Following your conscience? 1. Not a blank check
There is a good deal of concern about “conscience rights” among the staff of CatholicCulture.org, and it has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the COVID vaccines. For example, Phil Lawler wrote on August 25th to ask that the same respect be shown by the Church for the consciences of those who do not choose to be vaccinated as for those who do. And on August 20th Thomas V. Mirus issued a brief podcast apology for remarks he had made in an earlier episode, which could have been interpreted as denigrating the conscientious judgment of those who chose to be vaccinated.
“Conscience” is vital, but it can also be a snare to the unwary. So let me take my own crack at the problem, in two parts. This first part deals with the dangers and difficulties posed by conscience in general. The second part—Following your conscience? The COVID problem—specifically addresses vaccination for COVID.
Why is merely following our conscience insufficient?
Both the natural law and the Church have always upheld the moral necessity for each person to act in accordance with the dictates of his or her conscience. In a nutshell, if your conscience tells you some thought, word, action or inaction is morally wrong, you may not act in that way without incurring guilt. The first point is that there are no exceptions to this fundamental moral rule. But the second is that this rule doesn’t protect you from Divine judgment.
Beginning around 1965, we experienced an explosion of “conscience talk” in both the world and the Church. Sadly, it was a bomb detonated by an increasingly decadent Western culture. The fallout was rather clearly intended to justify “conscientious” rejection of previous moral norms, on the faulty principle that those who rejected these norms must “follow their consciences”. But there is no blanket justification that goes along with following conscience for a person who makes no serious effort to form his conscience. There can be all kinds of consciences: A scrupulous conscience, a misinformed conscience, an erroneous conscience, a lax conscience, a dead conscience, and more.
So the first point is really this: As persons possessed of both intellect and will, all of us are morally obligated by our very nature not only to follow the promptings of our consciences but also to continuously form our consciences with an ever-growing understanding of the Good, and to strengthen our own ability to respond correctly to the promptings of conscience through the cultivation of virtuous habits. We also need to learn to discern the difference between the genuine promptings of conscience and mere rationalizations. Unless we do this, we will be liable to God’s judgment for having more or less deliberately allowed our consciences to be overwhelmed by our own passions, including our passion for worldly approval.
Why should we rely on the Church in the formation of our consciences?
The degree of culpability to which we expose ourselves when we sin in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and what we have failed to do, depends, first, on whether we have carelessly or willfully failed to form our consciences properly and, second, on whether, in particular instances, we have acted against the promptings of our consciences. As far as Catholics are concerned, the process of forming conscience is made far easier by having access to the teachings of Jesus Christ through the Church He established for our salvation. Consequently, the first obligation for Catholics (and it is a serious one) is to learn the moral teachings of the Church and to form our consciences in accordance with them.
This is mostly a straightforward process. It is fairly easy to find out what the Church teaches about various moral questions, beginning with the 10 Commandments and continuing into the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Next, as fresh moral questions and problems arise, they are often addressed through clearly authoritative Magisterial pronouncements—such as encyclicals on questions that have become culturally controversial. In my own adult lifetime, for example, I would point to Paul VI’s encyclical On Human Life (Humanae vitae) (1968), which deals with a number of issues relating to marriage and sexuality, including contraception; and John Paul II’s more comprehensive encyclicals specifically addressing major moral misconceptions of the day: The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor) (1993) and The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (1995).
In addition to that, there are occasional statements issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and promulgated with papal approval, to clarify particularly thorny individual questions that have newly arisen. We expect these statements to be more narrowly focused on very specific issues and also somewhat less authoritative, but they have at least ordinary magisterial value and can be safely followed by the faithful pending a deeper and more thorough exploration of the subject which may offer greater precision. Formal episcopal statements, though less reliable in theory, may echo the signals from Rome and express them more accessibly within the various dioceses around the world.
Unfortunately, the Church’s moral (and doctrinal!) waters can be muddied at any given time by two human sources. The first, which particularly afflicts our own time, is the tendency of popes and bishops to spend a good deal of energy expressing prudential judgments about contemporary social, economic and political issues. This can create confusion because prudential judgments are not part of the Church’s magisterium and the faithful may legitimately disagree with them. Here we have a question not of true or false but of what will work best in any given time and place. The second source of confusion is that bishops, priests and religious, to whom the faithful may reasonably look for guidance, may be adversely affected by personal sin or worldly ways of thinking. This fosters unfaithful transmission of the Church’s teaching.
Despite such human imperfections, however, Catholics should and, indeed, are expected to form their consciences in accordance with the teachings of the Church, as represented by those whom Christ has commissioned through the Church to preach the Good News. Of these Christ said, “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16). We are obliged as Catholics, then, to form our consciences in accordance with what we learn through the Church. And if we have done this in good faith, we will not be held accountable for the errors fostered in us by those who have been specifically commissioned to know better.
Our Lord always knows who is accountable:
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes, and takes any one of them; that man is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. [Ez 33L6]
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. [Mk 9:42; cf. Lk 17:2]
What are our own formative duties?
Ideally, every student and every lay person will understand that not all the ministers of Jesus Christ are equally reliable. Some are, indeed, “blind guides”, of whom Our Lord advises, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14). Certainly every adult of at least normal intelligence is capable of sufficient checking to discern which of several sources is reliable. Conscientious lay persons typically come to rely on particular priests or even trustworthy lay persons whom they find are always careful to expound what the Church actually teaches, as evidenced by authoritative sources, rather than offering their own opinions.
Nonetheless, if a lay person is sincerely led astray by unfaithful religious, priests or bishops—each of whom, in some measure, claims to be a kind of officially trained representative of the Church—it is not the lay person who is going to suffer for it.
Of course, this raises the question of how hard the laity are expected to work at their own Catholic education and spiritual development before they can no longer be held culpable for the poor formation of their own consciences. That, of course, depends on the gifts and opportunities each person has received. A poor man, with perhaps little education, who must labor twelve hours a day to provide for his family; or a mother seeking to hold her family together under trying circumstances—assuming neither has had an opportunity for an excellent Catholic education and formation—will ordinarily be far less accountable, regardless of outcomes, than an ambitious professor with a relatively cushy job who fails to use his gifts and opportunities properly.
Moreover, prayer is always possible for everyone, and God infallibly reads our hearts. If we approach God in sincerity and truth, God will confirm us in both sincerity and truth. He will protect us from inadvertent errors simply by gifting us with an interior light out of proportion to our natural abilities and worldly opportunities. As Catholics, we will go astray significantly and for a long period of time only because we want to go astray. God speaks to our hearts, and even the natural law is not rocket science. Both are available to those who pray sincerely and develop the pattern of resisting whatever temptations they recognize.
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