Properly Formed Conscience

In a statement released yesterday by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinals Keeler and McCarrick, along with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, re-iterated the Church's infallible teaching on abortion in response to a recent public statement by 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who also happen to call themselves Catholics.

In their statement, drafted by Rosa L. DeLauro of the 3rd District in Connecticut, the Democrats allowed as how they "agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion" BUT
In all these issues, we seek the Church=s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate -- a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.
This is a claim that pseudo-catholics often make: they love having dialogue with the Church but, when push comes to shove, they'll be the arbiters of what's best for us. It's nice of the Church to give us advice and all, but we'll be the ones who decide whether or not to accept that advice. For such persons, that is all that is meant by "following your conscience": do whatever you want to do, as long as you can give some kind of a reason for it, and as long as you've listened respectfully to opposing points of view.

This understanding of the "primacy of conscience" is distinctively American, growing out of not a Catholic understanding of autonomy but a distinctively American Protestant understanding of the primacy of the individual. We live in a country, after all, where every opinion is sacred simply by virtue of being an opinion. We don't live in some third world backwater where people are put in jail for having the wrong opinions, after all--it's the American way to live and let live.

All of which is fine and dandy as far as it goes--the problem is that it simply doesn't go when it comes to moral truth. Every American may vote however he pleases, and may express whatever opinion about morality that he pleases. Indeed, any and every American is free to dissent from what the Catholic Church teaches--politically free, that is: we are not morally free to dissent from infallible truth. To dissent from the Church's teaching on abortion is not something that will get you put in jail, but it is something that makes you the moral equivalent of someone who refuses to believe that 2 + 2 = 4.

Many people--including many Roman Catholic people--simply do not understand the Church's teaching on the primacy of conscience. That's why the statement of the USCCB is so salutary, because they put it quite nicely:
As the Church carries out its central responsibility to teach clearly and help form consciences, and as Catholic legislators seek to act in accord with their own consciences, it is essential to remember that conscience must be consistent with fundamental moral principles. As members of the Church, all Catholics are obliged to shape our consciences in accord with the moral teaching of the Church.
In short, if you find yourself in the position of disagreeing with an infallible teaching of the Church on the grounds that you are following your conscience, then you are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of what you are doing. You do not have a right to follow the dictates of a poorly formed "conscience", any more than a criminal can argue for an exemption from the law on the grounds that he feels differently about the legality of his acts than the rest of society. Imagine how folks would feel if a member of the clergy accused of child sex abuse were to say "I know that most of society views what I did as wrong, but I think our social mores are hopelessly old-fashioned--I was just following my conscience, which tells me that man-boy love is not only appropriate, it is the most perfect form of love there is." Nobody outside of NAMBLA would take that line of defense seriously for a nanosecond, and rightly so.

The American Bishops are to be congratulated for making this response so quickly and so pertinently: they were not duped by the language of the statement, which presumes to teach the Church what Pope John Paul II meant in his Apostolic Constitution Christifideles Laici and what role--if any--the Bishops of the Church can hope to have in teaching the truth to the lay members of Christ's faithful people.


Anonymous said…
Very interesting stuff. Where can you find the Church's doctine on the "Primacy of Conscience"?

Scott Carson said…
The best place to start an investigation into this topic is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part III Article 6, §§ 1776-1794.

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