1. One’s life as a Catholic is communal, not individualistic. Members of the Church are members of God’s family, commissioned to communicate his truth and life to the world. The Church’s moral teaching is necessary for her members to reach the same, or at least harmonious, judgments of conscience, so that their common life in Jesus will fulfill the law of love of God and neighbor. Every member of the Church has a role to play in handing on, unfolding, and applying her moral teaching, but not all have the same role. None, however, may treat Catholic moral teaching as if it were merely a set of human rules.
2. Vatican II teaches on this matter in its document on religious liberty. Foreseeing that this document might be misinterpreted as denying the responsibility of Catholics to live up to their own faith, the Council includes an article emphasizing just this responsibility (see DH 14).
3. The Council begins by urging all members of the Church to work to spread the faith. The first thing to do is to pray for others, so that they might come to the truth and be saved. Then Catholics must form their consciences correctly and live the Christian life as a sign; all those who propose to live redemptively toward others have the responsibility of giving prophetic witness.
In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that Truth which is Christ himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself. Furthermore, let Christians walk in wisdom in the face of those outside, “in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love, in the word of truth” (2 Cor 6.6–7). Let them be about their task of spreading the light of life with all confidence and apostolic courage, even to the shedding of their blood. (DH 14; translation amended)
Finally, the Council insists that members of the Church know and proclaim her teaching, using all means compatible with the gospel itself. Thus the virtuous lives of Catholics who live according to consciences formed by the Church’s teaching will be matched by kindly words articulating the meaning of their behavior.
4. The logic of Vatican II’s teaching is plain. Every person has a conscience, precisely as a God-given means of finding divine truth. Catholics enjoy the marvelous grace of having received the truth for whose attainment conscience is given. Having the truth, they must live by it and also share it with others. It is in one’s own best interests to live in the truth and to live redemptively toward others. Our Lord Jesus provides the Church as the teacher of his truth; the Catholic, favored by hearing this truth, must conform to it.
5. For her members, the Catholic Church is the supreme moral authority under God. Catholics ought to conform their consciences to her teaching in every question, every detail, every respect. If they are faithful, they will: not only because they hear the Lord Jesus’ voice, speaking for the Father, in the teaching of the Church, but because by their conscientious commitment of faith they have accepted the Church as their own, more than humanly wise, moral guide (3‑F).
6. Having made the judgment of conscience that one ought to listen to a certain moral advisor and follow whatever advice one receives, one then violates one’s conscience in listening to this advisor yet acting contrary to the advice. Of course, the initial commitment can be something different—to accept the advice if it happens to accord with one’s own opinion. But that is something different, for it is an important aspect of the act of Catholic faith that one has more confidence in the ability of the Church as a whole to discern moral truth than in the insights of any part of the Church or isolated individual, including oneself.
Some argue that the conformity of conscience to the Church’s teaching is only for immature Christians, who are literally “children” of the Church. The mature Christian is spiritual and “judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one” (1 Cor 2.15). Thus, the argument concludes, a Christian come of age must be autonomous, not dependent on Church authority in moral matters.
This argument rests on a confusion between the Church’s moral teaching and law. Mature persons are more and more free of the constraint of law, for they readily do what is right without constraint. But one never outgrows the requirements of moral truth; those who seek autonomy from the Church’s teaching separate themselves from the reality God reveals. St. Paul’s text should not be misunderstood. His point is that all Christians insofar as they are embued with the truth of the apostolic message and endowed with the Spirit can judge any merely human wisdom.16
7. Conforming to the Church’s teaching does not leave the conscience of a Catholic with nothing to do. It is necessary to make the Church’s teaching one’s own, and this work of appropriation is a task for conscience. One must also add to the Church’s teaching anything compatible with it which is necessary to find and fulfill one’s personal vocation. And, in carrying on this creative work, one must develop new moral norms to unfold the Church’s teaching, when nothing in it tells one precisely what to do.
8. Furthermore, with conscientious docility Catholics must exchange views with fellow believers concerning the proper mode of together fulfilling our Lord’s law (see GS 43). As part of this, Catholics should frankly and confidently make known to their bishops whatever difficulties they encounter in accepting Jesus’ moral teaching and living up to it. Bishops for their part should examine such difficulties, provide guidance and help, and so carry out their responsibility (see CD 16). (For a fuller discussion of the work of the Catholic conscience, see 27‑D).
In its teaching quoted above, Vatican II makes a general reference to, and thus incorporates, the teaching of Pius XII on the right formation of Christian conscience in the young. (This note in DH 14 is numbered 35 in the official text, 57 in the Abbott edition. See GS 16, note 10 in the official text, 37 in Abbott.)
Pope Pius states that to go along the way of salvation “means, in practice, to accept the will and the commandments of Christ and to conform one’s life to them, i.e., each single act, inner or exterior, which the free human will chooses and decides upon.” Then he asks: “But where shall the educator and the youth find in each individual case with ease and certainty the Christian moral law? They will find it in the law of the Creator imprinted in the heart of each one as well as in revelation, that is, in all the truth and precepts taught by the divine Master. Both the law written in the heart, that is, the natural law, and the truth and precepts of supernatural revelation, have been given by Jesus the Redeemer into the hands of His Church as humanity’s moral treasure, so that the Church may preach them, intact and protected against any contamination and error, to all creatures, from one generation to another.”17
Today, Pope Pius goes on to point out, some object to this teaching which the Church has proposed for centuries. They wish to leave matters to the individual’s conscience. But this position leads consciences off the way of Jesus: “The divine Redeemer has given His revelation, of which moral obligations are an essential part, not to individual men but to His Church, with the mission to lead men faithfully to accept that sacred deposit.” Moreover, divine assistance to avoid error is promised not to individuals but to the Church. Therefore, individualistic autonomy of conscience is incompatible with God’s providential plan of salvation.18
In morals, as in faith, a faithful Catholic never will permit his or her own opinions, any seemingly cogent deliverances of experience, even supposedly scientific arguments, or the contradictory belief of the whole world outside the faith to override the Church’s clear and firm teaching. As one realizes that one’s own opinion in any doctrinal matter can be in error, that the world cannot know the generosity of God’s love, that reason cannot grasp the truths of Trinity and Incarnation, and that experience cannot perceive Jesus in the Eucharist; so one realizes that one’s opinion in any moral question can be mere rationalization, that the world does not know how to live in God’s love, that reason cannot grasp the way of Jesus, and that, although one cannot experience it, he lives in one’s liturgy of obedience to faith.
16. See Rudolf Schnackenburg, “Christian Adulthood According to the Apostle Paul,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25 (1963), 354–70.
17. Pius XII, “Nuntius Radiophonicus de Conscientia Christiana in Iuvenibus Recte Efformanda,” 44 AAS (1952) 272.
18. Ibid., 273.