Teachings vs. Conscience

What does one do when a Catholic who is educated, knowledgeable and well versed in church teachings disagrees. Perhaps it’s the issue of abortion or birth control or that homosexuals be allowed to marry. And, this Catholic feels absolutely certain what they are doing or believing is right. I ask because of this:

Catechism: “…a human being must must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.”


Richard McBrien, in his essential study Catholicism, explains that in cases of conflict with the moral teachings of the church, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the church.”

If you just posted this you might want to correct the spelling in your thread title to “conscience” rather than “conscious”.

oops…that’s the result of a late night.

Fr. McBrien (God bless him) is one whose writing is ambiguous enough that some people can claim that it says something unorthodox even if it might not actually do so.

However, the answer is that a properly informed conscience will never be in opposition to the authentic teachings of the Church.

Unfortunately some people assume that if there is a conflict, then automatically their ‘conscience’ is right, and the Church is wrong. Whereas in the situation of a conflict, the very first thing to do is to reconcile one’s conscience with the teachings.

Now here’s the thing. Suppose we have a person who is very anti-death penalty. Their state might permit it, and these people can legitimately say that their conscience does not permit them to ‘accept’ the morality of the death penalty, even though it is legal in their state, and even though it is not, per se, against the teachings of the Church. This is an example where a person could argue that his conscience demanded that he protest the death penalty even though if it is legal in the state, it is not strictly demanded by the Church that he protest. The person is not REJECTING Church teaching here.

Unfortunately, what we get more of is people saying, “Hey, I don’t believe that we should deny marriage to gays, even though the Church says marriage is only between one man and one woman. My CONSCIENCE tells me that I must reject the Church’s clear teaching and insist on gay marriage, and my conscience is ABOVE Church teaching and superior to it.”

And **That is wrong. **A well informed conscience would acknowledge that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that no matter how much we may sympathize with our gay brothers and sisters, we cannot ‘make’ marriage into something between men and men, or women and women, anymore than we can ‘make’ the sun into a soap bubble or a violin. It’s impossible to change what God Himself made (male and female, created to bring new life in marriage) and calling two gays ‘married’ doesn’t make them married anymore than if my cat were to have kittens inside my closet that would make the kittens into slippers.

One’s conscience here must align with the Church. If one still struggles, then one must acknowledge that the Church is correct, and that the difficulty is with the person who cannot (yet) bring themselves to understand and accept that fully.

I would imagine it would be the same with you Lutherans to a degree, wouldn’t it? I mean, if you had a fellow Lutheran suddenly claim that, by golly, his conscience told him that Jesus was not 'fully God", but only a human being, and there was no way that he was going to accept the Divinity of Jesus. . .but he still insisted on being Lutheran, called himself a Lutheran, AND said that his point of view was totally all right and acceptable by ALL Lutherans and that if you didn’t accept him you were a bigot and an antiLutheran yourself. . .you’d probably say that despite his ‘sincere belief’ he wouldn’t be right and he’d either have to accept the teaching or stop calling himself a Lutheran, wouldn’t you?

I have an interesting book on the issue by Father Thomas Williams, LC, called Knowing Right from Wrong. It deals with this subject entirely. Basically Father Williams says that if our consciences appear to be at odds with Church Teaching, we can’t just stop there. We have an obligation to seek out a resolution with both purpose and humility.

Pray for them. And Richard McBrien.

Certain moral laws are written in the hearts of man. Here’s more from the Catechism on conscience. vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm

This from Wikipedia

Richard McBrien is a controversial figure in the American Church, due mainly to the content of his published works.
USCCB critique of Catholicism

McBrien’s two volume work, Catholicism, does not bear the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur declarations from the Church that state the book is free of moral or doctrinal error. It was officially disapproved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the grounds that many of its statements are “inaccurate or misleading,” that it exaggerates “plurality” within the Catholic theological tradition, and that it overemphasizes “change and development” in the history of Catholic doctrine. The third edition of the book was reviewed by James Likoudis, the president of Catholics United for the Faith, who stated that the book would leave students “doctrinally illiterate”.

Basically Father Williams says that if our consciences appear to be at odds with Church Teaching, we can’t just stop there. We have an obligation to seek out a resolution with both purpose and humility.

