The morality of leaving the Catholic Church


As I’ve been studying the Compendium CCC I’ve learned about the Church’s teaching about freedom of and the morally binding nature of each person’s conscience, and I was curious if it’s always sinful to go against conscience? Consider: a great many people have left the Church to join a Protestant church, Mormonism, JWs, or sadly sometimes atheism, etc. And sometimes they do so because they feel the community they go to is good and true. So if someone feels their conscience is leading them away from the Catholic Church are they culpulable for heresy, schism, or apostasy by following their conscience out of the Church? Likewise would they sin by NOT leaving the Church in this sort of instance (so disobeying their conscience)?

I was just curious as I try to understand the Catholic view of morality, sin, conscience, and ecclesiology. This seemed like kind of a Catch-22 to me, but maybe you can help me understand.



You’re right, this is one of those cases where the RCC finds itself in a Catch 22… Because a church member who leaves for a Protestant church, for example, now denies the authority of the Pope, thus making them a schismatic according to the definition in the CCC. And consistent post-baptismal denial of Catholic doctrine (and they’d be denying it at least by forgoing mass) makes that person a heretic, too.

Apostasy, though, according to the CCC is rejection of the Christian faith, and the cathechism appears to define the faith by the creed, which it breaks down and explains in the text. So as long as the hypothetical person remains a Christian, apostasy is the one thing they don’t have to worry about. However, if they converted to let’s say Judaism, we’d have a problem on that front.

And yet, if it’s all done in good conscience, then salvation is still open as an option. So said the Pope recently, which is being discussed here over on the non-Catholic subforum


This is an all too common misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on conscience. The Church teaches that conscience is binding, but it must be a properly prepared conscience. We all have a moral responsibility to form our conscience in accord with the truth, the truth as revealed by Christ to His Apostles and which has been maintained fully only in the Catholic Church. Having a improperly formed conscience is not a free pass to sin. Only someone who is invincibly ignorant of the need to remain in the Church can still be saved.

From Lumen Gentium 14 (Vatican 2):

Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.


Conscience is not per se a feeling.

See the Catechism for a longer treatment of Conscience than the CCCC.


Could you provide some specific paragraphs or sections (there’s a reason I’m working with the CCCC right now instead of the CCC, it’s HUGE!)?

Thanks everyone for the answers so far. Keep them coming!


One could take that to mean that a person born into an atheist family has nothing to worry about, while the atheist by choice/ex-catholic has lost the possibility of salvation. But what if they truly believed they were making the right decision? Do we then say their conscience was malformed, and now they’re pointed in hell’s direction?


And this is what at times makes me concerned this nagging fear in the back of my mind. I have come to the understanding and accepted that it will likely not go away. I attribute it to indoctrination i received as a child and young adult.
I do not believe that i do have a say in what i have rationalized out and how my conscience ‘feels’.


IMHO, and I may be wrong, they would probably be condemned to Hell because of self delusion.
Considering the nature of the human ego, in such cases as you describe, it is most likely that Satan helps the individual in such self delusion. In a properly formed conscience this situation, most likely, would not occur. Never forget, all of us have a Guardian Angel that helps us against Satan. All we have to do is pay attention to that little voice - apart from our conscience that says DONT!


I was in the same position. Then I camped out in the Gospels for a while, and the epistles, and the fear went away and trust took its place.


Yes me too, but i feel maybe in a different direction. :thumbsup:


This scene from CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce comes to mind. I recommend reading the book if you haven’t, it’s less than 150 pages. The following is an excerpt of a conversation between two friends meeting in the Hereafter, the one saved and trying to at last save his friend (who happens to be an Episcopal Bishop)…

Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological…’

‘Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?’

‘Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?’

‘We call it Hell.’

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’

‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’

‘Are you serious, Dick?’


‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken?’

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound predjuide, and intellectual dishonesy, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed - they are not sins.’

‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’

‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I took every risk.’

‘What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came - popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?.. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it b/c it seemed modern and successful…When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?.. (we) were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breech with the spirit of the age…’

‘I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. But it’s not a question of how opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.’

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith… just as a drunkard reaches a point at which… he believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events…But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

‘You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!’

‘Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow there is no error in the opposite direction?’

‘The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

'If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully?

Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick?

‘Listen! Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’


Well & truly said.

And here’s another reason to accept, in humility, the teaching of the Church that Jesus commissioned: we lie.

We lie to ourselves.
All the time. Easily.

We justify our thoughts and actions so as to (attempt to) excuse ourselves.

We might say that we disagree with the Church for some pure reason, all the while LOOKING for a “loophole” so that we don’t have to follow some OTHER teaching to which we object. For males, it usually, though not always, has some sexual implications.


I have read it. And re-read it. Love that book :slight_smile:

I don’t disagree with any of that.

I agree with that, too. But what do you say to someonee who has done the opposite? One who has prayed unceasingly, who has willfully fought every wrong desire, one who resisted the “drifting”, and sought out answers to sincere, gnawing questions, and at the end of it all says, “None of this makes sense anymore to me.”… Hellbound?



Hi Alizarin,

The short answer is “no.”

Here are some things Benedict XVI had to say about conscience. When he says “even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority” he’s obviously talking about a conscience that the Church would consider as not being “well-formed.” But if it is sincere, then we are required to follow it. And I agree with your point about someone who has prayed unceasingly, trying to make sense of it all. I’m in a similar place.

"…Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. The conscience of the individual confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church. In all activity man is bound to follow his conscience… It follows he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor…to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious…”

  • Pope Benedict XVI, Commentary on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in vol.5



Wow… very interesting. Thanks for the quote. :slight_smile:


Yes, but again this has to be a PROPERLY FORMED conscience. Failure to properly form your conscience doesn’t grant carte blanche to commit evil. Eg Hitler felt he was doing the world a wonderful service by killing 6 million Jews - that doesn’t mean he didn’t sin by doing so - in fact he did sin b/c no one is ignorant of the moral law which is written in the hearts of all men (cf. CCC 1860). All statements by orthodox Catholic theologians or popes must be read in this context


Hi PietroPaolo,

It depends what you mean by a properly formed conscience. If you mean one that sincerely reflects the moral law that is written in the hearts of all men, then I agree that we must have a properly formed conscience. Many folks here seem to think that “properly formed” means “never disagreeing with any teaching of the Church.” Their argument is with Benedict XVI, not with me.



A properly formed non-Catholic conscience would have to conform to the moral law, but wouldn’t have to conform to those elements of Catholic doctrine that we only know through divine revelation. Thus, a properly formed conscience can’t disagree with any of the moral teachings of the Church, as these simply reflect the natural moral law, but a properly formed non-Catholic conscience could reject, for example, the Immaculate Conception or even the obligation to attend Mass.

The important thing to note is that Benedict is not saying that we get a pass on following the moral law b/c we disagree with it, which is how many want to read the Church’s teaching on conscience. Thus a gay man doesn’t get a pass on homosexual activity simply b/c his conscience tells him its okay.


Exactly. And why is that? We lie to ourselves!
We don’t mean to (usually); it’s just that we project goodness™ into our behaviors, while not often giving our neighbor the same benefit of the doubt.


That’s why when someone leaves their church, I try to trust that it was done with the right intentions.

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