Private Conscience and the Church

church, bells, towers, steeple

church, bells, towers, steepleThe late Bishop Fulton Sheen explained the matters of conscience and that there are two kinds of truths:

“Outer truths, which we master, like the distance of the sun from the earth; and inner truths, which master us; for example – God is merciful to the penitent. Inner truths affect a person’s destiny, like a vocational calling; they are matters of conscience.”

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council defined conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of the person, where alone with God, in one’s innermost self, each one perceives the voice of God.”

Now consider this, if a couple, after much prayer and sincere reflection, considered themselves to be truly married in the eyes of God, but many others considered them to be living in sin, would you judge them to be sinners? Or would you give them the benefit of the doubt? Pope Francis once said, “Who am I to judge,” and he disturbed a lot of people.

The Primacy of Conscience

The Church has always taught the primacy of conscience. The law is the remote norm of morality, while the individual conscience is considered the proximate norm. This traditional teaching of moral theology has certain consequences; for instance, a law does not bind in conscience until the individual knows it exists, and until he or she accepts it as objectively true and morally binding. There is such a thing as licit dissent.

The American hierarchy issued a pastoral letter entitled “Human Life in Our Day,” (November 15, 1968). Here is a pertinent excerpt:

“There exists in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry, of thought, and general norms of licit dissent… In the final analysis, no person is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his/her conscience, as the moral tradition of the Church attests.”

In doubtful matters, Catholics should be guided by the teaching authority of the Church, which is referred to as the Magisterium. What exactly does that mean? At the 1991 workshop for the hierarchy, theologian Avery Dulles, SJ, who later became a Cardinal, explained it this way.

“The Magisterium is one, but only one informant of conscience. In matters of individual conscience Catholics have the right to examine all available information in forming their conscience.” This teaching is not new.

There has always been an emphasis on God’s mercy in the teaching of the Church. Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”-Matthew 9:13.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”-John 3:17.

Pope Francis

“Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

“Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life…The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love…Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.”

“We are all sinners. But God heals us with an abundance of grace, mercy and tenderness.”

“Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?… It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”

– Pope Francis

Pope Francis has been emphasizing mercy quite a bit. To some, he seems to be breaking the rules. The truth is, he has been manifesting the Spirit of Jesus, who excoriated the Pharisees of old. Here’s what Jesus said,

“And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you will not lift a finger to help them.”-Luke 11:46.

The Pope’s canonical critics demand greater rigidity. Are they wise? I think not. In view of the fact that Jesus issued this command: “Judge not that you be not judged,” wouldn’t it make more sense if these papal critics calmed down, and left the matter of judging souls to God.

 Divine Mercy is something we’re all going to need one day. Better to be safe than sorry.

May the Lord be your strength and your joy.

“We cannot trust in our own strength, but only in Jesus and in his mercy.”  Pope Francis

By Father John Catoir JCD  

In 1995, Father John created St. Jude Media Ministry– producing 30-second SPOTS and buying airtime all over the country. Today, the radio and web ministries continue to give encouraging messages to people of all faiths. At age 86, Fr. Catoir continues to spread joy in his work. He continues to write his syndicated newspaper columns, produces and airs weekly radio spots and is active with his daily blog at:       

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21 thoughts on “Private Conscience and the Church”

  1. Father, I completely disagree with your notion of primacy of conscience.

    So many people today take “primacy of conscience” to mean that the personal conscience “trumps” the Church’s teaching about the evil of an act when the two conflict. For example, someone might say: “The Church says the use of artificial contraception is gravely evil, but I don’t believe that so I can go ahead and use it and it is not a grave sin for me because I am following my conscience.” That’s not what the Church teaches about conscience.

    Yes, a man must follow the dictates of his (well-formed) conscience; otherwise, he condemns himself.. The Church is not going to force him to act contrary to his conscience. However, following one’s conscience (particularly if it is ill-formed) may lead one right out of communion and into grave (even mortal) sin. If you rely on your “conscience” to justify engaging in behavior that the Church teaches is gravely evil, you’d better a) be sure that your conscience is well formed and that it is not you who are wrong instead of the Church; b) be ready to accept the potential ecclesial consequences of your behavior, such as exclusion from communion or in extreme cases, even excommunication; and c) be prepared to accept the potentially eternal consequences if you are wrong and the Church is right.

    There’s also the question of obedience. The Church teaches that I must attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days unless I have a valid excuse or obtain a dispensation from my priest; otherwise, it is a grave sin and can even be mortal if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Perhaps I think that this is a stupid rule and my conscience leads me to dissent from it. But, that deals only with what I believe, not with how I must act. As a Catholic, I still must still obey even those teachings that I personally disagree with unless the rule itself commands me to commit evil. It is also clear that the Church is not commanding me to sin by instructing that attend Mass.

  2. As the Church tried to get away from some of the legalism that was common before the council, “follow your conscience” was, unfortunately taken to mean “do whatever you feel like”. Reformers pushed the primacy of conscience without making sure people had well informed consciences.

