Conscience and Sin

At my parish, I assist the leader several times per year with a “Catholics Returning Home” course, consisting of about 15 hours of class time over several weeks. The leader is an excellent teacher and 98% of what he says is clearly in line with the Magisterium. However, he teaches a view of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about conscience which I fear may be leading people astray, so I would appreciate some comments from the forum members.

In explaining the role of the well-formed conscience, he concludes that conscience is the voice of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, and thus conscience “can override the teachings of the Church.” I do not read the CCC to say that at all; rather, it makes clear that, while we are bound to follow our well-formed conscience, it is still quite possible to make erroneous judgments and end up committing sin. The CCC also explicitly states that it is never acceptable to do evil so that good may result.

The leader never mentions this aspect of the CCC discussion. He uses as an example a case in which a married couple, after serious and long discernment which included consultation with the pastor, with other priests in the Diocese, and studying the CCC, decided their conscience dictated the husband could proceed with a vasectomy because having additional children had been deemed a possibly fatal risk to his wife by her OB-GYN. While the leader never comes out and says this was the right moral decision, he holds it up as an example of someone acting on a well-formed conscience.

I think his presentation of this issue is incorrect. In my view, if a person decides as a “matter of conscience” to do something the Church clearly teaches is sinful, even after having in good faith engaged in serious discernment, with full knowledge of what the Church teaches and why, they have still committed a sin, although their level of moral culpability may be reduced. In other words, conscience cannot override Church teaching.

Thank you in advance for your comments.

Such a person has an erroneous conscience and is to correct such.

Note too:

Catechism 2039: “Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.”

An article that can be helpful:

You are correct in being suspicious of this teaching.

This is a very common misinterpretation of the self-authority of conscience (and often incorrectly ascribed to Bl John Henry Newman): that an erring conscience binds us, even when it disobeys the teachings of the Church. Partially, this is correct; however, it is commonly applied as though an erring conscience has the authority to override the teachings of the Magisterium. This is not true, and so your concern is well founded.

St Thomas, for example, teaches that an erring conscience has the obligation to override the teachings of the Church on face value if reason truly dictates something contrary to the teachings of the Church. This is because the will is bound to follow the dictates of reason. The will is oriented towards what it perceives to be the good; the reason however guides the conscience in dictating what is true. The ‘vocation’ of reason is to call the will to account for itself in other words.

What this interpretation overlooks is that it is ultimately the reason that is culpable, and not the will in isolation from reason. If the hypothetical couple you describe make the decision to have a vasectomy or to use contraception following deliberation, then in one sense they are bound to obey conscience. However, this does not make such an act of conscience non-culpable; they are still engaging in an objectively immoral act, because reason has erred. And while they are not culpable for erring will, they are culpable for erring reason.

This distinction is laid out very well in a short, and highly-recommended little book by Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, “On Conscience”:

“Conscience’s reduction to subjective certitude betokens at the same time a retreat from truth.”

–Cardinal Ratzinger (Truth and Conscience 1991)

Their conscience is rather - divided against itself.


Thanks for the replies and references!

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