "marriage" Catholics, pro-torture Catholics, pro-women's "ordination" Catholics, ad. nau.  These Catholics have falsely perceived and falsely recognized moral truth and misused "conscience" as a defense of their errors.

To repeat:  conscience perceives and recognizes truth; it does NOT create truth. 

Tom Krietzberg at Disputations has a very good post on how Aquinas' thoughts on conscience have been misunderstood and misused to push the Free Choice notion of conscience.

*Of course, the eternal consequences of these two errors are not the same.

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  1. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Thank you, Father. When might there be an instance of veering from Church teaching and obtaining a "morally valid" conclusion? If there is no deviation, why does the distinction exist?

    I'm trying to be clear about this.

    Thank you,

  2. Luke, it depends on the teaching from which you are veering. The Church has decreed that green is the liturgical color for ordinary time. If you insist that it is red. . .well, go for it! You're wrong, but no one is going to hell for saying it.

    However, if you stab your best friend to death and think that a claim that you did it in good conscience is going to save you, then you're in trouble.

    The Church is not in the business of making moral choices for Catholics on a daily basis. Very few of our choices rise to the level of morally intrinsically evil acts. Contraception might be the only exception. But few of us are trying to decide whether or not to kill an innocent person or torture a prisoner.

    The basic rule is: do good, avoid evil.

    Do you have an example in mind?

  3. Anonymous11:42 AM


    I was hoping you might provide me [us] with an example you think would be valid.


  4. Luke, Church teaching is graded on a scale of importance from "Must Believe in Order to be Catholic" down to "Most Catholics Believe This as a Matter of Custom."

    There are literally millions of examples of Catholics disagreeing with the Church in a morally valid way. It is customary to address a priest as "Father." It is customary to bless oneself with holy water upon entering a Church. It is customary to pray the Rosary. Failure to do any of these is not morally offensive.

    As you move up the scale, moral acts become increasingly serious with regard the impact on your spiritual life.

    The thing to remember is that being a Catholic is itself a moral choice, one we make freely. No one is required to be Catholic. No one is forced by law to be Catholic. When the Church teaches the faith, all she is doing is laying out what it means to be a Catholic. Basically, she's saying, "Here's the truth of the faith. . .if you want to be Catholic, here's what Catholics believe to be true about God, sin, salvation, etc."

    To me it is simply perverse that so many people reject the fundamental truths of the faith, yet insist that they remain Catholics in good standing. What's the point?

  5. @Luke --- It might be helpful to recall what the assertion that one *must* follow conscience amounts to. If I have concluded, to the best of my ability, and am now convinced that action X must be done or that action Y must be avoided at all costs, then if I were to refuse to do X (or to go ahead and do Y), I would be, subjectively at least, doing what I "knew" to be evil. This holds true even if I am mistaken about my conclusions. (Aquinas himself refers to the hypothetical case of a man who reached the erroneous conclusion that God mandated adultery. If, believing adultery to be morally obligatory, he refused to do it, he would be doing what he held to be a rejection of God's will.)

    HOWEVER, and here's the oft-forgotten point, while conscience does *compel* it does not, of itself, *excuse*. Said differently, that I sincerely believe something to be good or morally neutral does not excuse my doing it if it is in fact morally evil. Why? Because conscience is a moral judgment, and judgments can be in error. Moreover, when we know that there is a source which can provide moral certainty and we carelessly choose to ignore it, or to "contextualize" it, or (much worse) willingly to veer from it, then we are culpable not only for malforming our conscience, but also for its malformed conclusions.

    (This, by the way, is the reason that we hold drunk drivers accountable for the people they kill with their cars. They knowingly rendered themselves incapable of subsequently rendering good judgments.)

    So, unless we were to assert that we had some direct intuition, e.g., that artificial contraception were acceptable, or that abortion was a "blessing", or homosexual unions were on par with heterosexual ones and willed by God, etc., we would have to admit that in each of these cases, we had drawn a conclusion about the goodness/evil of each. However, on these cases, and many more, the Church has spoken definitively, which means that to veer from these teachings requires either not attending to what the Church teaches or knowingly rejecting what the Church teaches (i.e. rejecting crucially pertinent facts to reach a moral conclusion). This is itself culpable, and thus does not excuse the subsequent conclusion that one ought to "veer" from the Church.

    However, the Church also asks much of us that she herself does not take to be part of God's revelation, and in these cases, as fr Philip has noted, there are gradations, if you will, of moral responsibility.

    Dominic Holtz, O.P.