This led to no small amount of confusion, likely because many of us grew up hearing about conscience as a sort of “get-out-of-sin-free” card. If we could justify our action (however objectively morally evil it might be) as “following our conscience,” we couldn’t be maltreated.
So is Pope Francis right? Yes… but not in the way many people may assume.
Sometimes orthodox Catholics squirm when they hear “conscience” being talked about. Too often it’s invoked to claim that we can hold (and teach) error without any implications.
For instance, the case of the once-prominent Irish priest Tony Flannery, CSsR, founder of the Association of Catholic Priests. Fr. Flannery ran afoul of the Church by denying core elements of Catholic teaching—including not only the usual moral issues but the doctrine of the Trinity and even his own status as a priest, by declaring that the priesthood wasn’t instituted by Christ. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Church ordered him either to change his views or stop showing himself publicly as a Catholic priest.
A religion blogger for the Huffington Post was scandalized by this, and asked rhetorically, “How contradictory can the Church be? Firstly, the Church teaches people, and priests, to follow their conscience. When they do, they are threatened.” Fittingly, Fr. Flannery’s autobiography is called A Question of Conscience.
Did that blogger have a point? Is it hypocrisy for the Church to preach respect for conscience while at the same time ensuring that its priests promote only Catholic teaching?
One of the major problems in this whole conversation about conscience is that people don’t comprehend the term, and hardly anyone really bothers to define it.
Let’s start with what conscience isn’t. Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver puts the matter well: “Catholics today… have come to comprehend conscience as listening to their own voice, rather than listening to the voice of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Tradition.” So conscience is not reducible simply to following your “inner voice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and explores the ways that conscience
- witnesses (when we “recognize that we have done or not done something”),
- incites or binds (when “we judge that something should be done or not done”), and
- excuses, accuses, and/or torments us (when “we judge that something done is well done or ill done”).
In the immortal words of Boston, this means that conscience is “more than a feeling.” , it’s more like, “Based on what you know, what’s the right or wrong course of action in this context?”
This is a crucial distinction. If you have been practicing a habitual sin for years, you may feel totally comfortable with it. In as much as it contradicts the law of God written in your heart, you may have learned a way to justify it in your mind, or just out of sheer repetition your conscience may no longer feel pricked when you do it. But once you come to understand that the Church teaches it’s immoral, and that this teaching is guided by the Holy Spirit, you’ve got more knowledge to apply to the act.
This is why the Church speaks of the need to “form” our conscience (see the Catechism 1783-1785). The more good and true knowledge our conscience has, the more it’s able to guide our feelings and keep them honest, the better it works.
So, the principle “follow your conscience” doesn’t mean that what we feel inside determines what’s “right” for us. But if you comprehend what conscience does mean, you can see why Pope Francis is right: we ought to always follow our conscience. Generally speaking, there are two reasons why:
- We often make moral judgments with the lights available to us. If you grab your roommate’s $20 bill from the kitchen counter, innocently and reasonably trusting it’s yours, you’re not guilty of theft.
- It’s always wrong to try to do something evil. To do something “against conscience” means to do something that you believe is morally wrong. And that is always wrong. If you’re trying to steal from your roommate, you’re sinning, even if the $20 bill you swiped turns out to have been yours in the first place. A priest I know gives the example of people who decide to skip Mass on Ash Wednesday, (falsely) believing it to be a holy day of obligation. There’s no actual obligation to go on Ash Wednesday, but if you thought there was and intentionally skipped, that’s a sin. As Pope Francis makes it clear, even an atheist knows it’s wrong to intend to do something wicked, whether or not the thing in question actually is wicked.
The Church also can (and does) teach all of us never to stop forming our conscience more rightly in submission to the truths of revelation and reason of which it is the divinely guided teacher. Then we can be sure that the inner voice of conscience is equally the voice of God.