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By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 17, 2021

I agree with Phil Lawler’s recent post, Lay Catholics suffer from Church leaders’ silence on conscience rights. In fact, I recommend reading it. But I have never been comfortable with the expression “conscience rights”, a term which most people misconstrue. After all, conscience rights are not baldly absolute in every context: They must be carefully understood.

In United States legal history, “conscience rights” have been invoked primarily as a convenient way out of the dilemma of enforcing laws which a minority of people regard as immoral—that is, these persons have a conscientious objection to something that the law requires of them. Conscience rights, in this sense, work out in the body politic simply by making some provision for a minority position when the State concludes that it would be either imprudent or immoral to force the issue. After all, if strong serious moral opposition to a law is the position of a large majority of the citizens, either the law changes or we end up with a police state. But allowing for the contrary convictions of a small minority, especially when these are well-understood to have at least some merit, is a way of proceeding in the desired direction without precipitating an internal crisis.

The classical example, of course, is conscientious objection to military service. Most people do not object to fighting and even killing in an appropriate cause, but some do object and their opposition is morally understandable to most. Hence, when the United States has forcibly drafted citizens into military service, a provision has often been made for “conscientious objectors”, allowing them to serve in other ways—as long as the concept does not, so to speak, “get out of hand”. This same accommodation has sometimes been offered to ease the burden of patently immoral laws as well, such as allowing medical professionals to avoid involvement with abortion.

Of course, conscience rights are hotly contested today, for as the State tends toward any ideological totalitarianism, the scope of conscientious objection will be steadily reduced until “conscience rights” are never honored at all, lest the grand ideological vision be undermined.

From the point of view of competent government, there ought to be a kind of prudential calculus at work. This makes sense for the simple reason that the rights of conscience, while in some ways absolute personally, are not absolute politically (at least apart from the sense that it would be immoral for the State to enforce brainwashing techniques to alter a person’s moral convictions). The political authority may often legitimately force citizens to do (or not do) something even if they claim that this violates their consciences. It all depends, you see, on whether the conscience claim is morally legitimate, that is, whether their consciences are properly formed.

Let your conscience be your guide?

I have written several times about the dangers of the modern Catholic theological emphasis on conscience. I mean the idea of telling people that they are always drawing closer to God if they follow their consciences, and that they must never violate their own consciences. This half-truth has opened the way to common Catholic acceptance of a dizzying number of moral errors over the past few generations. The problem is that there can be many kinds of consciences—for example, a lazy conscience, an erroneous conscience, a malformed conscience, a dead conscience—that we actually have a moral obligation to try to correct. It is a myth to suggest that we are morally right if we follow our consciences, if we have paid no attention to forming our consciences properly.

The Church is right, of course, that it is sinful to go against conscience: If we are convinced that something is evil we would be sinning if we did that thing, simply by choosing to do what we understood to be wrong. Even if we later learned that the act in question was morally neutral or even good, we would have done it sinfully, for the wrong reasons. This type of sin is determined by our motivation, not by the objective rightness or wrongness of the act in question. And the contrary is also true: If we are convinced that some evil action is morally acceptable or even good, and so we do it, we will not be committing a mortal sin (recognizing the evil and fully assenting to it), but our action would still be morally evil, and we would be guilty of what we call venial sin.

As this indicates, we cannot in fact act contrary to our conscience without committing a personal, interior sin, even if the action our conscience warns against is in itself good. Therefore we must follow our consciences. But this will avail us little at the time of Judgement if we have made no effort to form our consciences in accordance with what we know of right and wrong—what we know of the will of God as revealed to us through natural law and Divine Revelation. This failure may be mitigated by many factors, but if it is essentially a willful failure, our sins on that score will be more than sufficient to place us on the left, with the goats.

In other words, we are bound to follow our consciences—to do what we grasp as good and avoid what we grasp as evil. But we are not off the moral hook unless we also take seriously the profound moral obligation to form our consciences as fully and accurately as we can. Not caring to do that is already a grave evil, and few can go very long down this path without willful complicity in this failure.

The vaccination question

The problem that Phil Lawler addresses in Lay Catholics suffer from Church leaders’ silence on conscience rights is not the necessity of the State to permit its citizens to do anything that they claim is in accordance with their consciences, for there is no moral necessity of the State to do that at all. Rather the problem is twofold: First, a prudent government should make some allowance for differing opinions when the law poses complex moral questions; second, and more important, when the Church herself has ruled that the faithful may make more than one conscientious moral decision on a matter, the Church is morally obliged to actively honor the rights of the faithful—whose consciences have thus been formed according to her own teachings—by doing her best to defend those rights against all comers.

And of course there is Phil’s other point: Only a craven churchman undermines or refuses to defend the conscientious moral decisions made by the faithful in accordance with the natural law, Divine Revelation, and the Church’s own specific teachings. Thus, as his title states, lay Catholics really do suffer from Church leaders’ silence on conscience rights. In this instance, those who refuse the vaccine on moral grounds obviously suffer, but so do those who choose to be vaccinated without an accurate moral understanding of the issue. (I will also state—purely as an aside which I have not yet examined from every possible angle—that I strongly suspect a person may morally refuse the injection of anything into his body, whether the material in question has dubious ethical origins or not.)

Perhaps the most discouraging thing about misleading episcopal posturing on this issue is that the Church’s position is not in doubt, but has been set forth officially, in response to the concerns of the faithful, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as Phil pointed out (see the statements of the CDF made in 2008 and 2020). These statements may fall short of infallibility (for example, they depend for their application on an accurate understanding of the use of illicit fetal cell lines in the development and production of each vaccine) but they are the best and most authoritative Church teaching we have.

Therefore this teaching ought to be the moral standard to which every bishop (and every Catholic) publicly adheres. It is yet another sign of the Church’s need for renewal that so many bishops have failed to support those faithful who, precisely in the sense articulated by the CDF, object morally to receiving the available COVID vaccinations.

Another opportunity lost

It is enough for any Catholic to know that, for a grave circumstantial reason, he may morally choose to be vaccinated, and that, with or without a grave circumstantial reason, he may morally choose not to be vaccinated. Any Churchman who fails to defend either side of this question as morally legitimate—or, let us say, any Churchman who deliberately impinges on the consciences of the faithful by illicitly championing the politically and culturally popular side of this question—is behaving just like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It is very likely, despite the immense secularization of our culture and of the many prominent Catholics who have been culturally absorbed, that a consistent effort of all bishops to defend properly-formed consciences on this issue would be sufficient to ensure political measures which allowed for what we loosely call “conscience rights”. Some bishops have done so, of course, but a great many have deliberately chosen to avoid this important moral duty.

I have no brief for “conscience rights” as commonly understood; too often they are a license to do evil. But when bishops fail to uphold the rights of the faithful to conscientiously follow the teachings of their own Church, then—at the very least—yet another whoppingly great moral and spiritual opportunity has been lost.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Dec. 18, 2021 8:02 PM ET USA

    Clearly I am not questioning the principle of “ex opere operato,” that is, the reality of the sacraments done by priest, bishop or pope. The question is one of the moral leadership of an ecclesial office holder is who is well known to be corrupt morally. These are separate matters.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Dec. 17, 2021 10:57 PM ET USA

    This raises the question of how much respect a bishop deserves when he is obviously a moral failure. Generally, someone who is clearly a moral failure deserves little respect as a leader, that is, he certainly doesn’t deserve to be followed in moral decisions.Yet, a bishop does deserve respect in view of his office, an office which is one of service to Christ and his Church. But a bishop (or a pope) who fails in his moral duty to serve Christ and his Church cannot be followed.