With the dawning of Amoris Laetia the question of conscience is now more relevant than ever. About seven years ago before the thought of a Pope Francis ever crossed my mind I wrote an article concerning conscience and Catholic moral teaching. I thought it would be a good time to re-issue an updated version of that article.
In the past there have been two prevailing mindsets that have pervaded the thoughts of many Catholics in our age. Both of these lead men to adopt dangerous dispositions putting their souls at risk. Both of these ideas are now being peddled by many of the bishops in the Church, including Pope Francis. The first false idea is that ignorance is bliss, and therefore everyone is OK as long as they are ignorant of the truth. The second notion, which is now more prevalent that the first is one that insists that a persons' conscience, no matter how mal-formed it may be, trumps any moral teaching Christ may teach through His Church, or the Natural Law. These two fallacies comprise a two headed monster that seeks to devour as many souls that willfully indulge in its existence. The enemy seeks to devour the soul coming and going. The first head seeks to justify keeping men ignorant of the truths of God, and the other seeks to justify man ignoring that truth once he comes upon it. Most claim that the Vatican II documents and post Vatican II documents teach such things. Although I am no fan of the council documents, this appears not to be the case at all.
The first head of the beast that many Catholics are being devoured by is that ignorance is the magic carpet ride to heaven. If people are not fully informed about the Catholic faith, then we should leave them ignorant, because God would never send an ignorant person to hell, right? Not exactly. Ignorance comes in many forms, most being from a person's willful ignorance. In other words, God seeks to grab the attention of man by grace, which many men willfully choose to ignore, therefore making them morally culpable for that which they do not know. This is usually the case with most people in the world today, since most are not invincibly ignorant of Christ or His one and only Church. Most men who are ignorant have heard but have not investigated, and of course only God would ultimately know the heart of a man, but the point is, ignorance itself is not a golden ticket that you find that gets you into the great chocolate factory in the sky. Even worse than a person's ignorance to the moral truths of God however, are those that want to leave those persons in their ignorance. Rather than informing them of the truth they leave them to continue on in their sinful acts.
Fr. Romanus Cessario wrote quite rightly, "Some persons even speak about leaving people in ignorance in order to avoid causing them qualms of conscience. To adopt this kind of approach to the moral life results in encouraging others to live a lie" (Sex, Lies and Freud 2007) This of course is not in accord to an authentic Catholic ethos. Jesus told us to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world, not leave men in ignorance of Him in order that they might have eternal life. One other problem that is often forgotten, is that even if a person is not culpable of their evil action, the action remains an evil act, and that evil is committed regardless. Should we stand by while an innocent child plays with a loaded gun? "It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good." (Veritatis Splendor #63) Isn't it amazing how fast the new regime has forgotten these encyclicals?
The second head that seeks to destroy souls called "freedom of conscience." If you can't get them with the first lie, then feed them a second. This lie is the mentality that one is always justified in their actions, despite what Christ teaches through His Church, because their conscience tells them it is OK. They often foolishly quote St. Thomas Aquinas in their rebellion. Most of the time these people are searching for a way to justify their rejection of one of the Church's teaching regarding sexual morality. Contraception, and now even adultery are often justified by the so called, "conscience clause." In the past this clause has been the vehicle used by many Catholics to justify using artificial means to sterilize the conjugal act. I once took a course in a diocesan program which educates catechists and future diaconate candidates where the professor, a priest, taught this to his students, and many of them are now teaching in many Catholic parishes. This again is not an acceptable position for any Catholic to take. As we know a Catholic is bound to inform their consciences of what Christ and the Church teaches regarding morality, and then follow it. We also know that it is the Church's job to inform everyone as to the right teaching of the Church. You would never know this was the case based on the new Amoris conferences being held.
Regarding St. Thomas, he makes it clear that there is a responsibility for every man to inform his intellect to gain knowledge so that he or she can make proper moral decisions in life. Man has a duty to not only seek the truth, but once he has found it, he has a duty to follow it. So for example, a Catholic who has been informed of the Church's teaching on contraception, yet uses the "conscience" escape clause to commit an immoral act, is still responsible for their action. Their conscience has been informed, yet they do not use the virtue of prudence to act morally. The person knows how they should act, yet they are driven by their passions rather than their formed conscience. This is the case with many in the Catholic Church now who are in "second marriages". Most know the Church's consistent teaching on this matter, yet despite this they act rebelliously towards their conscience, not in accord with it. While they freely reject their informed conscience however, they blindly propose that they are following their "conscience." The result is that those who engage in such are living a lie, and unfortunately many in the hierarchy are now supporting this lie!
Finally, it must be addressed that many people have invented this conscience clause out of the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae. They quote, "A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty." Yet they ignore what follows in the very same document. "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it." "This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." "It is in accordance with their dignity as persons--that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility--that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth." It seems to me that those who have hidden behind the so called "conscience" clause will have some serious questions to answer before the dread judgment seat of Christ. They are also not teaching what the document actually teaches, despite their insistence that it does.
Now more than ever we as Catholics trying to be faithful to Christ and His Church must be vigilant against this two headed monster which seeks the ruin of souls. Ignorance is not bliss, and it is not the magic carpet to heaven, and likewise, an informed conscience which ignores the truths of God which are evident in nature and through Christ's Church is not free to ignore these truths. Just as important is that the ignorant must be instructed so that their consciences are informed properly. This is the proper manner in which we are able to live a life that is ordered towards God. "In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. [Cf. Pius XII, radio message, March 23, 1952: AAS 44 (1952) pp. 270-278] Perhaps Pope Francis should read this part of Dignitatis, "For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself." (Dignitatis Humanae #14)
"...doctrinal instruction, as in preaching, to which many sinners come, entangled in great sins, and they return converted to God, because in preaching, when the preacher preaches sound doctrine, sinners come to recognize their evil life, and they say, "O wretched me! According to this [preaching] I am in an evil state!" And in this way more are converted than by the other aforesaid ways. And so the Apostle says, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes," (Rom 1:16). Note, "I am not ashamed of the gospel," like those who care more about the poets, than the gospels. The teaching of the poets saves no one. And so the preachers of the evangelical doctrine have a special crown in paradise. (St. Vincent Ferrer)