When it comes to controversial moral teachings like contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, why can’t I just follow my conscience? In fact, I was taught that we were always supposed to follow our conscience.
I’m sure many of us have heard this sort of objection to the Church’s moral teachings on hot button issues. People either disagree with the Church on these issues and/or have chosen a lifestyle incompatible with this teaching and are looking for a little wiggle room. But how does the Church herself understand such objection to established moral norms?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” as a source of error of judgment in moral conduct (no. 1792). It is true that one should not be forced to act against one’s conscience. But it’s quite another to assert that a Catholic with a well-formed conscience may put the Church’s teachings in the areas of faith and morals through his or her own “approval process.”
Some Catholic commentators assert that a well-formed conscience and official Catholic teaching may come to opposite conclusions in moral matters. This opinion directly contradicts paragraph 2039 of the Catechism: “Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.”
A Catholic simply cannot claim to have a well-formed and well-informed conscience if he is ignorant of, misunderstands, or rejects outright God’s law and thus commits acts that the Church considers gravely disordered.
It is also true that one must follow the dictates of a “certain judgment” of conscience (Catechism, no. 1790). Let’s look at this a little more closely in practice, though. Imagine a Catholic who reads the following excerpt from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life:
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 62, original emphasis).
Could such a Catholic, upon reading this excerpt, be certain that he or she is right and the Church is wrong on this issue? Doesn’t such a Catholic who persists in supporting abortion “rights” thereby become his or her own pope?
The fact is, if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord and that He speaks authoritatively through His Church, we don’t merely consult with Him, we follow him! When a father or mother tells a child what to do (because they desire good things for the child), they expect obedience. It’s not considered obedience when the child merely takes what his or her parents say as a “suggestion” and does something else instead. And how much more does God the Father know what is good for us (cf. Mt. 7:11)?
Surely following God’s law is a matter of obedience, but even more it is about love. As our Lord says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). One of the greatest acts of love our children show us is doing what we ask them to do. When it comes to following God’s law, a simple act of loving obedience is surely more pleasing to Him than mere lip service and “conscientious objection.” As He says in the Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).