The other morning, I saw a post by a well-known§ opponent of abortion on Facebook saying we shouldn’t vote according to conscience, but according to “conviction.” This post was aimed at encouraging people to vote for her preferred candidate rather than someone from a minor party. She even implied that it would be morally wrong not to vote for her candidate. I’ve addressed that sort of nonsense before, so I won’t repeat my objections to those arguments. But that this person—who is Catholic—could have such a malformed idea of conscience motivates me to discuss it, and to explain why it is vital to follow it.
I understand why some people are suspicious of others who invoke conscience. Many do abuse the term, and treat it as a mere feeling. But Conscience is not a feeling. It’s not a case of “I like X,” or “I don’t like Y.” Conscience is something that compels us to act or not act. “I must do X.” “I must not do Y.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking. (1766; 2071)
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: (1749)
When a person says they will act on “conviction, not conscience,” especially if they urge others to act against conscience, it shows that they are either grossly ignorant of what conscience is, or they are telling others to disobey what they believe they are morally obliged to do. This is deadly serious, even more so when trying to pressure others. Our Lord had some words about that, involving a millstone.
Of course, our consciences must be formed by following the teaching of the Catholic Church. This means if the teaching of the Church seems to go against our conscience, we need to discern if we have properly understood the teaching. If we have not, we need to learn the true teaching. But if we have not misunderstood, we should ask ourselves if we are being honest about what we’re labeling “conscience.” We might find it’s not conscience at all, but simply our feelings or preferences that we don’t want to surrender.
Can conscience err? Yes. If we don’t know the truth, and have no way of knowing (invincible ignorance), we are not condemned for having a faulty conscience (see Gaudium et Spes #16). Not knowing the truth is not an automatic free pass, however. If we are Catholics, we should know that the Church is established by Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18) and that we are bound to listen to her (Luke 10:16) as the pillar and foundation of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Rejecting Church teaching is not the result of a properly-formed conscience. As Donum Veritatis tells us:
38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.
The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.
If the Church teaches “X is morally evil,” then a Catholic who knows that teaching but freely chooses to do X cannot claim that they are following a properly formed conscience. But note this: I said if the Church teaches. I did not say, “if some guy on the internet says…” Sadly, there are a lot of Catholics out there who confuse their preferences and political beliefs with Church teaching. If they think caring for the poor means voting for higher taxes, they will often argue that opposing taxes is “rejecting the Church.” If they think that opposing abortion requires voting for a specific political party, they will say that any Catholic who will not vote for party X on moral grounds is “rejecting the Church.” We should always remember that it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him who represent Church teaching, not some social media personality or blogger—and, yes, I include myself in that.*
Catholics whose consciences forbid actions that others find acceptable should not let themselves be bullied by theological “Karens on Facebook” who confuse their preferences with doctrine. If we seek to do what is right, according to Church teaching,# then the fact that others draw different conclusions does not automatically prove they are in error.
If we try to pressure other Catholics to violate their consciences because we fear the political consequences of their actions,^ we had better begin preparing our fitting for the millstone, because we are pressuring others to do what they think is evil in God’s eyes.
(§) As always, I omit the names involved to prevent people from thinking that my opposing an idea is an ad hominem attack. My blog is about defending Church teaching, not political infighting.
(*) I will always do my best to present Church teaching accurately. But if the Pope or your bishop decides on an interpretation different than mine, follow them, not me!
(#) We must be aware of scrupulosity. If one is in doubt about their position, consulting with the pastor could be a wise move.
(^) As a personal example, my conscience forbids me from voting for a candidate that supports abortion. But that doesn’t mean I feel I am automatically obliged to vote for the other major party. If my conscience forbids it, I must not do it.
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An earlier version of this piece, “Since When Has Conscience Become A Dirty Word,“ appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
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David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.