The Primacy of Conscience: A Dangerous Understanding of Catholic Morality
When faced with a serious moral decision, people make that decision based on several things. First, they must educate themselves on the situation at hand; second, they need to be able to read their conscience; and third, they need to consult their faith. One of the greatest gifts that God gives us is the ability to develop a well-informed conscience that can help to guide us through our more serious moral dilemmas. It is possible, however, to have an underdeveloped conscience that can be detrimental to the spiritual life.
Historically, Catholics have been given a solid structure, namely the Church and Sacraments, which has guided them through their lives and assisted them with those hard-to-tackle matters of faith and morals. The Sacrament of Confession, for example, is invaluable when it comes to looking inward so that we can get to the crux of the matter at hand. When getting ready for the sacrament of Reconciliation, we even call the process of preparation “the examination of conscience.” We quite literally examine ourselves and our conscience in order to determine what needs to be mentioned during confession.
After a good confession is made, the Confessor (the priest or bishop who hears the confession) will typically offer some sort of penance and advice to help hone the conscience of the penitent person, in hopes that they might avoid that sin in the future. Conscience is the single most important factor for someone who is determining whether their actions are sinful and in need of confessing, or not sinful and therefore don’t need to be brought up in confession. It is important, though, to always be ”honing in” our inner voice, our conscience, in order to make the right decisions that will ultimately save us (or damn us). It is our obligation to seek the truth and to apply it to our conscience to maintain that well-informed conscience. That’s why ignorance is not a good bet when determining whether or not something is right or wrong. If a person constantly says, “oh, well, I didn’t know it was wrong, so I’m fine,” then they are missing the point of our earthly lives. We should always be seeking to improve our conscience in order to make excellent moral decisions; we need the Church to do that.
A popular concept that has managed to work its way into modern Catholic moral theology is a concept known as “The Primacy of Conscience.” The Primacy of Conscience is a blanket term for an over-arching concept which basically states that a man’s conscience is the ultimate and final authority on what is to be considered morally permissible, and it is the obligation of the individual to follow their conscience even if it contradicts or acts against Church teaching. This is the broad definition of “Primacy of Conscience” as it was explained to me by a member of the Gay and Lesbian ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when I attended the RE Congress back in February. This understanding of conscience was used to justify the desire to live out a homosexual lifestyle.
Similarly, Fr. Bryan Massingale used this understanding of “Primacy of Conscience” during a speech he gave at the same conference, in order to justify a Catholic person to divorce his wife and remarry. More specifically, Fr. Massingale and others take objection to the idea that the Catholic Church is the ultimate authority with regard to matters of faith and morals, suggesting instead that our own conscience is the “prime” contributor to what’s right and wrong. The popular reference used to cite these claims is an encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI, called Gaudium et Spes. During Fr. Massingale’s talk, he cited this encyclical numerous times. Further, when “Primacy of Conscience” is searched online, most proponents of it cite the same document. The two most popular quotes from the document are:
“Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God” (Gaudium et Spes, #16, Emphasis added).
The other popular quote is:
“Their conscience is people’s most secret core, and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths” (Gaudium et Spes, #16, emphasis added).
Notice in the first quote that immediately there is a sense of “blamelessness.” The quote that seems to be popular implies that we have no choice but to have a conscience, and that we have no control over it. In fact, Fr. Massingale himself claims that our conscience is our authority, and he uses this piece of the encyclical to “prove” it. In the second quote, which is also included in his presentation, also suggests that it is in our conscience alone that we can truly experience God, and therefore it must be the “ultimate authority.”
But… There’s one problem. These citations are cherry-picked, and aren’t offered in their full context. And while I agree that it would be impossible to offer the fullest context of the encyclical in an hour-long talk, it’s important to recognize that there is so much more to the document that refutes Fr. Massingale’s understanding of the document. For example, in the very same paragraph used in Massingale’s talks, we read:
“Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and endeavor to conform to the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is gradually almost blinded through the habit of committing sin” (Gaudium et Spes, #16, emphasis added)
Here, in the very same paragraph as Fr. Massingale’s “evidence,” the document expresses the great importance of a “correct conscience.” It claims that a “correct conscience” allows us to avoid ignorance and to “conform to the objective standards of moral conduct” (ibid.). It goes on to say that we are not free from the carelessness of ignorance, but rather, we are responsible for seeking out the objective truth, not just what our conscience thinks. The Church has always maintained, and affirms here, that conscience can be clouded, or blinded, by sin. Catholics are indeed charged with a responsibility to inform our conscience in order to live out the Christian life in the secular world:
“It is their task to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city” (Gaudium et Spes, #43, emphasis added).
Further, the Catholic Church cannot, and never would, suggest that going against Church teaching is good or beneficial in any way. Time and time again, the Church verifies the opposite point. A final reference to Gaudium et Spes states, “But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, #50, emphasis added).
I honestly don’t know how someone could be much clearer on something. Here, the Catholic Church is stating that people are obliged to form their conscience around “divine law” and to submit their conscience to the teaching of the Church. Just in case there are still doubts, here are some excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” (CCC 1786).
“The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC 1783, emphasis added)
Ultimately, Catholics are indeed in some ways bound to follow our conscience. There’s no question the God has given us the ability to discern with our hearts every matter with regard to faith and morals. In that way, our conscience can certainly guide us to the decisions that we need to make. But there is no escaping the extreme necessity for divine law and Church teaching that leads us to a well-informed conscience that can help us to make to right decision.
The flawed logic within the principal of “Primacy of Conscience,” is that it is self-refuting by its very nature; a circular argument with no logical end unless you use discernment based on the Church. The only way any person is free from the risk of sin is in the instance of true ignorance. If you are truly ignorant to the teachings of the Church, then you do not have a properly formed conscience. If you do not have a properly formed conscience, then you cannot claim “Primacy of Conscience.” If you can’t claim “Primacy of Conscience,” then you must examine your conscience to determine what is right and wrong. To do that, we need some authority; and for us, that authority is the Catholic Church. So, how much authority does the “Primacy of Conscience” really hold? Not much. To err on the side of safety, I’ll stick to the Primacy of the Catholic Church instead.