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Chapter 12: Moral Judgment in Problematic Situations

Question A: What should be the objective of reflection by those with doubts of conscience?

1. Those who confidently think they know what is right should act accordingly (see 3‑B). Sometimes, though, one is unsure what to do—conscience is doubtful. In such cases, one should try to resolve the doubt. A person willing to proceed while in doubt about what is right—assuming the doubt could be resolved with reasonable effort—is willing to do what is wrong; and one who is willing to do wrong does wrong (see Rom 14.23; S.t., 1–2, q. 19, aa. 3–6).

2. For people with doubts of conscience, the objective of moral reflection should be to discover what is truly the right thing to do. If, having made a reasonable effort, one still cannot be sure what that is, one may consider right that which seems most likely to be so. It is never allowable to act in doubt which might be overcome by reasonable effort. But people may follow their best judgment, though aware it could be mistaken, provided they have made every reasonable effort to find out what is right. When uncertain, an upright person will be ready and eager to find a more solid basis for judgment.

3. Because doubts of conscience are of diverse sorts, efforts to resolve them must be similarly diverse. Some doubts arise because of uncertainty about facts—what was, is, or will be the case. Others arise because one is unsure what the relevant moral norm is. Sometimes a norm comes to mind or is proposed by somebody else, but one is not sure it is adequate to the act one is considering (see S.t., 1–2, q. 100, a. 8). Still other doubts arise because there seem to be conflicting moral requirements.

4. In all the cases which follow, it is assumed that the person desires to know what is right and to do it, has been instructed in the Church’s moral teaching, is willing to conform to it, has tried to resolve the doubt by direct personal reflection, and has failed in that effort. Thus deliberation has reached the point where a definite proposal for choice is being considered, and one has some reason to hesitate about its moral acceptability.

5. People who do not desire to do what is right, are not instructed in the Church’s moral teaching, or are not willing to conform to this teaching sometimes say or are told that they have doubts of conscience. Although the problem presented by such claims is real and important, it is not considered in this chapter; instead it will be treated in chapters twenty-three, thirty-five, and thirty-six.