There was a lot of talk during the Synod of Bishops on the Family suggesting that the Church should allow more room for the application of personal conscience when it comes to the laity and moral decision-making. With all due respect to those making the suggestion, if this important process of discernment is going to be effective, Catholics need to grasp what personal conscience means in the first place.
Speaking from personal experience as a cradle Catholic, my understanding for many years was weak at best and equated personal conscience with nothing more than strong personal opinion. I may have been aware somewhere in the back of my mind that the Church said “yes” or “no” to this teaching or that teaching, but in the end, it was about doing what worked for me. As far as becoming familiar with Church instruction regarding the development of a well-formed conscience, well, those words were foreign to me until I discovered them in the Catechism of the Catholic Church years later during my journey back to the Catholic Faith.
I had no idea that I was supposed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, sacred Scripture and the authoritative teachings of the Church. Who knew? Again, I didn’t — and unfortunately, given the poor catechesis over the past few decades, I was not exactly in the minority.
That’s why I really appreciated the honesty from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia regarding this topic. While serving at the synod, he was featured in the French Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne with the nature of personal conscience a key portion of the interview. While the archbishop certainly recognized the importance of people of faith following their conscience, he also points out the difference between conscience and personal opinion or preference.
“The Church is not a collection of sovereign individuals. We’re a community, a family, organized around the person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. We have an obligation to form our consciences in the truth. That means we need to allow ourselves to be guided by the wisdom and teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.”
His comments brought me back to a conversation I had with a radio listener of mine a few years ago.
It was shortly before a major election, and this listener wrote to me explaining that she was just fine with voting for legislation — along with politicians — that greatly contradicted Church teaching. She had done her homework and felt good about her decisions. She also prided herself on being a “well-informed Catholic.”
In my email response, I asked her about her research. Certainly, if she considered herself to be informed, she had also consulted solid Catholic sources such as documents from the USCCB as well as the Vatican. To her credit, she admitted her approach was much like mine had been. She did not even own a copy of the Catechism nor had she included any other Catholic sources in her decision-making: an all too familiar scene taking place in today’s Catholic circles.
“If my conscience disagrees with the guidance of the Church on a matter of moral substance, it’s probably not the Church that is wrong. Human beings — all of us — are very adroit at making excuses for what we want to do, whether it’s sinful or not,” Archbishop Chaput said.
Letting our conscience be our guide sounds like a sensible — even noble — idea.
But as Archbishop Chaput reminds us, if we’re being guided by the culture or our own pride and passions, we could easily be heading in the wrong direction.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.