In a recent conversation with a Reformed Christian acquaintance, I was commended for converting to Catholicism even though certain aspects of Catholic teaching are extremely offensive to my preexisting political and moral opinions. I told him that in some sense I converted to Catholicism because of that. I felt that I needed and deserved moral and epistemic regulation on levels that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. I didn’t have an especially high view of my own ability to self-rule purely on the basis of my own thoughts and opinions. I still do not. Pope Francis has said that the Church is meant to “form consciences, not replace them” (Amoris Laetitia §37); however, it remains the case that the Church is meant to form them. In fact, the ways the Church has formed my conscience over the past several years have felt something like a blessing.
Intellectually I was most convinced of Catholicism through the strength of the Church’s historical claims. I was Episcopalian before, and while I still have a great deal of affection for the Anglican tradition (I’m technically a member of one of the Ordinariates), it stretched credibility that the Church with the strongest claim to the apostolic succession was the one founded by Henry VIII.
I was also drawn in by the much more defined and “stronger” Catholic Eucharistic theology, the fact that Marian devotion is actively encouraged, and the fact that Catholicism, along with Judaism, was one of the religions of my maternal ancestors. One of the clinchers, however, was indeed the fact that Catholicism didn’t, at the time, flatter all my political and cultural preconceptions. I was mindful of what the German statesman Ludwig Bamberger once wrote: “Prince [Otto von] Bismarck believes firmly and deeply in a God who has the remarkable faculty of always agreeing with him..” I was also mindful of a song by Steve Earle (himself a very, very left-wing guy!) that has the refrain “I believe in God, and God ain’t us.” My conscience is and was valuable to me, but I don’t believe that conscience can consist in the constant self-ratification of my own opinions. Sometimes I worry that I have taken on an authoritarian view—but perhaps that is another subject, another worry, where the Church can form my conscience!
I once went to a talk about conscience at a university Newman Center. I wish I could remember who gave it. The speaker pointed out that these days many Catholics in the US only ever seem to invoke conscience in order to get out of obligations—my conscience won’t allow me to get vaccinated, your conscience won’t allow you to assent to Church teaching on abortion, his conscience won’t allow him pay his income tax, and so forth. Much more rare is to be compelled by our consciences to do things that we would rather not or that are not easy for us. It’s especially rare for us to allow our consciences to be formed by religious teachings that don’t match what we already believe.
We find a good example of this in the letter that Kazakh bishop Athanasius Schneider wrote for American Catholics who want “religious exemptions” against vaccine mandates. The most striking language here is, “I must stress, however, that even if I were not Catholic, my personal religious belief would be the same. I cannot have anything to do with vaccines that are connected in any way to the act of abortion. I could not live with myself if I were forced to be injected with any such vaccine.”
The implication of this astounding passage—which is clearly intended to evade the obvious fact that Catholic teaching does not actually provide a religious exemption from vaccination—is “even if my religious beliefs changed, my religious beliefs wouldn’t change.” That is, Schneider is encouraging people precisely to keep their own counsel over and against what their—and his—religious authorities are actually telling them, and characterizing this as “conscience”! Is there any better example of someone not allowing the Church to form their conscience than someone who says their conscience would tell them the exact same thing if they weren’t Catholic?
I am guilty of this myself from time to time, as are we all. I don’t want to run down the list of examples that come to mind, but there are at least two or three areas where my own moral views diverge from Church teaching no matter how hard I try to reconcile them. However, there are still right and wrong ways to handle such situations. At one point I even wrote a letter to the CDF presenting a criticism of something that just kept sticking in my craw, since according to Donum Veritatis §30, in situations where difficulties reconciling a teaching persist, it is a theologian’s “duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching.” Still, the theologian’s duty is emphatically not to conclusively put his or her own conscience above magisterial teaching, even in cases of seemingly irresoluble conflict. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote sensitively on the point here, although this essay predates Donum Veritatis and other late-period John Paul II writings on this topic. Writes Cardinal Dulles:
With respect to noninfallible teaching, therefore, there are two possible errors. One would be to treat it as if it were infallible. Such an excessive emphasis could overtax the individual’s capacity to assent and could lead to a real crisis of faith in the event of a later change of doctrine. The opposite error would be to treat noninfallible magisterial teaching as though it were simply a matter of theological opinion. This would be an error for the reasons already explained. The hierarchy is not just a group of theorists, but a body of pastors who are sacramentally ordained and commissioned as teachers of the faith.
Many of the crises of magisterial authority of the past half-century have involved both of these errors at different times–”liberals” having the former reaction to the “majority report” on birth control and the latter reaction to Humanae Vitae, “conservatives” or “traditionalists” having a former reaction to much of the theology of the John Paul II-Benedict XVI era and the latter reaction to much of the Francis papacy. In any case, the conscience here is not being formed by the Church; it is either surrendering responsibility to it, rebelling against it, or doing both at different points in time.
Conscience is an extremely important issue to get right, especially in the post-Vatican II era of the Church, when individual conscience is explicitly recognized and protected in Church doctrine. (Ironically, this is the only facet of Catholic teaching that makes actions like Bishop Schneider’s even minimally acceptable, despite traditionalists’ claimed opposition to it.) Since almost nobody today has preexisting assumptions that match Catholic moral teaching in every particular, almost all Catholics are called to “argue with ourselves,” or to mediate between our own views and instincts and what we are called to trust and affirm as members of the Church, in communion with the Pope and the bishops. The difficulty inherent in this is no excuse not to try. In particular, it is no excuse to reduce the conscience to something that only ever absolves one from responsibilities, and never imposes them.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.