In the last two essays, I tried to put forth the reasons it is wise to accept Catholic teaching in its total integrity and minimize or eliminate completely dissent from this Magisterium.
But the issue does come up: what happens when a person, in conscience cannot accept an element of that teaching on Faith and Morals? This, of course, is the whole area of conscience, that inner voice that guides our decisions as to what is right and what is wrong.
While it is true that one must follow one’s conscience, one must always be wary when conscience tells us to go in a way that is not the path of the Teaching of the Church. Conscience is not infallible.
A good example is from the world of organized crime. In the urban myth of the Godfather chronicles, we see men who try to live a good life in their families but when it comes to ‘business’ they can excuse murder as something that ‘I got to do what I got to do.’ So Michael Corleone can dismiss horrible crimes simply by saying that it is a matter of business and as such belongs to a different moral universe. So he is right in raising his family as good Catholics, being the Godfather to his sister’s baby; and yet in another sphere, he is also right in avenging the attack on his father by a series of carefully orchestrated assassinations! In both instances he is following his conscience, but that conscience is not formed correctly. While he may be right in following it, he is still wrong in his actions, though moral theologians may say he may not be ‘culpable’ (i.e. responsible before God).
One must always check the results and the presuppositions inherent in our conscience formation to see if perhaps we too have errors in our personal moral structure on which we base our actions. If I come to a moral decision that is at odds with Church teaching, I have an obligation to question whether my conscience has been badly formed and to do this with help from a priest or a theologian faithful to the teaching Magisterium of the Church.
Needless to say, this is almost never done. It is part and parcel of the zeitgeist (world-understanding) of our present age that we uncritically believe our opinions to be true almost immediately. A moral position in the Church that is based on the Word of God and has been elucidated and clarified by some of the greatest minds of the Church over thousands of years is summarily dismissed if a poorly reasoned excerpt in the New York Times convinces us that the Church is wrong and that I am right! The arrogance of this way of seeing things is so apparent yet never admitted. We never challenge the New York Times because it agrees with our view of things. Both the writer and the reader are one in so many modern suppositions that they hardly put their opinions to the test by fully reading the document of the Church being criticized or research the reasoned path that the Church has taken in its present formulation.
If we approached the truths of physics or the theories of Einstein in this way we would be laughed off the world stage; but issues of Faith and Morals simply are up for grabs by invoking the autonomy of conscience.
Having a sense of humility before the awesome wisdom of God is essential if we try to understand our stance of conscience regarding a moral or doctrinal truth. St. Francis used to pray over and over again the phrase: “Who are you my God, and what am I?” While respect for the judgment of our conscience is important, more essential is a healthy reverence for the accumulated wisdom of the Church.
I realize that this does not go down well with our American exaltation of the individual moral journey; but Truth, if it is Truth, cannot be true for one person and not true for another. This attitude is called ‘relativism’; but when one traces the logic of multiple truths, we end up with insoluble contradictions.
It is hard to admit that one’s cherished opinions might be wrong, but how else can someone be intellectually honest if one does not admit that the way one sees things just doesn’t add up?
What our conscience tells us must be listened to carefully and respectfully. To go against conscience is as serious as going against Church Teaching; but what I am suggesting is this: we have a moral obligation to questioning our conscience if it leads us to a cross roads with the Magisterium of the Church.