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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question C: What is one’s moral responsibility for errors of conscience?

1. Experience, Scripture, and the Church’s teaching agree that judgments of conscience can be in error. The law of God written in one’s heart can be misapplied in one’s judgments. Mistakes are possible in formulating principles, reasoning from them, and considering the facts involved in the possible choices which are to be morally evaluated (see S.t., 1–2, q. 19, aa. 5–6; q. 94, aa. 4, 6; cf. 2–2, q. 48, a. 1).10

2. According to common Christian teaching, one must follow one’s conscience even when it is mistaken. St. Thomas explains this as follows. Conscience is one’s last and best judgment as to the choice one ought to make. If this judgment is mistaken, one does not know it at the time. One will follow one’s conscience if one is choosing reasonably. To the best of one’s knowledge and belief, it is God’s plan and will. So if one acts against one’s conscience, one is certainly in the wrong (see S.t., 1–2, q. 19, aa. 5–6).11

Thomas drives home his point. If a superior gives one an order which cannot be obeyed without violating one’s conscience, one must not obey. To obey the superior in this case would be to disobey what one believes to be the mind and will of God (see S.t., 1–2, q. 19, a. 5, ad 2; 2–2, q. 104, a. 5).12 It is good to abstain from fornication. But if one’s conscience is that one should choose to fornicate, one does evil if one does not fornicate. Indeed, to believe in Jesus is in itself good and essential for salvation; but one can only believe in him rightly if one judges that one ought to. Therefore, one whose conscience is that it is wrong to believe in Jesus would be morally guilty if he or she chose against this judgment.13

3. Still, one is not necessarily guiltless in following a conscience which is in error. If the error is one’s own fault, one is responsible for the wrong one does in following erroneous conscience. As Vatican II teaches: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said when someone cares but little for truth and goodness, and conscience by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of a practice of sinning” (GS 16; translation supplied).

St. Thomas asks: Does erring conscience excuse? Is one who conforms to conscience when it is mistaken nevertheless sometimes morally guilty of the wrong choice? The answer is: Sometimes, yes. One must follow one’s conscience, since it is one’s last and best judgment as to what one should choose. But the error in judgment can be one’s own fault. This is so if one somehow chooses to stay in ignorance about one’s responsibilities or if one fails in any way to do all one should to know what is right and bring this knowledge to bear in one’s judgment of conscience. If one’s erroneous conscience is in any way one’s own fault, to that extent one’s action in conformity with erroneous conscience is one’s fault. One has an obligation to avoid mistakes in conscience so far as possible by informing oneself fully and by conscientiously thinking out what one should choose.14 If one does not fulfill this obligation, one’s choice in accord with an erring conscience is not blameless (see S.t., 1–2, q. 6, a. 8; q. 19, a. 6; q. 74, a. 5; q. 76, aa. 2–3).

This conclusion seems to entail that in some cases one is damned if one does and damned if one does not follow conscience. Thomas points out that if one’s mistake is in no way one’s own fault—if ignorance is invincible—then one is not damned if one does follow conscience. There is no moral fault here at all. If one’s erroneous conscience is somehow one’s own fault, then one has a way out: Ignorance is vincible and voluntary. One can inform oneself and ought to do so (see S.t., 1–2, q. 19, a. 6, ad 3).15

4. Errors in conscience are one’s own fault if one chooses to remain ignorant of one’s responsibilities or fails to do all one should to know what is right and bring this knowledge to bear upon one’s choices. Conscience entails moral responsibility. One’s first responsibility is to form conscience rightly so that one’s moral judgments will be true.16

5. Sometimes people who are in error through their own fault suspect the possibility of error and are in a position to correct it. In such cases, where ignorance is voluntary and vincible, there is an alternative to remaining in bad faith and following erroneous conscience: Replace the false judgment of conscience with a true one and then follow correct conscience in an upright way.

