Are American Catholics suffering from a conscience formation deficit? Especially since the recent election, in which 54 percent of Catholic voters cast ballots for a strongly pro-abortion candidate, Barack Obama, that question has been much discussed.
Election aside, there's plenty of evidence that some kind of problem does exist.
For example, Maria Shriver, a sometime television personality married to the governor of California, recently told an interviewer that she's a "cafeteria Catholic" who's pro-choice on abortion and favors Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative group promoting Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, found that 60 percent of the students in such schools think abortion should be legal, 57 percent think the same about same-sex marriage, and 46 percent had engaged in premarital sex.
If, as many people now believe, conscience formation among U.S. Catholics really has suffered in recent years, that presumably has something to do with the crisis in religious education in the four decades since the Second Vatican Council.
Also part of the explanation, it's thought, is the influence of well-publicized theological dissent, especially on questions of sex, during the last four decades, combined with the impact of the sexual revolution as mirrored in, and often promoted by, popular entertainment media.
As a modest contribution to the discussion of the conscience formation deficit and what should be done about it, here's an informal quiz that readers can administer to family members, friends and even themselves.
A Catholic who doesn't know what some of the following 10 statements mean -- or doesn't think they're true -- is out of sync with the moral teaching of the Church and may need to work on forming his or her conscience.
The statements are these:
1. There is such a thing as objective moral truth.
2. Conscience, correctly understood and rightly exercised, is a judgment in conformity with objective moral truth.
3. The fundamental principles and norms of morality regularly need to be applied to particular circumstances, but they do not change.
4. Jesus entrusted the teaching of moral truth to the Church he founded, the Catholic Church, especially its magisterium, or teaching authority, made up of the pope and the bishops in union with him.
5. Many moral questions have not been definitively settled by the Church, but when the Church does teach that something is true, Catholics aren't at liberty to reject it in good conscience.
6. That is so whether or not the teaching is infallible.
7. In a pluralistic democracy, not every item of moral truth can or should be a matter of law.
8. But fundamental matters of moral truth that make up what is called natural law -- the elements of genuine human fulfillment understood as the sum total of goods or purposes for whose sake human beings can act -- can and should be respected in civil law, and Catholics have a right and a duty to work for that by democratic means.
9. The absolute prohibition, at all times and under all circumstances, of direct abortion and other direct assaults on innocent human life is a matter of natural law and has also been part of clear, authoritative Christian teaching from the earliest days of the Church.
10. To forbid abortion to the maximum extent possible does not infringe on anyone's right of choice, since that choice is necessarily limited by the rights of others, including their right to life.
All of these propositions are based on statements found in authoritative sources of Catholic teaching including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II's encyclicals Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth," 1993) and Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life," 1995).
In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul says conscience "compromises its dignity" when it is "culpably erroneous."
'Freedom in truth'
"It is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives," he explains. "In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a 'subjective' error about good with the 'objective' truth."
Freedom of conscience, the pope adds, "is never freedom 'from' the truth but always and only freedom 'in' the truth."
Speaking of the formation of conscience, he says Catholics have a "great help" in the teaching authority of the Church, and he quotes the Second Vatican Council: "In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth."
Help in conscience formation can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see Nos. 1776-1802, 2083-2557) or, if readers find that heavy going, the Compendium of the Catechism (Nos. 372-376, 442-533). For those who want more, try the two encyclicals of Pope John Paul mentioned (Warning: They're long and sometimes hard to read.) and the writings of contemporary Catholic moralists like Germain Grisez and William May.
In addition to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Compendium, some other resources include:
"The Gift of Faith," by Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, Thomas Lawler and Capuchin Father Ronald Lawler (OSV, $12.95), a question-and-answer catechism providing concise answers to the most often asked questions about the Catholic faith.
"Essentials of the Faith, Update: A Guide to the Catechism," by Dominican Father Alfred McBride (OSV, $12.95). Fundamental teachings of the Church in short topical chapters, accompanied by suggested reflections, prayers and a daily action to live what has been learned.
"Introduction to Moral Theology," 2nd Edition," by William E. May (OSV, $24.95). A documented, footnoted and indexed reference on what the Church teaches and why in moral theology.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. He is the author, with Germain Grisez, of the books "Beyond the New Morality" and "Fulfillment in Christ" (both published by the University of Notre Dame Press).