Brian Clowes: What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making?

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October 19, 2018
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October 19, 2018

By Brian Clowes, Ph.D., Human Life International

A fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the human conscience lies at the root of many of the problems in the Catholic Church today.  Very few Catholics even know what the conscience actually is.  When pressed, many will say “If my conscience tells me it’s all right, I can do it.”  This is just one way of saying “If it feels good, do it,” or, in the case of abortion, “If I think abortion is the lesser of two evils in my own personal situation, then it’s all right.”

Many Catholics believe that the conscience is a teacher, not a pupil; that it is the source of morality, instead of a witness to the moral law authored by God.

This has resulted in Catholics supporting and promoting many intrinsic evils, including contraception, sterilization, abortion, homosexual activity, pornography and euthanasia.  As one result, Catholics are responsible for electing an endless procession of vocally anti-life politicians.

Many dissenting organizations vigorously promote this false understanding of the human conscience, knowing that it serves as the foundation upon which to advance the agendas of the Culture of Death.  One of these groups is `Catholics’ for [a Free] Choice (CFFC), whose mission consists of attempting to convince people that they can be pro-abortion and still be “good Catholics.”  In its quarterly magazine, amusingly entitled Conscience, CFFC writes that “Church law affirms both the right and the responsibility of a Catholic to follow his or her conscience, even when it conflicts with church teaching.”[1]  In another publication, CFFC alleges that “The Catholic church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme.  If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you are not committing a sin.  Therefore, you are not excommunicated.  Nor need you tell it in confession, since, in your case, abortion is not a sin.”[2]

This error carries over into other moral issues.  Teresa Kelly, A member of Toronto’s Catholic school board, recently said that being part of a gay-straight alliance, whose purpose is to disseminate homosexualist propaganda in the schools, is “the embodiment of a perfectly-formed Catholic conscience.”  She dismissed her critics, who quoted actual Church teachings on homosexuality, as “archaic.”[3]

In order for a person’s conscience to be conditioned to accept evil, it must first decisively turn away from God’s teachings and decide that it can determine for itself what is right and wrong, ignoring all external standards if necessary in order to reach the desired conclusion.

This means that dissenters must justify their claims by assuming that there is no fixed morality that is binding on all persons.  Of course, if each person’s conscience is the source of morality, this leads to “might is right” thinking, where the strong dominate the weak and justice is discarded in favor of desire and convenience.  This results in abortion, racism, sexism, rape, incest, euthanasia, terrorism, infanticide, and trafficking in women and children.

It is one thing for a person to say “I disagree with the Church’s teaching on abortion.”  It is another thing entirely to say “The Church does not teach that abortion is a sin in all cases.”  This statement is false, and can only be said by one who is grossly ignorant of Church teaching or who deliberately lies about such teaching.

Ignorance is certainly no excuse for committing sin, because every Catholic has the duty to know what is evil and what is not, and, further, they should know why certain activities are evil.  A person is culpable for the evil he commits when he “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”[4]

The conscience is a precious gift, and must be cared for by forming it with prayer and education.  The Catechism states that “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” [¶1783].

A dead giveaway that a person’s conscience is improperly formed is when he or she says something like “I respect the teachings of the Church, but I follow my own conscience in matters of sexual morality.”  Nancy Pelosi recently gave us a classic example when she said that she was a “practicing and respectful Catholic,” but, regarding the Church’s teachings on abortion, “My faith isn’t about what their position is.”[5]

This means that the person’s conscience has become disconnected from the truth.  This has several root causes:  “Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity” [Catechism, ¶1792].

By contrast, a properly‑formed Catholic conscience has been rigorously educated, is fully aware of the intrinsically evil nature of abortion and other evils, and is led by this knowledge to vigorously oppose them.

It is true that Catholics must follow their consciences, but their consciences must be formed by the Word of God, which is authentically interpreted and taught by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, to which Christ entrusted His authority to teach in His Name.  The conscience must be schooled to recognize, not to determine, what is and is not moral activity.

