Clarifying "Freedom of Conscience"

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 I'm on a committee at my parish that tries to organize discussions on issues between Catholics across the theological spectrum. In general, our meetings tend to attract an extremely liberal audience. I myself am pretty conservative.

 For a meeting this Fall, I've been asked to lead a discussion on "freedom of conscience". I took this topic because it has always been a difficult doctrine for me personally, as I often hear it (and expect to hear in the context of the meeting) as an excuse to justify a dissent from almost any major point of faith or doctrine. I'd like to get your advice on how I could present the topic fully and clearly to avoid the confused understanding I suspect most people have about this issue.

 We always open meetings with the relevant section from the Catechism, so that's a given. I tend to feel that the Catechism's definition here isn't as clear-cut as I'd like, though...
  • Are there particular websites, books, or articles I could study to get a better understanding of the issue?
  • Are there approaches to the issue people have found work well in the past? How can you answer someone who justifies a dissent to something (abortion, contraception, etc.) by using conscience as an argument? Please note that I can’t just fall back on infallibility here, as most of the attendees don’t believe in it (seriously!).

    I’d appreciate any advice you could provide.
Steve Cornett
Part of the problem with the dissenters is that they tend towards posing a dichotomy: conscience or the Magisterium. What the Church teaches is conscience andthe Magisterium. There are some new books coming out on moral theology, under which this falls, but I don’t have my references handy. I will try to get them and post them.

You have picked a tough topic. Many people want a black and white answer; this is an area where there is a certain amount of grey.
Steve, you probably have already done this but just in case, go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read paragraphs1776-1802. There you will find everything you need to give a wondeful presentation! 😃

I would be tempted to read Matthew 22, verses 37-40, when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment. His reply sums up everything that any Christian needs to know about what God expects from us. For discussion I would ask everyone to describe what that means.
Sooner or later it should become plain in discussion that truly loving God requires a total giving up of ourselves to God and we will want to obey Him through obedience to the Church’s Magisterium.
Freedom of conscience will at some point be exposed as a cover for own unwillingness to submit, our own stubborn willfulness, and unwillingness to give all of our hopes, plans, dreams up to God and ask for his plans for us.
Like the pig said to the chicken when they learned the farmer wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast, “for you that is sacrifice, but for me it is total commitment.”

I speak as one for whom submission is a constant daily effort, and I’m not always successful.

Just a thought. It by-passes the technicalities, I’ll grant, but re-focusses from legalism (how close to the line can I get) to trying to walk closer to God.

The most important point that you will want to make concerns the “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” (CCC 1792). A perfectly formed conscience cannot be in conflict with the infallible moral teaching of the Catholic Church – that is a logical impossibility.

Protestantism is built upon shifing sands of the mistaken notion of the autonomy of conscience.
I always turn to my patron saint, St. Thomas More, for instruction on matter of conscience. This is from an excellent review of a book containing St. Thomas More’s corrspondence on the issue of conscience, and I link to it because it neatly sums up all Catholic teaching on this subject:

Whereas modern doctrines of conscience characteristically emphasize the self-sufficiency of the individual’s judgment, More stresses its communal nature. More, to be sure, recognized the uniqueness of the individual conscience. More was, after all, imprisoned precisely because he could not, in good conscience, swear allegiance to Henry VIII’s oath. **But in contrast to the modern claim that the individual can create his own moral values, More saw the “formation of conscience” as “the fruit” of an education “in the truth.” ** Far from being the arbitrator and creator of its own moral order, the human conscience is in need of conforming to the truth. **For More, the formation of conscience is the result of a long process in which one discovers a preexisting created moral order. ** This was, in some sense, the issue in More’s dispute with Henry. Henry sought to substitute his own law for the “higher law of God and Christ’s Church.” Nothing underscores the profound differences between More’s and the modernist’s understanding of conscience more than this fact: Whereas modern thought views the individual’s conscience as being above all other authorities, More’s conscience testifies to the superiority of the church’s authority to his king’s. More’s refusal to take Henry’s oath was not an act of civil disobedience but, rather, of obedience to truth and thus, in his view, an act of "genuine liberty."
The Barrister

Nice post. 👍
  • Whereas modern thought views the individual’s conscience as being above all other authorities …*
That error expresses the “mistaken notion of the autonomy of conscience” that the CCC speaks about.

CCC 1792 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.
One of the Vatican II documents,
specifically spoke to the topic of a well-formed conscience in the context of parents being open to life:
The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.
Married people should realize that in their behaviour they may not simply follow their own fancy but must be ruled by conscience—and conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of divine law.
I am not going to quote it, but GAUDIUM ET SPES, 16 also has a nice passage about conscience.

I’ll continue in the next message.
These passages focus upon issues of conscience, dissent, and obediance, specifically addressed to theologians.


