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What the Catholic Church Says About Conscience

by Lisa Graas on April 13, 2014


It seems that dissent in the Catholic Church is due, in part, to a lack of understanding about what the Church says about conscience. This lack of understanding was not caused by the Second Vatican Council, but rather by widespread misinterpretation of the Council which continues to this day. In order to understand this teaching, one must be more interested in the objective reality of God’s will than in one’s personal understanding of things, for one’s own good. Do you want to know if your will is aligned with God’s will so that you may seek to correct your will if they are not in agreement? Or do you want to make God in your own image, fashioning an understanding of Him for yourself that is always in agreement with you? The former is the way of the saint. The latter is the way of the idolater.

This desire in man to know, love, and serve God is built into him for it is the very purpose for which we are created. Because we know that this desire is hard-wired into us, we need not fear if we live in an idolatrous age. We can be assured that, in time, what is natural to man will again win out. Man will not, for long, reject what is natural to him. Unfortunately, much death and destruction has occurred during those times throughout history when man has turned away from what is natural to him. During these times, it becomes more difficult to be a Christian. Imagine how St. Maximillian Kolbe must have felt, for example, living among a population who had embraced the anti-Semitic rampage of the Nazi regime, which was diametrically opposed to the will of God. Even before his martyrdom, he carried a cross of dissent against the culture of his time which prepared him for his martyrdom. Like him, we must carry a cross of dissent against a culture that has seemingly, at times, gone mad with lust.

Certainly, self-preservation in the sense of keeping our bodies from harm is something that can be a good act of conscience, but it is not the highest act. St. Maximillian went a step further in offering the daily actions of his life to save 2,000 Jews from destruction by hiding them in his monastery, and later offering up his life itself to save one man from forced starvation by the Nazis. It would have been licit (not a sin) to refrain from offering his very life to save another, but the holy thing was to offer it, and this St. Maximillian did. Having said that, it would not have been licit to do nothing at all to save those whose freedom, and very lives, were threatened. While his act of hiding Jews was an avoidance of sin, and holy in the sense of personal danger that he put himself in, the act of directly and of full free will to offer his body to death to save another man was the completion of his holiness.

The Catholic Church has this to say about conscience:

 “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, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 16). 

Thus, acting in faithful obedience to the judgments of his own moral conscience, which honestly seeks good and is constantly nourished by known truth, every person expresses and realizes his human dignity deep within himself, edifying himself and the whole community through his own conscious and free choices.

As you can see, “conscience” itself is not the trump card for what is objectively right and good. Only a “moral conscience, which honestly seeks good and is constantly nourished by known truth” is in tune with human dignity. In other words, if your conscience tells you that it was not holy for St. Maximillian to hide Jews, your conscience is in error. If  your conscience tells you that it is not holy to oppose abortion, your conscience is in error.

If all those who identify as “Catholic” had a true understanding of the role of the human conscience, there would be no dissent. Further, there would be peace on earth and good will toward men. Not all will is good will, even if your conscience tells you so. The only good will is God’s will, and our will is good only inasmuch are our will agrees with His.

In regard to the contraception mandate of the Obama Administration and where Christian business owners are expected to approve of homosexual acts such as “gay weddings,” the only good conscience is the conscience that objects to these things. A government that punishes those who are acting in good conscience against this perverse culture is a government that is doing, albeit on a smaller scale, what the guards at Auschwitz did to St. Maximillian. That is, this government is requiring obedience to evil. No one with a good conscience, in tune with God’s will, can justly approve of contraception or homosexual acts.

St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.

Photo: The Good Samaritan, by Vincent Van Gogh

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