On Conscience vs. Church

Nathan Turowsky writes a fine little piece on the problem of conscience colliding with the teaching of the Church over at Where Peter Is and offers a handy diagnostic tool for detecting a malformed conscience:

I once went to a talk about conscience at a university Newman Center. I wish I could remember who gave it. The speaker pointed out that these days many Catholics in the US only ever seem to invoke conscience in order to get out of obligations—my conscience won’t allow me to get vaccinated, your conscience won’t allow you to assent to Church teaching on abortion, his conscience won’t allow him pay his income tax, and so forth. Much more rare is to be compelled by our consciences to do things that we would rather not or that are not easy for us. It’s especially rare for us to allow our consciences to be formed by religious teachings that don’t match what we already believe.

We find a good example of this in the letter that Kazakh bishop Athanasius Schneider wrote for American Catholics who want “religious exemptions” against vaccine mandates. The most striking language here is, “I must stress, however, that even if I were not Catholic, my personal religious belief would be the same. I cannot have anything to do with vaccines that are connected in any way to the act of abortion. I could not live with myself if I were forced to be injected with any such vaccine.”

The implication of this astounding passage—which is clearly intended to evade the obvious fact that Catholic teaching does not actually provide a religious exemption from vaccination—is “even if my religious beliefs changed, my religious beliefs wouldn’t change.” That is, Schneider is encouraging people precisely to keep their own counsel over and against what their—and his—religious authorities are actually telling them, and characterizing this as “conscience”! Is there any better example of someone not allowing the Church to form their conscience than someone who says their conscience would tell them the exact same thing if they weren’t Catholic?

I am guilty of this myself from time to time, as are we all. I don’t want to run down the list of examples that come to mind, but there are at least two or three areas where my own moral views diverge from Church teaching no matter how hard I try to reconcile them. However, there are still right and wrong ways to handle such situations. At one point I even wrote a letter to the CDF presenting a criticism of something that just kept sticking in my craw, since according to Donum Veritatis §30, in situations where difficulties reconciling a teaching persist, it is a theologian’s “duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching.” Still, the theologian’s duty is emphatically not to conclusively put his or her own conscience above magisterial teaching, even in cases of seemingly irresoluble conflict. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote sensitively on the point here, although this essay predates Donum Veritatis and other late-period John Paul II writings on this topic. Writes Cardinal Dulles:

With respect to noninfallible teaching, therefore, there are two possible errors. One would be to treat it as if it were infallible. Such an excessive emphasis could overtax the individual’s capacity to assent and could lead to a real crisis of faith in the event of a later change of doctrine. The opposite error would be to treat noninfallible magisterial teaching as though it were simply a matter of theological opinion. This would be an error for the reasons already explained. The hierarchy is not just a group of theorists, but a body of pastors who are sacramentally ordained and commissioned as teachers of the faith.

Many of the crises of magisterial authority of the past half-century have involved both of these errors at different times–”liberals” having the former reaction to the “majority report” on birth control and the latter reaction to Humanae Vitae, “conservatives” or “traditionalists” having a former reaction to much of the theology of the John Paul II-Benedict XVI era and the latter reaction to much of the Francis papacy. In any case, the conscience here is not being formed by the Church; it is either surrendering responsibility to it, rebelling against it, or doing both at different points in time.

Conscience is an extremely important issue to get right, especially in the post-Vatican II era of the Church, when individual conscience is explicitly recognized and protected in Church doctrine. (Ironically, this is the only facet of Catholic teaching that makes actions like Bishop Schneider’s even minimally acceptable, despite traditionalists’ claimed opposition to it.) Since almost nobody today has preexisting assumptions that match Catholic moral teaching in every particular, almost all Catholics are called to “argue with ourselves,” or to mediate between our own views and instincts and what we are called to trust and affirm as members of the Church, in communion with the Pope and the bishops. The difficulty inherent in this is no excuse not to try. In particular, it is no excuse to reduce the conscience to something that only ever absolves one from responsibilities, and never imposes them.

My takeaway rule of thumb: If your conscience tends to only make noise in order to get you out of your obligation to think about somebody else and never imposes on you the burden to think of somebody else, the odds are extremely high that you are not a conscientious hero standing up to an oppressive Church but are, instead, a selfish jerk and a narcissist cosplaying as a victim martyr.


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