  3. Thank you Father. Your essay confirmed what I believe the Holy Spirit has been speaking to my heart. I am very conservative. I believe in all the truths of the HRCC. I also see now as I’ve gotten older that everything is not simply black and white. God’s mercy is unfathomable. He loves sinners. This past Thursday’s reading stated very clearly ” I will not reject ANYONE that comes to Me” there were no excepts in that powerful statement. I know its hard for many good people who are legalistic to ignore the sin and see the Lord in the sinner. The law is the law right? I was legalistic to a fault. It is wrong to box God in like that and I’m so happy that the Lord set me free from constraints, so now I don’t see a sinner, someone who is not following all the rules. Now I see people as the beautiful soul loved by God that created them. God loves everything He created. People need to know God’s mercy and love so that by drawing near to the Sacred Heart without fear they will come to know, love and serve God and joyfully amend their lives. Jesus pointed out in today’s reading that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man. Violating the Sabbath to heal or feed and water your livestock etc…trumps Sabbath constraints. By allowing people to draw near to Christ in love not fear is our mission and as you correctly state is the spirit of Jesus. Your essay was poignant and is on point. God bless you.
    Eddie Monti

    1. Eddie-Each of God’s beautiful people is beautiful, among other things, because He made them with free will; and if one of them chooses freely, one of them who does indeed know God’s love and of his mercy, chooses freely not to spend eternity with God, God will honor that choice, and His mercy will not overpower that sinner and turn that sinner into a mercy robot who haltingly walks into heaven, unrepentant. Yes, God does not reject any sinner, but He also will not violate the free will of any of His human creatures. Guy McClung

    2. I agree. Read what i wrote. My point is that many Christians send people to hell out of a legalistic view. Jesus clearly avails Himself, His Mercy, His Salvation to EVERYONE who comes to Him. Let us never prevent the children of God to come to Him as the apostles tried to do. Anyone who chooses not to go to Him willfully chooses eternal death. Let us not push people into thinking they are too bad to warrant His mercy.

    3. We see things differently. I see a lot of people demanding that God accept them on their terms rather than his. I see people who are haughty, insolent and unrepentant demanding that the Church’s teachings (particularly on sexual sin) be changed and that they be granted “official” recognition as being in full communion with the Church without any expectation that their behavior needs to, or ever will, change.

  4. Conscience is a judgment of reason that reads the moral law. Conscience does not decide what is moral or not. You can only sin in impunity if you don’t know the pariticular moral law, but the role of the Church is to teach the natural and divine law. Therefore the Christian has the duty of forming his conscience in conformity to the moral teachings of the Magisterium.

    Fr. Catoir is a spreader of fog. God loves everyone but love does not approve of everything.

    1. No one can “sin in impunity” simply because they supposedly “don’t know the particular moral law. CCC 1860: “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.”

    2. “Sin with impunity” is an exaggerated way of saying “Unintentional ignorance can . . . remove the imputability of a grave offense.”

    3. I get it. But in the section of the Catechism cited above, the admonition “But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law” follows and modifies the statement about the mitigating effects of unintentional ignorance. The point being, there are some things about which no one can claim ignorance, regardless of circumstances or cultural environment because the proscription against them has been written into the human heart. For example, forcible rape is always wrong and always a grave sin, whether or not someone knows that the Church teaches that to be the case. No one is excused for forcible rape by claiming “I didn’t know the Church taught against that.” This is because the grave “wrongness” of such deeds is written in to he heart of every man by the creator of the universe; accordingly it is impossible for a human being to be ignorant of the fact that such deeds are gravely evil.

    4. My moral theology does not go deep enough to say with certainty which precepts we infallibly know and which we have to learn. I know the first principle is do good and avoid evil. Certainly the basic meaning of the ten commandments are known by any person who has reached the age of reason.

    5. Agree.
      1. We begin with Christ’s teachings
      2. We integrate Tradition since; ” … many other things that Jesus did….I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” John21:25
      3. Then, the Church (the Bride of Christ) teaches us how to know, love and serve the Triune God, for our benefit and Salvation – based on 2000 years of thought, the Saints, and the blood of Martyrs.
      4. Conscience. – Since not every circumstance can be anticipated by Church Teachings, the “Conscience” is then invoked to integrate one’s situation to the Church Teachings to best determine what is moral and faithful to God. One needs a well formed conscience, or well formed spiritual guidance. Again, the goal is Salvation.

    6. Agreed. “Primacy of conscience” does not trump the basic principles of the moral law, which are written in the heart of every man. “Conscience” can never excuse one of responsibility for refusal to honor one’s mother and father, murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, etc. One need not be explicitly aware of the “Ten Commandments” to know in his heart that these things are gravely evil.

  5. Jesus: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    Jorge Bergoglio: “No one is condemned forever.”

    Inspired word of God in St. Paul to the Galatians: ” I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”

    As for me and my house, we’ll stick with Jesus.

