Catholic Teaching on Conscience & Dissent

Author: Anthony Fisher

Catholic Teaching on Conscience and Dissent

Catholics recognise that there is profound disagreement in the community about many moral issues, including the abortion issue. This does not however reduce the issues to ones of personal choice. The morality of slavery or apartheid have been the source of considerable disagreement: but this does not mean that these hard issues should be left to the 'personal' decision of those involved. This brief paper will look at conscience in the context of abortion, but the principles of concerning conscience are applicable for other moral issues.

Some have suggested that the issues of abortion and the respect due to unborn human life are best left to the personal consciences of the women concerned. The Catholic Church has always held to the primacy of conscience and taught that individuals must follow their consciences even when they are wrong. (Vatican II, On Religious Liberty (1965), §2)

None the less it is important to understand the difference between conscience and personal preference or arbitrary private intuition (cf. Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), §30, on "wallowing in the luxury of a merely individualistic morality").Conscience is the inner core of human beings whereby, compelled to seek the truth, they recognise the objective standards of moral conduct, indeed the dictates of God's law, and make a practical judgment of what is to be done here and now in applying those standards (Rom 2:15-16; Vatican II, On Religious Liberty (1965), §§2,3; The Church in the Modern World (1965), §16). Thus the moral character of actions is determined by objective criteria, not merely by the sincerity of intentions or the goodness of motives, (Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), §51) and all people are called to form their consciences accordingly.

Deep within their conscience human persons discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For human persons have in their hearts a law inscribed by God... the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin. - Second Vatican Council, The Church in the Modern World (1965), §§27

How then do we form a right conscience? Catholics seek to inform their consciences according to reason and revelation as guided by Church teachings. They believe that by "their faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of human beings, but truly the word of God." (Vatican II, The Church (1964), §12). It is to the pope and the bishops that this teaching authority is entrusted. As the Second Vatican Council put it: "in matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful, for their part, are obliged to accept their bishops' teaching with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind" (The Church (1964), §25). Thus for a Catholic to disagree with what the Church teaches on abortion, he or she would need to have very clear reasons and convictions. These could only follow a genuine search for meaning through docility to church teaching, reading, prayer, taking counsel, developing the virtue of prudence, and so on. Any conflict would then be within the person's conscience, rather than between conscience and some alien magisterial authority.

In forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself. - Second Vatican Council, On Religious Liberty (1965), §14

It is sometimes rightly pointed out that no pope has proclaimed the Church's teaching on abortion in a specific ex cathedra statement declaring it as an essential matter of faith and infallibly true, and that there are degrees of authority in magisterial pronouncements. But Catholics believe that even when he does not speak ex cathedra the pope's authoritative teachings must be accepted with respect and sincere assent, and that the consistent teaching of the Church must be adhered to "with the loyal and obedient assent of faith" (Vatican II, The Church (1964), §25). The Church's teaching on abortion has been unfailingly proposed throughout the centuries by popes, bishops and theologians, and restated in the clearest possible terms by the Second Vatican Council of all the bishops, as well as by all the popes of modern times and the bishops' conferences of many countries (including almost annual statements by our bishops). The gravity with which the Church views this matter is demonstrated by the fact that the procurement of abortion is one of the few offences which still incurs an automatic excommunication under the new Code of Canon Law (CIC 1398).

Sometimes it is said that a person might publicly dissent from Church teaching on a matter like abortion and still remain a bona fide Catholic. But those who do are, of course, dissenting from a grave teaching of the Church. Scholars and teachers may withhold assent provisionally from non- infallibly proposed teaching under certain stringently defined conditions; they may still debate such issues as 'ensoulment'; and they may wish to clarify and re-present Church teaching in this area in contemporary terms. But they do not serve the Church as authentic teachers if they publish views contrary to the Church's unambiguous, explicit and highly authoritative teaching. The vocation of other Catholics, such as politicians, lawyers and judges, is a fortiori to take the initiative in civilising and making more humane and moral the affairs of human society. 6

Thus the Catholic Church today is clearly the most outstanding mouthpiece for the rights of the innocent and defenceless unborn, and many ordinary Catholics suffer the 'martyrdom' of sticking to their often inconvenient and unpopular principles on this matter which they believe is the greatest human rights issue of our time. They do so because they believe abortion is the single most pressing human rights issue of our time: a matter of life and death for 60,000 Australian babies, 180,000 British babies and many more babies in the USA and elswhere every year.

And they do so because they care about what kind of wordl we are building for the twenty-first century. They dream of a society where nobody's conscience will allow them to kill the weak and defenceless of whatever age, state of physical or intellectual perfection, address or social class, a society in which well-informed conscience rules, and thus justice, compassion and truth.

Fr Anthony Fisher OP CompuServe ID 76711,1340 (Michael G Hains CRN Sysop)