Frank Flegel recently wrote a blog expressing his confusion over the question of conscience and its relation to Church teaching. Frank had recently attended two events in our Archdiocese where the speakers, a priest and Catholic ethicist Father Mark Miller, CSsR, and the Bishop Emeritus of Victoria Remi de Roo, made comments about the primacy of conscience that seemed to conflict with the idea that Catholics are required to follow Church teaching on important moral issues (among other things!).
I want to thank Frank for his honest and heartfelt question because it is a question that many Catholics of good will have when they are told about the primacy of conscience in the Catholic moral tradition. I hope I am able to help Frank and many others understand Church teaching on this matter in a way that honours both the role of conscience and our obligation to follow the teaching of the Church.
As usual, a good starting point for us is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Anyone seriously interested in this question should read the entire relevant section, paragraphs 1776-1802. Here I will quote only the paragraph (1790) which seems to me to be the at the heart of Frank’s question:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were to deliberately act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and make erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
So, we can see that Father Miller and Bishop de Roo are not in error when they highlight the primacy of conscience in Catholic teaching. A Catholic (or anyone else, for that matter) must always follow his or her conscience. This can be formulated in another way to help make the point clearer: it is always wrong to do what you think is wrong (even if you’re wrong). The heart of Church teaching on conscience is that a person can never do what one believes to be evil. The fundamental moral imperative at the heart of each person is to “do good and avoid evil.” We cannot force a person to overrule this imperative that God has given to each of us.
On the other hand, what is often not stressed when the primacy of conscience is mentioned is that conscience can be, however sincerely believed, in error. I was not able to see Bishop de Roo’s talk, but I was at Father Miller’s talk. His comments about conscience came during the Q & A session following his talk. He qualified his comments by noting that conscience is complicated and would deserve a much more thorough treatment than he was about to give it, but he did not mention this important factor.
So, yes, a person must follow a certain conscience on a given question, even if that conscience is in error!
Why is this the case?
A look at the alternative makes the logic of Church teaching clear. Could the Church actually go about insisting that people must do certain things that they sincerely believe to be wrong?
Of course not!*
To better understand this, we need to carefully analyze such a circumstance. If a person’s conscience erroneously tells them that they must commit a certain evil action they must do so, not because the Church thinks that in this case evil is good, but because they are already in a situation where there are no options that do not involve doing evil. The options left to the person at this stage are a) follow your conscience and do an evil act or b) do what you are (however erroneously) certain is evil, which is itself evil.
Given these two options, the Church insists that the person follow their conscience.
To do otherwise would make the moral life impossible as a person who has begun to do what they themselves consider evil under compulsion from external authority is started down a very dark road. Surely it would also do massive damage to that person’s relationship with that authority, in this case, the Church.
Furthermore, a person with an erroneous conscience can never know that that is their situation while the situation persists. If, through honest reflection on human experience or through a better understanding of Church teaching, a person recognizes their conscience to be in error, that error is, by the very fact, simultaneously corrected. We cannot, therefore, ask people with an erroneous conscience to disobey that conscience because it is erroneous. Why not? Because they cannot, by definition, know that their conscience is in error.
Now, there are several other considerations that emerge at this point. First of all, how did a person end up in a situation where they had no options but evil? In other words, how did their conscience end up believing that evil was good?
Several possibilities suggest themselves. For example, there are tragic situations where real goods are weighed against each other in a way that makes moral decision making emotionally-loaded and/or ethically complex. E.g., the Church teaches that certain procedures that we know will result in the death of the child in the womb are permitted (such as the removal of a fallopian tube in an ectopic pregnancy) to save the life of the mother by the principle of double-effect (a topic for another blog), while other procedures that would also result in the death of the child and save the mother are not permitted because they involve a direct and intentional killing of the child (which is never permissible). It is not hard to imagine that a family might choose such a procedure in good conscience because they are unable to understand the distinctions in Church teaching and they are under great duress at the prospect of the loss of the mother.
It is also possible that a person ends up in a situation where their conscience mistakes evil for good because they have been subjected to false teaching. A person who has been misinformed or even lied to about certain facts (maybe there were told that a fetus is not a human person) or moral principles (perhaps they were taught that one may do evil that good may come of it) is likely to find themselves in a place where their consciences will tell them to do something evil. The Church calls the conscience of such a person uninformed or misinformed.
Or it may be the case that a person has failed in their own duty to seek the truth. A person who has preferred ignorance or error on certain fundamental questions because it was convenient at the time is also likely to find him or herself in a situation where their conscience is erroneous. The Church calls the conscience of such a person a lax conscience.