As the Catechism tells us, “Objective rules of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience … It is by the judgment of conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” [¶1751, 1778].

Some appeal to an ill‑defined “Spirit of Vatican II” to support their concept of the human conscience.  They use vague terms such as “renewal,” “reinvigoration” and “rejuvenation” of the Church, while misrepresenting what the documents of the Council actually say.

They often quote the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”) in support of their contention that people should be able to do anything their consciences do not object to.[6]  But the document notes that “… not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience.”[7]  The document continues by confirming that the conscience must submit itself to the authority of the Church:  “In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church.  For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth.  Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself” [¶14].

The question of conscience vs. authority must be answered on two levels, the most basic being from the standpoint of “natural law.”  As defined in Romans 2:12‑16 and Jeremiah 31:33, God imprints the natural law on the heart and soul of man, and this leads him to know whether or not an act is moral or evil.[8]  This means that the “natural law” is man’s instinctual knowledge of what is right and what is wrong ― his “conscience.”

The Fathers of Vatican II were very attentive to the role of the human conscience.  In Gaudium et Spes, they wrote:  “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.  The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. … Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness.  Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure.  Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. … Before the judgment seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil” [¶16‑17].

Dissenters possess a fatally flawed concept of conscience, denying the need for formation in the truth, and treating mere desire as an absolute.  Conscience is indeed a decision-maker, but it must be freely submitted to the law of God, to which it is a witness, not an arbiter.  The dissenter’s error lies not in affirming the freedom of conscience to decide, but in misinterpreting the nature of such freedom.  Freedom of conscience must be at the service of moral truth, but can never be its determinant.


[1] Steve Askin.  “Challenging the Right.” Conscience, Spring 1994, pages 65 and 66; “Abortion and Catholic Thought:  The Little‑Known History.”  Conscience, Autumn 1996, pages 2 to 5.

[2] `Catholics’ for [a Free] Choice.  “You Are Not Alone:  Information for Catholic Women about the Abortion Decision” [Washington, D.C.:  CFFC], 2000 reprint.

[3] Patrick B. Craine.  “Toronto Catholic Teacher:  Joining Gay Club is ‘Embodiment of a Perfectly-Formed Catholic Conscience’.”  LifeSite Daily News, May 27, 2013.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1791; Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes [“On the Church in the Modern World”], ¶16.

[5] John Jalsevac.  “Pelosi Laughs Off Priest’s Letter Challenging Abortion Views, Says He was `Acting Hysterically’.”  LifeSite Daily News, June 25, 2013.

[6] As one example,  Frances Kissling says “In its approach to the [abortion] issue, the organization [CFFC] relied on the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of the separation of church and state, pluralism, and the primacy of conscience” [Frances Kissling, in “CFFC Notebook:  A Mouse that Roars Turns 20.”  Conscience, Spring/Summer 1993, page 54].

[7] Dignitatis Humanae, ¶8.  Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of this document, anticipated this kind of dishonesty.  He stated in a footnote to the Abbott‑Gallagher edition of the Council texts that “The Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on `freedom of conscience.’  Nowhere does this phrase occur.  And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it.  This is a perilous theory.  Its particular peril is subjectivism ― the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not the objective truth, which determines what is right and wrong, true or false” [Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principle author of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, quoted in Russell Shaw.  “Answers.”  National Catholic Register, September 13, 1992, page 4].

[8] The Bible contains many references to the human conscience.  It describes the fate of someone who does not guard or “keep” his conscience [Hebrews 9:14 and 1 Peter 3:16], and who allows his conscience to become “seared” [1 Timothy 4:2].  The Bible also speaks of a “weak conscience” [1 Corinthians 8:7], a “wounded conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:12], a “good” and “perfect” conscience (Hebrews 9:9 and 13:18; 1 Peter 3:21; and 1 Timothy 1:5,19]; a “clear” (blameless) conscience [Acts 24:16 and 1 Timothy 3:9], and a conscience that is “evil” or defiled [Titus 1:15].