The Precious Gift of Conscience

     The unfortunate decision of the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception, sterilization, and even some abortion causing drugs is a malicious attack on the freedom of conscience of millions of Catholics and others who hold that these kinds of medical practices, far from being “preventative medicine”, are in fact intrinsically immoral.  This decision to treat fertility and the ability of a man and woman to come together in total lifelong and life-giving love as co-creators with God in the creation of new human life as a preventative disease is another striking example of how the prophetic message of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968 was absolutely right.  He states:

 

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife. (17, emphasis mine)

 

     The Church from her beginning has always stood for the life and dignity of the human person, and the dignity of the sexual union between man and woman as the very foundation of marriage, family, and society itself.  Pope Paul VI made yet another stand in 1968 in the face of the sexual revolution and warned of the dire consequences for human society if the truth about the human person and human sexuality is not upheld and respected.  Now we find ourselves in a day and age when the government mandates that fertility is a preventative disease, when the state, not God, tries to define what a marriage is, and when the largest religious denomination in the United States, Roman Catholics, are no longer protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution to follow their consciences in a matter of grave moral consequence.

    The HHS mandate not only calls all Catholics and people of good will to action, but it also calls us to once again rediscover the truth about conscience and our serious responsibility to form and follow our consciences. 

     Our conscience is at the heart of our human dignity as being created in the image and likeness of God.  It is the voice of God in our souls always calling us to the truth and to fullness of human life.  Conscience is a judgment of reason, enlightened by the Holy Spirit that enjoins us to do what is good, to avoid what is evil, and recognize the divine plan written in our heart.  It judges an action that has taken place, is in the process of being performed, or is going to take place. Each of us has the duty and responsibility to act in accordance with our conscience.  The dignity of the human person demands that each person is always free to act in accordance with their conscience and can never be forced or coerced to do otherwise.  This is a fundamental and God given right of each and every person.  As Vatican II teaches in Dignitatis Humanae:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such ways that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.  The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.  This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right. (2)

      While we are always to follow our conscience, our consciences are not just how we “feel” about any particular moral question or teaching of the Church.  It is not just doing whatever we feel is right.  Our consciences are not the source of truth, but a gift of our reason that allows us to conform our minds, hearts, and lives to the truth about God and about the human person that God has revealed to us through Christ and the Church.   Therefore, we have the serious responsibility of also forming our consciences according the truth that God has revealed.  We act in good and true conscience when we both follow our conscience and it is truly formed according to the teachings of Christ and the Church. 

      We act in good conscience when we follow it, but we must always strive to have it well informed.  If we act in good conscience and our conscience is true, then we have made a good moral decision.  Sometimes our conscience is true, but we act against it, or we act in bad conscience.  This is what happens when we sin.

      But there are other times in which we follow our conscience, or act in good conscience but our conscience is in error, and is not formed correctly according to God’s law.  This would be a false conscience.  When we act in good conscience but it is false, that is called erroneous judgment.

      Having a false conscience many times comes from the fact that we simply may not have known something was wrong, or may have misunderstood or were not properly informed of the teachings of the Church.  We may have had ignorance of the moral law.

      This ignorance is invincible when it is not our fault; when we have not deliberately ignored the duty to form our conscience.   However, our ignorance is vincible when we do not take seriously the responsibility of forming our conscience or when we deliberately ignore or dissent against the moral law.  Vincible ignorance is a grave sin and seriously undermines the moral life.   

      Therefore, our conscience must be formed and moral judgment be enlightened.  The education of one’s conscience is the responsibility of all and is a life-long task.  It requires interiority, to enter one’s heart to recognize the voice of the Creator.  The Word of God, authentically found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as authoritatively interpreted and taught by the Magisterium, is the light of our path, and our conscience should always be formed in accordance to God’s revealed law.  One can’t just say “just follow your conscience.”  We have the serious responsibility to see that the conscience that we are following is conformed to the teachings of Christ and the Church.  Many people today have used the excuse of “just follow your conscience” to dissent from various Church teachings.  The result of such a fallacy is to reduce one’s conscience to simply what one feels about a certain doctrine or moral action which then makes each individual’s conscience the source of truth instead of the unchanging law of God.  This false view of conscience has become the source of the moral relativism that is unfortunately prevalent in our modern culture. 

      Consequently, it must be clearly stated that conscience is not the source of truth but rather the witness, in the very depths of our soul, of a truth that is beyond us, that is unchanging and eternal.  Christ has given us the gift of the Catholic Church and the Magisterium to always be that sure light of truth that guides the faithful through the many storms and dark nights that have visited us all throughout human history.  As Blessed Pope John Paul II teaches:

Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: “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 “.  It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.  (Veritatis Splendor, 64)

     Therefore, in light of the HHS mandate, I encourage all Catholics to not only exercise our right and duty to participate in the public square and demand that this mandate be repealed, but to also take some time to rediscover the Church’s wise and unchanging teachings concerning marriage and sexual morality.  There you will discover that the Church is the one institution who is truly defending and promoting the dignity of every woman and man and each of our calling to live a truly human life:  “For I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10) 

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