Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Conscience and the Obedience of Faith

by Jay Boyd


Psychologist and convert Dr. Jay Boyd explains the objective standards necessary to properly form one's conscience, using the concepts of obedience and authority.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


50 – 57

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, February 2008

Societal events have brought a number of important issues to the fore in the lives of many Catholics as they consider the Church's teaching on several very specific issues, including contraception, abortion, chastity and the homosexual lifestyle. There are others issues, too, such as belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the existence of hell and purgatory, which the Holy Father has raised recently. However, the so-called "pelvic issues" are the ones that seem to cause Catholics the most difficulty in their everyday lives.

The issues most likely to be mentioned as stumbling blocks for individual Catholics are the ones we see in the news every day. While these volatile issues themselves are certainly cause for societal concern, I would suggest that the real issue under debate here is not the specific Church teachings with which one might find oneself in agreement or disagreement. The real issue is a lack of understanding of what the Church demands of us with regard to our acceptance of and obedience to the teachings of our faith.

Conscience must be formed correctly

A general comment made by those who have taken issue with Church teaching concerns their belief that they have a "right" to form and follow their own conscience. They use this paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support this belief:

1782. Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."

But there are many other paragraphs that define what a well-formed conscience is; paragraph 1782 merely defends a person's right to be wrong. In other words, yes, "free will" allows you to follow your conscience; however, if your conscience is erroneously formed, you have simply exercised your right to make a mistake. Consider the very next paragraph in the Catechism:

1783. Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. (Emphasis added)

We live in a world that saturates us with printed material, visual images and soundbites that necessarily have an impact on how we think. American society in particular has come to revere "personal rights" in the form of moral relativism ("It may be right for you, but it's not right for me"). It is politically incorrect these days to assert that there are, in fact, moral absolutes; perhaps the only "absolute" allowed by our culture today is that "there are no absolutes." Of course, this is a logically untenable position; by acknowledging one absolute, the moral relativist has proven himself wrong.

The Catechism goes on to teach us that, even though we may seek to form a good conscience, we can err:

1786. Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.

1790. A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791. 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. (Emphasis added)

How do we form our conscience correctly, then? The Catechism gives this answer: "The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed" (CCC, 1802). Indeed, Scripture itself warns us that it is not easy to form a good and pure conscience that is in accord with the will of God, and that it is easy to go astray. For instance, I Tim. 4:16 advises us to "[w]atch your life and doctrine closely." And I Tim. 1:19 tells us that "[b]y rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith."

It is clear, then, that while the Church teaches that we should not force a person to act against his conscience, it does not follow that the person's conscience has led him to the right choice. Simply having thought about the issues and come to a conclusion based on one's own personal situation, needs and desires does not mean one's conscience is correct. Today, our culture encourages us to ponder our fate and agonize over moral decisions in order to justify our choices. But "searching your heart" and "talking it over" with your spouse does not mean you've reached a morally upright decision. As Pope Benedict XVI has said,

It will not do to identify man's conscience with the self-consciousness of the "I," with its subjective certainty about itself and its moral behavior. On the one hand, this consciousness may be a mere reflection of the social surroundings and the opinions in circulation. On the other hand, it might also derive from a lack of self-criticism, a deficiency in listening to the depths of one's own soul.1

Our moral decisions must be guided by an objective standard, or we encounter the morass of moral relativity. Take the position to an extreme to see where it leads: if it is okay for a couple to decide artificial contraception is best for them because they've "thought about it" and "prayed about it," then what is to prevent pedophiles from rationalizing their behavior on the same basis? "I've searched my heart, and I really think I'm treating these children with love," the pedophile might say. If we are defending a person's right to form his or her own conscience — and live by it with impunity — then we must accept others' reasons and excuses for their behaviors as well, and we have no justification for saying that a particular behavior is wrong. If you think the pedophile is a far-fetched example, simply search the Internet for information on the North American Man Boy Love Association, which has for years been lobbying to lower the age of consent for boys to engage in sexual activity with older men.

Although American society today does not readily admit to the need for absolute moral standards, it really is not difficult to come to the conclusion that we do need such standards, and that, in fact, most of us operate according to some standard, whether it is explicitly stated or not. The problem comes when our sinful nature adheres to a choice that does not have support from an objective standard; then we become willing to invent our own rules, justifying our choices through our own rationalizations and excuses.

What is the standard we should use, then? For Catholics, the answer is perfectly clear: the teachings of the Church, in concordance with Scripture, provide us with ample guidelines to correctly form our consciences and to behave in moral and upright ways. The problem for most people lies in accepting the authority of the Church to teach in that way, and in accepting the duty and responsibility of obedience to the faith.

