Conscience and Truth

Years ago I read a most revealing article in a national newspaper that carries the descriptive “Catholic” in its masthead but rarely carries much orthodox Catholic teaching below the masthead.

The article, written by a young woman, was titled, “I Am a Prochoice Catholic.” Her main assertion was simple: “I am a prochoice Catholic because my Catholic faith tells me I can be.” She recounted spending “several years” praying, reading and studying what both the “church hierarchy” and “the Catholic church — the faithful” had to say about the “right to abortion.” The result? “In the end,” she proclaimed, “after months of avoiding my conscience as to not stir up any controversy in my life, I finally discerned that I am a prochoice Catholic.”

Three quick, initial observations. First, the language she used, especially regarding the seemingly infallible nature of conscience and the vehicle of discernment, echoes what some have been saying about persons in “irregular unions” — that is, adultery. Second, this appeal to the conscience as the final word on one’s choices and actions has been a key playing card for the past 50 years or so for those who oppose the Church’s clear teaching about abortion, contraception and other evils related to sexuality. Third, I never cease to be amused and annoyed by the glaring internal contradiction that exists in appealing to Church authority in order to dismiss that same authority!

Consider the supposed logic: 1) “I am opposed to the Church’s teaching about abortion”; 2) “I am obligated to oppose that teaching because of my conscience”; 3) “And I must follow my conscience, because the Church says I must!” In other words, such folks find it convenient to follow apparent Church teaching when they desire to deny other, inconvenient teachings of the Church. Yes, it’s moderately clever, quite superficial and entirely misleading.

If we follow the logic used above, we arrive at a singular conclusion: that one’s conscience is supreme — even greater than God, truth, good and evil (though few are willing to put it that way). And, of course, this infallible supremacy of the individual conscience is not just acceptable, but is gospel truth for far too many people, including a great number of Catholics.

Yes, it’s true the Church teaches that man’s conscience holds a special place in his person, describing it as man’s “most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1776). Unfortunately, many people ignore the fine print — or, in this case, the print period. The three essentials to keep in mind here are:

1) The conscience is not man’s creation, but “a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey” (No. 1776). Conscience is not involved in creating truth, but rather in recognizing truth. In other words, conscience is a guide, not a god.

2) Conscience must be formed and informed. “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful”; it forms judgments that conform “with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” It must be educated and formed because humans “are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (No. 1783).

This education is a lifelong work involving virtue and humility. But it is worth it because “education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (No. 1784).

3) A conscience can be bad, poorly formed and warped by sin. Many factors can contribute to a deeply flawed conscience: “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct” (No. 1792).

Alas, many people have it upside down, insisting that their conscience provides a unique moral code, rather than seeing how conscience guides one’s judgments about particular situations in light of universal and objective — that is, God-given — truth and goodness.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.