6. Sometimes, however, people who are voluntarily in error eventually become insensitive to the possibility that their consciences are erroneous (see S.t., 1–2, q. 79, a. 3; q. 85, a. 2). Rationalization and self-deception make it almost impossible for them to acknowledge error about a particular matter. People whose consciences are in error through such a process are responsible for the erroneous judgment. Although they must follow the erroneous judgment as long as it seems certainly correct, doing so does not entirely free them from guilt.

7. The condition of a conscience voluntarily fixed in error through rationalization and self-deception is what Vatican II has in mind in speaking of a conscience “practically sightless as a result of a practice of sinning” (GS 16). The possibility that this state of conscience might actually exist in anyone is often ignored today. Nevertheless Scripture speaks of such guilty blindness, which is closely related to hardness of heart (see Is 6.9–10; Prv 28.14; Jn 3.19–21; 9.39–41; 12.35–43).

Christians should realize that if they care little for the truth of Christ and for living lives like his, even their consciences can become blind and unreliable. The process by which this comes about might, for example, include studying only those theological opinions which dissent from the Church’s teaching and purposely seeking direction and support from confessors or other spiritual advisors who apply dissenting opinions.

Those who do this are not blameless, yet they cannot easily overcome their error. At times their conscience probably bothers them, but they are locked in the box of their own “conscience,” for they hardly can admit that their judgment and ongoing way of life, supported by the opinions of others, are erroneous. “Why doesn’t the Church change her teaching? Pope John Paul II seems to be such a fine man; why must he be so rigid on this matter?”

In the present cultural period the reality of moral evil is somewhat hidden. This general climate of opinion makes it very difficult for Christians to recognize and admit their own moral guilt. Such recognition and admission are important not only for moral improvement, but even more because we cannot accept and be thankful for God’s merciful love if we do not acknowledge everything on our consciences and seek his forgiveness.

A priest working as a pastor of souls ought to be very careful to help people realize and admit their true state of conscience. Even if a priest were personally convinced that certain kinds of acts can be done blamelessly, he would endanger those entrusted to his care if he led them to hide from themselves the fact that their actions are at odds with their own consciences. Today there is real danger of this happening. John Paul II teaches:

  Priests and deacons, when they have received timely and serious preparation for this apostolate, must unceasingly act towards families as fathers, brothers, pastors and teachers, assisting them with the means of grace and enlightening them with the light of truth. Their teaching and advice must therefore always be in full harmony with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, in such a way as to help the People of God to gain a correct sense of the faith, to be subsequently applied to practical life. Such fidelity to the Magisterium will also enable priests to make every effort to be united in their judgments, in order to avoid troubling the consciences of the faithful.17
This teaching was necessary, because some had pressed dissenting opinions upon the faithful, contrary to the Church’s teaching and to the great detriment of the faithful. This procedure would be wrong even if the teaching were mistaken; all the more so if it is true. (The authority of the Church’s teachings and the very narrow limits of any justifiable dissent will be treated in chapters thirty-five and thirty-six.)

Some who urge priests to condone practical dissent from the Church’s moral teaching say that under certain conditions a penitent in error but good faith should be left in good faith. This may be so, but great caution is needed, for it is one thing to leave someone in good faith and another to encourage someone to continue in bad faith.

10. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 17, a. 2.

11. Ibid., q. 17, aa. 3–4.

12. Ibid., q. 17, a. 5.

13. Ibid., a. 3 and a. 5. Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 91–93, rightly emphasizing the obligation to follow one’s certain conscience, mistakenly confuses the subjective absoluteness of this obligation with the objective truth of the judgment of conscience, and declares the latter “ultimately infallible conscience.” This confusion obscures the facts that conscience can be in error and the error can be one’s own fault. Following conscience in such a case does not free one from guilt, and so the awakening of such consciences in unconscious bad faith is important.

14. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet, 8, q. 6, a. 3.

15. Ibid.

16. See De veritate, q. 17, a. 4. St. Thomas does not consider the study of the formation of conscience to belong to moral principles. He deals with it in his treatise on prudence: Summa theologiae, 2–2, qq. 47–56. I think he is correct in this view.

17. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 170–71; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 138 (sec. 73).