God’s Law or My Conscience?


Ever been told (as I was recently) that in the Church today, many Catholics are opting to follow their *conscience* rather than “the bishops” when it comes to certain moral teachings?

What do you make of that?

Well let’s take a look in the Catechism, because it may surprise you to learn that these people–though somewhat misguided–are not totally off base in crying “conscience.”

CCC 1790: A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.

Did you know the Catechism teaches this?  Man is obliged to follow his conscience.  It makes good sense, really.  The Catholic Church, contrary to certain popular belief, does not intend for us to check our reason at the door.  How awful and illogical would it be to insist that God, the source of all reason, would require man to act contrary to the certain judgment of his conscience!

Unfortunately, it seems that many who invoke the Church’s teaching on conscience when it comes to the more difficult moral teachings stopped reading a little short.  In the very same line, the Catechism goes on to make clear:

CCC 1790 [continued]: …Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

Translated into even simpler terms, this basically says: Man is not perfect, and can sometimes make mistakes in his judgment (even the ones he is “certain” about).

Think about it.  Haven’t you ever been so sure of something, only to find out that you were, in fact, wrong?

If you answered “no,” you’re either lying, not human, or only a few hours old.  The fact is we all make mistakes sometimes.

So, am I saying that God’s law trumps conscience?

It is actually sort of a trick question.  You see, our conscience, properly understood, is nothing other than God’s law working in our hearts.

Citing guadium et spes, the Catechism characterizes conscience beautifully:

CCC 1776: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

This is important to grasp:  Too many people–both in and out of the Church–understand “The Church” as basically just some lifeless institution run by old men set on enforcing ancient rules and customs because some guy who lived 2,000 years ago supposedly wanted it that way.  And if we are all good little boys and girls who play by the rules, we won’t have to go to Hell when we die.  Keep the rules, and don’t ask questions.

You guys: This is not what Catholics believe the Church is!  Jesus established the Church so that we could come to know Him, personally, today.  As Catholics, we believe Jesus is alive, and works through His Church.  In the Biblical canon of Scripture (which the Church compiled), in the sacraments, and in the infallible dogmas and doctrines of the Church–we have the opportunity to learn about and to meet personally Jesus Himself.

So, to a Catholic, it is tremendously important to let the teachings of the Church inform and permeate our conscience when it comes to moral decisions.  I am bound to be wrong sometimes.  But as a Christian, I do not believe that God ever will be.  So when my heart tries to tell me something that runs contrary to the infallible teaching of Jesus as taught by His Holy Church, I can trust with confidence that my heart is the one that needs changing.

Isn’t this how we come to know the heart of Jesus?  We yield our hearts over to Him not simply because “The Church says so,” but because we trust that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  In our yielding and in our struggle to understand the “why” behind those teachings we might find hard, we come to know Jesus Himself.  And that is the whole point of being a Christian.

To me, the infallible authority of the Church on defined matters of faith and morals is incredibly freeing.  Still, I recognize that, to others, accepting the authority of the Church can be a great struggle, or even seem stifling to personal freedom.  If you fall into that second camp, then I would encourage you to take a closer look at what you immediately think of when you hear the words: “The Church.” Do our minds immediately go to that group of old men making up rules in the Vatican?  Or do we really understand “The Church” as Jesus Himself, calling us into deeper relationship with Him?