Over the course of the podcast we’ve had several conversations about conscience and the moral law as well as episodes about abuse in the Church. However, in my reading of Pope Francis’s teaching, as well as in my research about spiritual abuse, there’s a specific type of abuse that’s discussed, but not widely understood, the abuse of conscience.

So today I wanted to unpack what abuse of conscience is and give concrete examples of what it looks like. I think you will be surprised how common it is, and even how, at times, the abuse of conscience is presumed to be the orthodox way of practicing the faith. Some of these examples include:

  • Ignoring the difference between the internal and external forum, that is, subjective discernment and freedom/culpability and the objective moral law
  • Telling someone that God is asking them to do something in a particular situation
  • Telling someone a particular action will damn them to hell or is a mortal sin
  • Stating that the Church teaches a particular thing when there is not an actual written teaching on that matter
  • Confusing the objective moral law with my own subjective and prudential judgment of conscience

Dominic and I explain how the abuse of conscience is endemic in our experiences of Catholicism. And how all of us (whether we’re in formal positions of leadership, are parents, are older siblings, etc) have a responsibility to respect the conscience of others, and keep ourselves, and others, safe by being mindful of this abuse in our communities and families.

“Abuse of conscience is the type of abuse of power that damages the conscience as the seat of freedom of judgment and as the place of encounter with God and with oneself. Abuse of conscience occurs when the ecclesial mediation transgresses its limits, so that it gains control of and replaces it.

For instance, it is perpetrated when representatives of the Church impose the will of God on the followers who have opened their conscience to them. In fact, when ecclesiastical mediation becomes absolute, it transgresses its limits and contradicts its aim and meaning. The leader no longer represents God, but supplants Him, and makes wrongful use of the name of the Lord (Ex 20:7).

Thus, conscience loses its freedom to judge and the follower can no longer be alone with God in his or her conscience. The hallmark of this type of abuse is that the faithful’s conscience can no longer fulfill its proper function because the abuser has replaced it.”
Fr. Samuel Fernández (2021). Towards a Definition of Abuse of Conscience in the Catholic Setting. Gregorianum, 102(3): 557–74.

I hope you enjoy this discussion!

This week, Paul and Dominic dive into a specific type of spiritual abuse, the abuse of conscience. An individual’s conscience is their innermost sanctuary where they are alone with God. However, that sanctuary can be invaded and violated by the malicious and the careless. Paul and Dominic give examples of what this kind of abuse looks like and how common it is. So common that, at times, the abuse of conscience is presumed to be the orthodox way of practicing the faith.  

“We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (Amoris Laetitia 37)


PFG episode about conscience:

The Place Where You Stand is Holy Ground: Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church:

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ABOUT DOMINIC DE SOUZA SmartCatholics founder, Dominic de Souza, is a convert from radical traditionalism – inspired by WherePeterIs, Bishop Robert Barron, and Pope Francis. He is passionate about helping ordinary Catholics break the ‘bystander effect’, and be first responders. “We don’t have to be geniuses. We just have to show up with witness and kindness. Christ does the rest.” Today he hosts the SmartCatholics community.


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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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