Opinion and Conscience by Monsignor Ferrarese

In discussing any teaching of the Church, one sooner or later comes up against the seemingly impregnable statement: whatever you say, I must follow my conscience. This retreat into the fortress of conscience seems to neutralize any part of the Magisterium or teaching of the Church, be it in dogma or morals: “Yes, I know that is what the Church teaches, but I have to follow my conscience even when it disagrees with the Church.”

This is a common fallacy that does not address two common mistakes we can make in deciding on a course of action with regards to our belief system. These are: firstly, the possibility of a malformed conscience; and secondly, the distinction between my conscience and my opinions.

With regards to the first we can turn to that great American movie “The Godfather.” In it, the most heinous and murderous actions are excused with the statement: “It’s only business.” The Godfather in the movie was convinced that he was doing right by separating his family, religion and morals from the nefarious business of organized crime. He created distinct compartments and felt he was being a good man by doing so. Was he right in following his conscience? Was it his conscience or just his opinions that he was following? What is the difference?

One can say he was ignorant. But there are two kinds of ignorance in Catholic morality: vincible and invincible. Vincible means that he could have defeated his false opinion by ordinary means. He could have gone to Confession and asked a priest whether he was doing right. Invincible ignorance is when there is no possibility to correct an understanding: say if he was a member of an isolated native tribe who has never heard of Christ and Christian morality.

Our conscience must be open to learning regarding the issue at hand. It must be open to inquiry regarding the Scriptural witness and the teaching of tradition in the Church. Furthermore, it must be truly open. It does not do to read about the issue to find arguments for one’s own position. A properly formed conscience is genuinely eager to do the right thing according to the will of God. It’s learning and struggle are based on this radical openness.

Take the issue of artificial methods of birth control. For many, this is not an issue, but a settled piece of modern opinion. One should use any means available to control one’s reproduction. Natural or artificial, it is all the same, for it is to be judged by effectiveness. Very pragmatic! But the fact that the Church forbids artificial means causes the honest, open searcher for the truth some consternation.

If the individual has only read the New York Times on this subject and never bothered to read Humanae Vitae (the Church’s Encyclical letter on the subject), it shows the extent of his closedness on the issue and his selective study of it. A truly docile and open inquirer after the truth will try to thoroughly research the issue in an unbiased way to come to the truth of what the will of God is. Notice I did not say “to come to the truth of what I can agree with.” For it may sometimes happen that what I agree with and what my study leads me to are two different things. So what do I do? What is the ultimate criterion for my search? It must be “what is God’s will for me.”

Even if I cannot accept the results of my inquiry and cannot find the intellectual humility and courage to submit to the teaching authority of the Church, that dissent must be rare and sadly accepted. The trumpeting of one’s own position in opposition to the teaching of the Church is a fruit of Pride and, therefore, a perilous sign of the wrong direction of my journey.

In any kind of dissent from Church Teaching, one must be very careful. It is not a disagreement with an individual. It is a dissent from the whole chorus of Tradition. Many intelligent and holy people have pondered the Scriptures and, over 2000 years of reflection and debate, have reached a living consensus about the meaning of a teaching of the Church. That teaching has proven wise and useful for countless saints over the centuries. Suddenly, one decides that all this is wrong and that they have the truth, missed by the sages, scholars and saints throughout the ages! As they say in Brooklyn: “Give me a break!”

It is preferable to simply say: “There must be something here that I don’t see.” One should consider themselves in need of correction, or at least further elucidation rather than to say: Everyone must have gotten this wrong. This takes a lot of humility. This is why spiritual writers have called the virtue of Humility the very basis of the journey of faith.

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