Obedience and authority

Obedience and authority seem to be unfamiliar and unpopular concepts these days. In our secular lives, obedience to authority is not taken seriously in many cases; simply ask yourself if you always obey the speed limit. In the context of our faith, it seems obedience is even more misunderstood and maligned. Most people to whom I've mentioned the idea that we are called to be obedient to our bishops have reacted with incredulity: "You mean we're supposed to jump if he says jump?!" Well, yes, if his command relates to something clearly within his jurisdiction, and if it does not go against God's laws. According to canon law,

Christ's faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church (Canon 212, §1).

This is a bitter pill to swallow for some American Catholics, who perhaps envision a more democratic Church.

This lack of understanding of the obedience we owe to our bishops suggests that, while many of us are quick to assert that our faith is important to us, we don't fully grasp what "faith" means in the context of the Church. The Catechism pairs the words "faith" and "obedience" repeatedly:

143. By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, "the obedience of faith."

144. To obey . . . in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself . . . Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. (Emphasis in original)

You might be saying, "If I heard the voice of God as Abraham and Mary did, I too would be willing to obey!" But we do hear God today: we hear him in Scripture and in the Magisterium of the Church. In Dignitatis Humanae (1965), Vatican II noted:

. . . in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself (§14; emphasis added).

Of course, we must accept on faith the truth of that statement. But then, that is part of being Catholic. Unfortunately, many of us seem not to recognize God's voice when he speaks through his Church. In fact, St. Paul, who "speaks of the 'obedience of faith' as our first obligation shows that 'ignorance of God' is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations. Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him" (CCC, §2087). In other words, when we doubt the definitive teachings of the Church, we fail in our duty to God, and this failing is due primarily to our ignorance of him.

Jesus told his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15), and added in the same discourse, "Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him" (John 14:20-21). Finally, Jesus repeated once again, "If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love" (John 15:10).

There is no room here for quibbling over which commandments one must keep: it's pretty clear that all of them are indicated. Jesus may love all of us sinners, but there are consequences for not obeying his commandments. The Gospel parable of the narrow gate illustrates this quite readily (see Matt. 7:13-22 and Luke 13:22-30). We are warned that the "wide" road leads to destruction, and that few will take, or even find, the narrow gate. Further, Jesus comments, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:2 1). Although the mercy of Jesus is infinite for repentant sinners, those who do not recognize his authority in their lives will, in turn, not be recognized by him: "Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you . . .'" (Matt. 7:23).

Many Catholics today say that they are perfectly willing to follow God's will as expressed in the Scriptures, but are uncertain about the authority of Tradition and of Church documents. This sounds uncomfortably like the Protestant doctrine of "sola scriptura" — Scripture alone. The battle cry here is, "Where does it say that in the Bible?" (I speak from experience as a convert from a Bible Christian denomination.) However, we can find a number of Scripture passages that give authority to the apostolic tradition. Here's an abbreviated list:

1 Cor. 11:2 — hold fast to traditions I handed on to you.

2 Thess. 2:15 — hold fast to traditions, whether oral or by letter.

2 Thess. 3:6 — shun those acting not according to tradition.

2 Tim. 1:13 — follow my sound words; guard the truth.

2 Tim. 2:2 — what you heard entrust to faithful men.

The Catholic Church has always acted on the premise that it is commissioned by Jesus to protect and pass on the deposit of faith, which includes both Sacred Scripture and Tradition. For Catholics, this question is not one that's up for debate.

Sensus fidei and dissent

Some have used the notion of sensus fidei as a justification for dissent: "The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. I John. 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief" (Lumen Gentium, §12). The argument is, basically, that the "sense of the faith" expressed by a majority of Catholics should dictate Church doctrine. But the concept of the infallibility of the believing Church doesn't mean that each individual believer is "infallible" and is enabled to create his own "truth." The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed this concern in Donum Veritatis (1990):

Dissent sometimes also appeals to a kind of sociological argumentation which holds that the opinion of a large number of Christians would be a direct and adequate expression of the "supernatural sense of the faith."

Actually, the opinions of the faithful cannot be purely and simply identified with the sensus fidei. The sense of the faith is a property of theological faith; and, as God's gift which enables one to adhere personally to the Truth, it cannot err. This personal faith is also the faith of the Church since God has given guardianship of the Word to the Church. Consequently, what the believer believes is what the Church believes. The sensus fidei implies then by its nature a profound spirit of agreement of spirit and heart with the Church, "sentire cum Ecclesia."

Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media (§35).

