I would like to spend Wednesdays on the blog looking at some of the gnarlier questions of Catholic teaching and theology. I realize from both my priestly ministry of spiritual direction and my presence on Catholic social media that there is quite a bit of misunderstanding of Catholicism, even among Catholics. And of course some of the issues I hope to treat are hotly contested, widely rejected, and bitterly opposed. As those who know me and have read me for years know, that sort of thing only encourages me to keep writing about it. I don’t mind being disagreed with, but fiercely resist efforts to silence me.
Let’s start with something a bit less juicy, but fairly central in many of the hard questions of our day. Let’s talk about conscience. Now, in a single blog post I cannot do justice to the whole theology and philosophy of this matter, but let’s talk about why the Church insists on the primacy of conscience (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church 1782) and what that really means.
Conscience is the practical intellect, that part of our reasoning faculty by which, examining a decision that is to be made, we determine what is the good course of action, also known as the moral good. We determine the right thing to do, and we determine this right thing to do by the exercise of our conscience.
This is not moral relativism. Those Catholics and others who bridle at the mention of the word conscience are hearing it in a morally relativistic way, but that is simply not what the Church means by it. Using one’s intellect to determine what is the right and moral course of action is no different in essence from using one’s intellect to solve a math problem. You indeed have to do the solving (or, if you are using a calculator, you can have someone else do the solving for you), but nobody claims you can decide that 2 and 2 are five or that you can divide by zero and come up with a rational number.
And if you are doing math in the service of some practical project—building a house or paying your taxes—making mistakes in the numbers will have practical effects in the world. The house will fall down and kill you and your family; the taxes won’t get paid properly and there are legal consequences to that.
Conscience is much like that; we use our intellects to determine the right course of action. If we determine wrongly, and do something that is in fact morally wrong, we may be innocent in intent, but the wrong is still done. And actions are morally wrong, not by some arbitrary law given by a heedless Lawgiver, but because they are harmful to us. Some harms are immediate and obvious (reckless driving causes a crash) and some are long-term and gradual (smoking causes lung cancer), but the harm is done nonetheless.
It is absolutely vital that people exercise their consciences freely. Sometimes it comes up in pastoral ministry that a person wishes they didn’t have free will, that God would just tell them directly moment by moment what to do and even completely take over their volition. This is not the deal God has with us, though. The reason we must exercise our conscience is rooted in the very purpose and goal of God’s creative and salvific will for us. He made human beings so that there would be creatures of flesh, material creatures, who could freely choose to know Him and love Him, who could make a free choice to enter communion with Him and so give glory to God.
There is much more that can be said on that front (I hope to write a book about it some day). But that is the fundamental reason why conscience is primary and free will absolutely necessary. God does not violate us, does not force Himself on us, does not make us know Him and love Him (this is also why He hides Himself from us, painful as we find that hiding).
Conscience being free and primary does not do away with the moral law and with moral doctrine or teaching. That is really quite silly if you think of it. If I have a really hard math problem to solve, I am actually grateful to have a calculator, both to save time and to protect me from costly errors. And I trust the makers of the calculator to have created an instrument that provides reliable calculation.
Well, it is no different with conscience and morality. The ‘Maker’ of the moral law has provided us with a sure and trustworthy instrument to provide us with helpful guidance and answers, to save us from needlessly laborious moral reasoning and preserve us from deadly errors. And that instrument is the Catholic Church in its teaching office.
People often bridle at this. “So it comes down to just do whatever the Church tells you, then? Phooey!” Well, calm down there. For one thing, the Church is not telling me right now to write this blog post, nor is it telling you to read it. There are vast swaths of life we all live each day where we are making free choices that the Church offers us at best general principles to decide with (e.g., I should use my writing and intellectual gifts to help people, you should read helpful things).
The Church simply tells us that 2 + 2 = 4 and not 5. Sex is for marriage. Don’t steal - other people’s property is to be respected. Don’t tell lies. Don’t kill people. That kind of thing. Most of us can find quite a bit of freedom in our lives within the walls of the moral law; those walls enclose quite a vast estate of human action and choice.
Well, there is much more to be said about conscience – I wrote a whole series about it a while ago that you can access by clicking on the ‘talking about conscience’ label at the bottom of this post. But that’s more than enough for one day. My conscience is telling me to post this up and move on with the next duties of my state of life, and I guess I’d better obey it!