Two of the buzzwords that we Catholics sometimes listen for when trying to figure out where a fellow believer falls on the ideological scale are "individual conscience" and "Church teaching authority."
Somebody who talks about individual conscience a lot, the calculus goes, is one of those "thinking Catholics" who doesn't think much about what the Vatican has to say. On the other hand, if "Rome" is constantly on their lips, they're rigid and rule-bound.
We modern Westerners are more prone to fall in the first category, an observation Pope Benedict XVI himself made during his recent visit to the United States.
"'Authority ... obedience.' To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays," he said. "Words like these represent a 'stumbling stone' for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom."
Part of the problem is seeing conscience and Church authority as natural enemies.
Witness the life and words of one of the 19th century's greatest defenders both of conscience and Church authority, Cardinal John Henry Newman (see story, Page 14). At great personal cost, he left Anglicanism to become Catholic, and later wrote a book called "Grammar of Assent," reconciling conscience with papal infallibility.
Cardinal Newman is one of the few non-saints (although he's on the track to sainthood) quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His letter to an English duke is cited to make the point that conscience involves not just correct judgment, but also attentive, humble listening: "[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the [earliest, original] vicar of Christ" (No. 1778).
This underscores both the enormous responsibility and limitations of conscience. On one hand, we are duty-bound to follow our consciences in each and every instance. But our consciences must be informed, strengthened and expanded, becoming ever truer voices of Christ within us.
The first step is making a frequent examination of conscience to purify ourselves of fears, shortsightedness, falsehood, sinfulness and social pressures.
Another test is to look for any disharmony between our consciences and what the Church teaches. We should be uncomfortable even when the issue is -- like the Catechism's teaching on the death penalty or the U.S. bishops' policy on immigration -- one that does not require doctrinal assent.
All this is just as difficult as it sounds. Take but one Church teaching that polls tell us is pretty unpopular with Catholic Americans: the prohibition against contraception. It is not enough to simply dismiss the teaching. If we are to be truly thinking Catholics, we must engage the issue until we eventually discover the beauty of the Church's teaching on human sexuality. That means willingness to be brutally honest with ourselves and our reasons for disagreement, and to devote the time necessary to learn why the Church teaches what it does.
Of course, the question of conscience is also especially pressing in this election season. With so much at stake, we should spare no effort to go to the polls with consciences strengthened, informed and purified.