First, it asserts the competence of the Magisterium to properly understand issues of faith and morality, as well as points out why relying upon the Magisterium is superior to risking reliance upon “man’s sinful condition”.
  1. By its nature, the task of religiously guarding and loyally expounding the deposit of divine Revelation (in all its integrity and purity), implies that the Magisterium can make a pronouncement “in a definitive way” (14) on propositions which, even if not contained among the truths of faith, are nonetheless intimately connected with them, in such a way, that the definitive character of such affirmations derives in the final analysis from revelation itself.(15).
    What concerns morality can also be the object of the authentic Magisterium because the Gospel, being the Word of Life, inspires and guides the whole sphere of human behavior. The Magisterium, therefore, has the task of discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands. By reason of the connection between the orders of creation and redemption and by reason of the necessity, in view of salvation, of knowing and observing the whole moral law, the competence of the Magisterium also extends to that which concerns the natural law.(16)
    Revelation also contains moral teachings which per se could be known by natural reason. Access to them, however, is made difficult by man’s sinful condition. It is a doctrine of faith that these moral norms can be infallibly taught by the Magisterium (emphasis added)
Once setting up and asserting the authority of the Magisterium, it then deals a knock-out blow to dissent. I especially love the part about “supreme magisterium of conscience” – heck, that paints a good picture of Protestantism, with 40,000 denominations.
  1. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.
    The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised(38). (emphasis added)
Now that they are softened up with teaching authority, how about this statement about a Bishop’s authority:

For the launch of The Gift of Authority, 12 MAY 1999

  1. The Spirit of Christ endows each bishop with the pastoral authority needed for the effective exercise of episcope within a local church. This authority necessarily includes responsibility for making and implementing the decisions that are required to fulfil the office of a bishop for the sake of koinonia. Its binding nature is implicit in the bishop’s task of teaching the faith through the proclamation and explanation of the Word of God, of providing for the celebration of the sacraments, and of maintaining the Church in holiness and truth. Decisions taken by the bishop in performing this task have an authority which the faithful have a duty to receive and accept (cf. Authority in the Church II, 17). By their sensus fidei the faithful are able in conscience both to recognise God at work in the bishop’s exercise of authority, and also to respond to it as believers. This is what motivates their obedience, an obedience of freedom and not slavery.(emphasis added) The jurisdiction of bishops is one consequence of the call they have received to lead their churches in an authentic “Amen”; it is not arbitrary power given to one person over the freedom of others. Within the working of the sensus fidelium there is a complementary relationship between the bishop and the rest of the community.
Vatican II wanted to move moral theology from an almost complete emphasis on the act, to a more scriptural approach. What happened is that the emphasis went from the act to the agent, and a whole lot of unforseen events (such as situational ethics, in philosophy) intervened, and moral theology got off track.

There is a move now to get back to where we were supposed to be heading, which wasa scriptural approach. A good place to look for that approach is Splendor of Truth. I don’t know of any other encyclical that spends such a long introduction on a meditation on Scripture, specifically the young man who asked Christ “What must I do to obtain eternal life”.

Although that document may be harder to read in terms of preparing for a talk on conscience, it is well worth reading.

It is easy to throw bricks at the dissenters, but unless one has a grasp of what was going on when the dissent started, it ends up with not much more that hurling invectives.

It is also easy to quote the official Church line, but applying it is where things get messy; just look at Terry Schiavo (sp?) as an example. Another good example is the Iraq war; people of good conscience and faithful to the Magisterium have come down on both sides of that issue. Application of moral standards, and the issue of conscience seeking truth does not equate to an algebraic formula with the answer popping neatly out at the end.
  • Another good example is the Iraq war; people of good conscience and faithful to the Magisterium have come down on both sides of that issue. Application of moral standards, and the issue of conscience seeking truth does not equate to an algebraic formula with the answer popping neatly out at the end.*
In spite of the issues that you raise, it is still not possible to have a perfectly formed conscience that is in conflict with the infallible moral teachings of the church.

The Catholic man that says that his conscience does not bother him if he and his wife practice artificial contraception shows only one thing - that he does not yet have a perfectly formed conscience. The lack of guilty feelings that he has for his sins against marital chastity does not give him the right to blow off the infallible moral doctrine of the Church.

The Catholics businessman who thinks that he can serve both God and mammon is in desperate need of the formation of his conscience.

The Catholic woman that thinks that abortion is acceptable in the “cases or rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger” is in desperate need of having her conscience formed. (BTW, the Republican Party’s position on abortion accepts abortion for all these “exceptions”, and as such, it is unacceptable for Catholics to embrace).

Catholics that disagree with the pope that the Iraq war does not meet the criteria of a just war need to learn more about the Church’s teaching on this issue.

Sure things are “messy”. That is because we are rebellious sinners who are in need of Christian perfection. Christ founded a church so that we could achieve that perfection.

You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matt. 5:48
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