We can even imagine situations where more than one of the above mentioned factors come in to play.
Now the question emerges: does the one who follows an erroneous conscience sin?
It is important here to recognize that we use the language of “sin” in a couple different ways. In the first, perhaps more common, sense of the word, sin is used to mean anything that is wrong and damaging in itself. But in the second more precise sense, sin means only that evil for which a person is culpable.
So, does the person who follows an erroneous conscience sin?
If the person is in no way culpable for their error, they do not sin. It is possible that a person always honestly sought the truth but was overwhelmed by false teaching or an emotionally fraught and ethically complex situation. Such a person does not sin. As such, to answer another of Frank’s questions, they have no need of forgiveness. On the other hand, should they later become aware of their error and seek forgiveness, perhaps by recognizing the harm their decision has done and/or through a better appropriation of Church teaching, a good pastor will grant them the sacrament even while teaching them that perhaps they committed no fault. (A pastor can hardly be certain of this and so will not deny forgiveness on the grounds that there was no fault. The precise accounting can be left in God’s hands.)
If, on the other hand, the person was culpable, somewhere up the line, for their own error, they do sin, but their sin has a different structure, if I may put it that way, than that of someone who simply does wrong knowing it to be wrong. A person is culpable for their actions if their own negligence led, via a lax conscience, to the ignorance or error that led to an evil act, but not in the same way as the person who knowingly commits evil.
This much is really common sense. If a person deliberately doesn’t find out the speed limit, they are still responsible if they break it. But their situation is different from the person who knowingly broke it, on the one hand, or from the person who broke it because the city negligently allowed the posted sign to be obscured (in which case, a person might successfully fight the charge in court), on the other. The first two are culpable for their sin, though in different ways, but the third person is not culpable.
But here we see a final, essential consideration. Driving 70 km/hour in a 40 km/hour zone is just as dangerous for the kids getting out of school whether one is doing it willfully, out of negligence, or out of honest ignorance. In other words, whether or not one is sinning in the strict sense, the action that would be sinful if one were culpable for it is still bad for you and for the world.
This point is often obscured because conscience is often invoked on questions where the speaker or author disagrees with Church teaching. So, for instance, a person who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception will insist that, on the issue of contraception, the faithful must follow their conscience. While this is certainly true, it is just as true on every other moral question.
If a person feels with a certain conscience that they must murder another person, then they must murder that person. If contraception is bad for you and your relationship, it will be bad for your and your relationship even if you think, in good conscience, that it isn’t and that you must use it to be a responsible parent. If murder is bad for you and for your victim, it will be bad for you and for your victim even if you think, in good conscience, that it isn’t and that you must do it to achieve some greater good.
Church teaching on conscience is not a get out of jail free card that allows people to ignore Church teaching they find difficult to follow or hard to understand. Rather, it is a recognition that a person cannot be forced to do that which they are convinced is wrong.
But that doesn’t mean we are free to ignore Church teaching. Rather, it means that we are called to honestly study Church teaching seeking to understand it, recognizing both that the Church is founded by Christ and protected in its teaching office by the Holy Spirit and that it has accumulated a massive amount of moral and pastoral experience in dealing with the human person. (Those interested might see the Code of Canon Law, canons 752-754.)
Nevertheless, if a person who has undertaken a prayerful study and is honestly convinced that following Church teaching would be wrong, they must follow their conscience.
Because the Church knows that you cannot simply make people moral by telling them what to do even over their own consciences. Many groups in history have fallen to this temptation. This is totalitarianism. When the state or the party or the religion or whatever arrogates to itself the right to tell people to do what they know to be wrong because the state or the party or the religion knows better, catastrophe inevitably follows because people cannot actually live like this.
They will (rightly) rebel and the state or party or religion that felt justified in telling people what to do over against their conscience feels justified in killing those people on more or less the same grounds: “We know best and our actions are justified because we are right.”
Pope Francis mentioned this precise dynamic in his recent speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia when he noted that, “We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another “earthly paradise” by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights.”
The Church, on the other hand, knows that the only way to change the world is through the consciences of honest people who seek the truth. It refuses to force anyone to act against his or her own conscience even if the Church knows, in its wisdom, that the person is in error. It refuses to do this because in doing so it would undermine the only way for people to become truly good. The law must be, as Jeremiah prophesied, written on our hearts.
*Incidentally, this is why we so instinctively recoil when a political party insists that people can believe whatever they like, provided that they vote the opposite of what they know to be true and good in their conscience. This is a fundamental violation of the human person’s right of conscience.
Related things I have written elsewhere that may be of interest: