For many Americans, one’s own conscience is the ultimate arbiter of the truth and charts the course of possible moral responses to any number of problems. After the Protestant Reformation took root in Europe, one person in the Protestant camp said something to the effect that, “We got rid of one Pope, now everyone is a pope!”
America is heir to a Protestant ethic that is centered on protest, hence the name: protest-ant! And as such it has an inbuilt suspicion of authority. Our Revolution was a rejection of the absolute monarchy of King George and of his authority. Authority in government, said our founders, does not come from God but from “We, the People”. This anti-authoritarian principle is at the very bedrock of our country and its chief institutions.
When Martin Luther declared, “Here I stand. I can do no other”, he was proclaiming the Protestant principle of the individual against the community and its correlative emphasis of Conscience as the ultimate court of the public and private spheres.
The importance of community that is found in Catholicism was proclaimed firmly by the Church in the council of Trent that reaffirmed the importance of authority and its Traditions and its Magisterium.
While Conscience has an important place in this schema, it is not the ultimate authority. In fact, Conscience can lead us away from the Truth objectively. Some people have malformed consciences.
The most famous example of the malformed conscience is Michael Corleone from The Godfather. He divided the world into the private sphere and the public one: what he termed ‘family and business’. They were separate and kept completely distinct. Much was allowed on the business side, including murder. This division is, of course, a convenient fiction. You cannot divide your conscience in half. Murder is murder whether it is in the family or in the street. His conscience was wrong and, because Michael Corleone was educated and intelligent, he should have seen that. If he was ignorant, it was a vincible ignorance (i.e. he could have easily consulted a priest or other trusted individual to find out whether or not he was correct in his thinking). But he did not, and because of that he is morally responsible for what he does. If it was a case of invincible ignorance, he would not be held liable for his decisions because he could not help being wrong.
As you can see, Conscience is highly subjective and an unsteady platform to base moral decisions on, especially when contemplating breaking with the teaching of Scripture and the Church.
Often, when one is presented with a difficult teaching in the Church’s Magisterium or teaching authority, it is often found in a newspaper article or on a news broadcast on TV, usually written by someone who has little experience with Theology or Church History. One can get all fired up over it and just dismiss the teaching with the usual: “I don’t agree with it!”
What should happen is a commitment first to find out what the teaching actually says. For instance, one can read the document online. Then, after doing all the necessary reading and study, one would be wise to consult a holy woman or man who has dealt with this teaching and can shed some light on it. Then, after much prayer, you either accept the teaching; or you, in good conscience, dissent from it. But the teaching does not change because one does not agree with it. Dissent from Church teaching should be rare and done with a heavy sadness in the heart, for it means breaking with the Church and with Biblical tradition as well as the witness of the Saints (at least about the basic principles involved—for sometimes it is a modern issue that is not explicitly mentioned in the Tradition but can easily be deduced from it).
So, one can see that there is an interplay usually between the objective (what the teaching actually says) and the subjective (what it means to me). Both are very important, yet we must be rigorous with the fact that the teaching in matters of faith is not merely an opinion that is open to change or even reversal. Our secular legal system, based on precedent, ca n do just that. But when the teaching comes from God, one must see that one has to wrestle with it and readily admit that I can be wrong in my assessment and that often the teaching requires an act of intellectual humility on my part.
I may not agree with certain things; but knowing that I am putting myself in opposition to the great Theologians and Saints of the Church if I dissent, I freely choose to submit and accept the wisdom of the Church as superior to my own opinion. There are instances, however, that one cannot honestly do this; and as such I must accept my dissent, I do not seek to propagate it to the detriment of the unity of the Church.