Also, since there exists a unity between Christ and his Body, the Church, the believing Church is not autonomous in its faith; there is a hierarchical relationship between the believing Church and the teaching Church, with the teaching Church assuming ministerial leadership. Donum Veritatis continues:

Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the "sensus fidei" and the guidance of God's People by the Magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated. Magisterial interventions serve to guarantee the Church's unity in the truth of the Lord. They aid her to "abide in the truth" in face of the arbitrary character of changeable opinions and are an expression of obedience to the Word of God. Even when it might seem that they limit the freedom of theologians, these actions, by their fidelity to the faith which has been handed on, establish a deeper freedom which can only come from unity in truth (§35).

This said, however, we must consider a common misconception: that is, that the faithful are under no obligation to accept or assent to a doctrine that is not taught infallibly. In 1998, Pope John Paul II's motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem made a formal correction of this error by inserting clarifying verbiage into the Code of Canon Law. The following paragraph was added to Canon 750:

Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon 750, §2; emphasis added).

It's clear that the Church expects her teaching to be taken seriously by the faithful. Perhaps it is a characteristically American mindset that leads us to seek a legalistic definition of infallibility so that we may know whether or not we "really" have to accept a particular teaching. Some criticize the Church or particular pastors or bishops for being "legalistic" in their interpretation and application of some of these principles, and then use precisely the same tactic themselves in order to absolve themselves of their duty of the obedience of faith.

We could have skipped most of the explanation above and gone straight to the Nicene Creed to reinforce the idea that we owe our allegiance and obedience to the Church. When we profess our faith in the Nicene Creed each Sunday, we claim that we "believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." All of the points made above from the Catechism and canon law and other Church documents stem from that belief, although it appears that there has been a great deal of confusion about whether the issues of birth control, homosexuality and abortion are actually subsumed under that statement in the Creed. However, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to argue that the Church has not made definitive statements on each of those issues; therefore, those statements are, indeed, included in our profession of faith each week.

What does it mean to give assent to Catholic teaching? Some clarification can be obtained from Donum Veritatis, which defines three levels of assent:

When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

When the Magisterium proposes "in a definitive way" truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.

When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively," teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith (DV, §23; emphases added).

Canon law reinforces the requirement for religious submission of intellect and will in these instances, noting that "Christ's faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine" (Canon 752). And there are canonical definitions for the degree of dissent an individual might manifest:

Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with members of the Church subject to him (Canon 751).

There is no escaping it: no matter what source we examine, whether canon law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church or various Church documents, we will find that the faithful are bound to accept and obey the teachings of the Church. No matter which current issue is being examined, we are under an obligation to have faith in our Tradition and in the Magisterium of the Church as well as in Scripture, and to exercise the obedience of faith.

Conclusion: Joyful obedience

To some, obedience may seem restrictive, and they may opt for following their own ill-formed consciences, believing that they are justified and correct in their choices. However, an erroneous conscience results in an ignorance of the freedom which truth promises us. And it is that very freedom that can bring us joy: "Your will is my heritage forever; the joy of my heart" (Psalm 119:111).

Correctly forming one's conscience means submitting one's own opinions and desires to the truth, but we should not misunderstand Holy Mother Church as a finger-shaking matron admonishing us to "be good." Rather, obedience to the truth liberates us from slavery to our own sinfulness. Those who find the secret of willing obedience to the truth find great joy and freedom in conforming to the mind of the Church (and, therefore, to the mind of God). The Psalmist expresses this eloquently in Psalm 119, as shown by these few examples:

Your will is my delight; your statutes are my counselors (v. 24).

Wonderful are your decrees; therefore I follow them (v. 29).

I will run the way of your commands; you give freedom to my heart (v. 32).

I shall walk in the path of freedom for I seek your precepts (v. 45).

Joy is not to be found in the selfishness of our own concerns and desires. It is found as we put our faith in Jesus and the Church he established for us. It is found in the freedom of submitting to God's truth, rather than insisting on having our own way. God's truth is not oppressive; it is liberating. It is not to be feared, but to be embraced. As we come into a loving obedience of God's laws, we come into freedom, and that freedom necessarily brings joy. As the Holy Father has said:

. . . [T]he yoke of truth in fact became "easy" (Matt. 11:30) when the Truth came, loved us, and consumed our guilt in the fire of his love. Only when we know and experience this from within will we be free to hear the message of conscience with joy and without fear.2

End notes

  1. Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, "Conscience and Truth," keynote address of the Tenth Bishops' Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on "Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation," February 1991; in On Conscience: Two Essays by Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius Press, 2007).
  2. Ibid.

Dr Jay Boyd resides in Northeastern Oregon with her husband and teenage daughter and is currently a stay-at-home mom. Since being received into the Church in 2002, she has focused on understanding and proclaiming the true teaching of the Magisterium, especially as regards life issues. She also has an abiding interest in Gregorian chant, Latin and liturgy. Dr Boyd earned her doctorate in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1989. Her last article in HPR appeared in December 2007.

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