I had a priest explain something that probably went along the same lines. Essentially, it’s a question of discerning whether you disagree with Church teaching because you just think that it is wrong or inconvenient versus whether or not you have done a humble research (i.e. without any prejudice) on the subject. Humble research would include studying the reason for Church teaching and even discussing the subject with a priest. If after doing this you are up in the air about a teaching a Catholic has to defer to Church teaching. The priest said that you can not force someone to think a particular way.

Some examples are: “I think that women should be ordained.”, without learning why the Church sees otherwise.

“It should be OK to have sex before we are married because we are going to marry anyway”, without learning why the Church teaches otherwise.

First…what is conscience and how does it work…according to the Church:Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

**1778 **Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:[INDENT]Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.50 John Henry Cardinal Newman
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."53


**1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer **and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
**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. **

2039 Ministries should be exercised in a spirit of fraternal service and dedication to the Church, in the name of the Lord.81 At the same time the conscience of each person should avoid confining itself to individualistic considerations in its moral judgments of the person’s own acts. As far as possible conscience should take account of the good of all, as expressed in the moral law, natural and revealed, and consequently in the law of the Church and in the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium on moral questions. **Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church. **

CHICAGO, 10 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)Australian Cardinal George Pell’s address Lumen Christi Institute, University of Chicago, on the** “primacy of truth”** and the "primacy of conscience."


Good conscience” simply means good grasp and good application of moral truths — ** it is the truth that is primary**, it is the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind, or, if you prefer, by the conscience. …

The Cardinal helped me a lot on this one… the Primacy is Truth…is the imperative “pearl”…not my conscience. (he uses the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman as a key theologian/philosopher in his talks). We are critically obliged to follow our conscience…but conscience is somewhat akin to the Oriental food supplement “tofu” (a very soft tasteless cheese-like substance)…it (conscience) takes on the flavor of whatever you mix with it…so if we mix error into our conscience we are…an “accident” looking for a place and time to happen! On all matters of faith and morals…the Pope, the bishops in communion with him…the Magisterium will always lead us to the truth…and for Christians…(para JP-II & B-XVI)…Truth is not something…it is a someone…a person…Our Lord Jesus Christ… Jesus said to him, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NAB)…and…as he was sending out the Seventy-Two apostles/disciples…Our Lord Jesus lays it on the line…for them and for us and all times…
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10:16 NAB).

My favorite article by the Cardinal is titled:The Inconvenient Conscience (First Things, May 2005):

Good conscience,” in this way of understanding, means a good grasp and a good application of moral truth—for** it is the truth that remains primary**, the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind.


This is the “truth-teller” for me:…my conscience…**never demands **that I do more that the Church asks of me in faith and morals…for example…the Church says that I am obligated to attend Holy Mass every Sunday and on all Holy days of obligation…how often does my conscience say that this “minimum” is below what my conscience dictates to me…therefore, I must go to Holy Mass at least three times a week…or my diocese asks that we give tithe…5% to the Church and 5% to charities of our choosing…but my conscience dictates that I should tithe 10% to the Church and then give 5% more to charities…etc…

So, I must trust the Church to get me into the “minimum acceptable faith and morals box”…not to be a saint…but just to avoid becoming an agent of evil!

I think the priest laid out a very reasonable position - and I say that as someone who does disagree with a number of Church teachings.

One problem I see a lot in this forum (not in this particular thread) is that the sincerity of people who express disgreement with a Church teaching is often questioned; they’re essentially accused of seeking justification to do something they really know is wrong, rather than simply reaching a different, arguably misinformed, conclusion about an issue.

It’s compounded when the person is disagreeing with a prohibition rather than arguing for a restriction, since it’s much harder to assert a moral high ground in the former case, even when reason is on one’s side. Inevitably the cranky old men of the forum (who actually come in all ages and sexes) will pile on with condescending remarks about the decline of morality, the evils of Vatican II, “…these kids today…”, “…how sad…”, “…poorly cathechised…”, etc., and of course will warn with sanctimonious glee of the hellfire and damnation that awaits the heretic.

Let us all pray for Fr. McBrien.

The correct teaching is that we should follow our WELL-FORMED conscience.

And we have a duty to form our consciences in obedience to the Church’s moral teaching.

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