    Guy McClung, Texas

  6. Jesus – MT
    10:14-15 “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside
    that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it
    will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment
    than for that town.”

    Jesus – MT 18:15-17
    “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and
    him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does
    not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be
    confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to
    them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church,
    let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    Jesus – LK 10:10-12
    “Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the
    streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we
    shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell
    you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.”

    Jesus – REV 2:5-6
    “Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at
    first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place,
    unless you repent. But you have this in your favor: you hate the works of the
    Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

    Jesus – REV 2:14-16
    “Yet I have a few things against you. You have some people there who hold
    to the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before
    the Israelites: to eat food sacrificed to idols and to play the harlot.
    Likewise, you also have some people who hold to the teaching of [the]
    Nicolaitans. Therefore, repent. Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and wage
    war against them with the sword of my mouth.

    Jesus – REV 2:19-21
    ” Yet I hold this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who
    calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants to play the
    harlot and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent,
    but she refuses to repent of her harlotry. So I will cast her on a sickbed and
    plunge those who commit adultery with her into intense suffering unless they
    repent of her works.

    St. Paul – ACTS
    13:8-11 But Elymas the magician (for that is what his name means) opposed them
    in an attempt to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known
    as Paul, filled with the holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son
    of the devil, you enemy of all that is right, full of every sort of deceit and
    fraud. Will you not stop twisting the straight paths of [the] Lord? Even now
    the hand of the Lord is upon you. You will be blind, and unable to see the sun
    for a time.” Immediately a dark mist fell upon him, and he went about seeking
    people to lead him by the hand.

    St. Paul – ROM 16:17-18
    I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and
    difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid
    them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites,
    and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.

    St. Paul – 1 COR 5:1-2
    It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that
    is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And
    you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be
    removed from among you.

    St. Paul – 1 COR 5
    11-13 But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if
    he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not
    even to eat with such a person. For why should I be judging outsiders? Is it
    not your business to judge those within? God will judge those outside. “Purge
    the evil person from your midst.”

    St. Paul – 2 COR
    6:14-18 Do not be yoked with those who are different, with unbelievers. For
    what partnership do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does
    light have with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a
    believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God
    with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said:

    “I will live with them
    and move among them,
    and I will be their God
    and they shall be my people.
    Therefore, come forth from them
    and be separate,” says the Lord,
    “and touch nothing unclean;
    then I will receive you
    and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
    says the Lord Almighty.”

    St. Paul – EPH 5:6-8
    Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that
    the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not
    associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the

    St. Paul – 2 THES 3:14
    If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this
    person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame.

    St. Paul – 2 TIM 3:1-5
    But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People
    will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient
    to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous,
    licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers
    of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but
    deny its power. Reject them.

    St. Paul – TITUS 3:
    10-11 After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic,
    realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned.

    St. John – 2 JN 9-11
    Anyone who is so “progressive” as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ
    does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.
    If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in
    your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works.

    St. Peter – 2 PT 2
    These people are waterless springs and mists driven
    by a gale; for them the gloom of darkness has been reserved. For, talking empty
    bombast, they seduce with licentious desires of the flesh those who have barely
    escaped from people who live in error. They promise them freedom, though they
    themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever
    overcomes him. For if they, having escaped the defilements of the world through
    the knowledge of [our] Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and
    overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first. For it would
    have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than after
    knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment handed down to them. What is
    expressed in the true proverb has happened to them, “The dog returns to its own
    vomit,” and “A bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire.”

    St. Jude – JUDE 17-23
    But you, beloved, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our
    Lord Jesus Christ, for they told you, “In [the] last time there will be
    scoffers who will live according to their own godless desires.” These are the
    ones who cause divisions; they live on the natural plane, devoid of the Spirit.
    But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the holy
    Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord
    Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. On those who waver, have mercy; save
    others by snatching them out of the fire; on others have mercy with fear,
    abhorring even the outer garment stained by the flesh.

    1. These verses mandate that flagrant, unrepentant sinners in the Church must be admonished and that if they will not repent we must “break off contact” with them., They are to be “rejected” and are to be treated as a “tax collector or a gentile”. They are to be “cut off” from the community, “shunned”, “purged from our midst” and “put to shame”. We are “not to associate with them” and are to “shake their dust off our feet.” We are to “abhor” even the outer garment which has touched their flesh.

      These words are very harsh. I am not advocating taking them too far. However, they can’t be ignored either, as Father seems to do in this blog post and as many others seem to do as well. Using the admonition “Judge not that you be not judged” as a basis for the conclusion that every member of the Church may do whatever they please and act however they want according to their own conscience with no ecclesial consequences is a distortion of the Word of God.

    2. In the context of 1st Century Judea, gentiles were considered “unclean” by the Jewish people. The point Jesus was making was that if someone refuses to listen even to the Church and remains in unrepentant, flagrant sin, then they should be treated as the 1st Century Jews would treat a gentile.

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