"Follow your Conscience"
A Vague and Harmful Pedagogical Approach
The Church does teach that one ought to follow their conscience. Yet this statement is as vague and meaningful as saying “be good” without defining the good. Its sentimental and vacuous if content or substance doesn’t accompany it. In many ways the statement avoids anything concrete, and is pedagogically aimless and enabling. I am writing this because I have been ordained for 10 years now, and when I run up against dissent from within the Church I often encounter those who tout this phrase “follow your conscience.” I hear it in discussion, read it on twitter and hear it as a blanket rejection of a well put together explanation of why contraception is sinful to use. This phrase is often used to unintentionally mask a type of self-will or relativism, and recently I heard it used to justify abortion. Keep in mind, Lucifer quotes truths in scripture in a twisted attempt to deceive our Lord. In this sense, using the truth of the statement can indeed be done in such a manner that misleads others. Nonetheless, I would argue that behind this relativism or nominalism, is actually a lack of faith in Jesus. I will explain why I believe that, but first I’d like to outline the problem.
As a seminarian and younger priest I was zealous about teaching the Church’s teaching on contraception with the Theology of the Body. I noted something peculiar when teaching St. John Paul II’s theology around this subject: those who had never heard of the first Winnipeg Statement easily accepted the teaching, but those who had, really struggled. Their objection was a blanket, “I thought we were allowed to follow our conscience.” Most of those who had heard about the first Winnipeg Statement hadn’t heard about the second, where conscience was defined a bit more practically on this matter.
For many, a pedagogical strategy on this grave matter requires taking into consideration the lack of popularity around this doctrine. Within the Church and world, to agree to the Church’s teaching on this matter is to swim against the sociological paradigm. Historically, it was one of the main teachings rejected by both clergy, and laity on such a great scale during the height of the sexual revolution. The teacher, if he or she is averse to conflict and disagreement has to take heart on this matter, because it will require push-back. In the lightest form of pushback will be a desire to just go-dark on the subject, and in the strongest dissent, one will be totally undermined. Nonetheless, approaching the subject with a vague, ambiguous statement “follow your conscience” gives the illusion that the subject’s been addressed, when it hasn’t, and practically enables others to do as they please.
Thus, for clergy that are clear on this teaching, they become the “bad guy” amongst their own flock as they convey a teaching that is undoubtable challenging and requires sacrifice or incredible virtues to live out. Every parent knows that is the mark of being a Father - you can’t always be perceived as the good-guy. However, any parent who genuinely cares for his children, wants what is said to be internalized as good news, especially when helping people to avoid a gravely unjust act. But here, I am merely speaking to our speculative knowledge around the matter, not necessarily the interior freedom to practice what the Church teaches. That is - I’m asking for the most basic thing: self-honesty around this issue - and if that isn’t a basis for conscience, I don’t know what is.
A number of years ago I was given a presentation where the presenter demoralized priests who object to any usage of contraception, saying that a person who is “spiritually mature” would admit of an exemption. In other words, this presenter did not believe that the object of the moral act was intrinsically evil as the Church infallibly defines it. Touting the phrase “follow your conscience” arose as a way to evade that very clear teaching which categorically excludes the possibility of an exemption. It was a generic type of advice that pedagogically has the effect (intended or not) to lead one to think they have a licit type of liberty to do something that the Church has defined as intrinsically evil. Furthermore, in this manner of thinking, Pope Paul VI was spiritually immature when he declared it as such, and the Church is not infallible on this matter. Thus we see a problem arise. The Good News of this teaching will never be internalized so long as the teaching isn’t clear or is latently perceived as Bad News. Its important to note that the teaching around contraception falls under the category of the Universal Magisterium. It isn’t a made-man law, discipline, or speculation on a doctrine - it is firm unequivocal teaching. It is a fact, therefore, that Christ Himself is instructing us here - and when it comes to our relationship with Him, that may help us understand the gravity or urgency of listening to this particular teaching. I nonetheless digress, because this article isn’t intended to be about contraception, but rather using this example as a way to articulate the obstruction of a good conscience.
The Primordial Conscience
“Conscience is nothing other than an application of knowledge to some act.”
Summa Theologica, I-II, q19 a5
Returning to the subject at hand: our conscience is not merely a blank, pure, processing of information. It has a type of innate-initial approach to truth; this can be considered an instinct of the conscience. If conscience is nothing more than the application of knowledge to some act, we must then consider the nature of knowledge in man, and why he acts. Knowledge, accordingly, has three concrete purposes: speculation, practical action, and creating. First man considers things universally, and once he has come to some knowledge of the good he can meditate and contemplate these goods. Furthermore, that speculative knowledge of the universal good then is applied to behavior, since man acts for an end. That is to say, man concretely exists to be happy, and under this agenda directs all his practical acts. In order to rightly order his acts towards the goal of happiness man applies what he understands is good to concrete acts as a manner to fulfill his ultimate end. Knowledge therefore informs and gives thrust to man’s actions when seeking his own good. Thus, when man considers acting towards his end (happiness), he applies what he knows about the good to such acts, and then considers from this practical knowledge what kind of action he will take.
Let us take a step back for a moment - because we have glossed over something important. Knowledge itself hasn’t been considered carefully here. Man first must have some knowledge - and this is an elemental dimension of the conscience. Man can obscure his conscience if he selectively applies his knowledge to an act or generally prevents himself from knowing what he ought to know. These dishonest approaches contradict man’s appetite for truth. Furthermore, another dimension of seeking knowledge has yet to be explored: man disposes himself to the wiser authority. Man has the anthropological nature to be taught prior to becoming a teacher. When it comes to his relationship with all knowledge, he is always a student before God. In this way we would say that man approaches truth as though it were something to be taught/revealed to him, rather than existentially invented. Even in the case of inventing and creating tools, these acts operate according to what is known already. Thus, within man, there is a primordial disposition to be taught, whereby knowledge and wisdom is something received rather than generated from nothing. Simply put, man is not the Logos, but disposed to sit at His feet and listen. The main point I’m attempting at illustrating is that to inform our conscience (that is to both seek knowledge and adequately apply it to acts), we must first act as a student before a wiser authority. Without that disposition, we no longer look to nature, God, or even first-principles to guide our process of discernment - and this contradicts a fundamental element of conscience.
The conscience is objectively ordered toward discovering truth rather than existentially generating “my own truth.” This means that our conscience not only speaks to us about matters of practical action, but also speculative investigation. In this way, the act of knowing or coming to know is of itself an act, rooted in a first principle in man. That first principle in man is what some call veracity, whereby man is an agent of truth in his nature. If we understand discovery to be another word for revelation, and we understand an observer of revealed truth as a student, then the conscience is always predicated of first being a student. In this way, a student, who is not the teacher (Matthew 23:8), is always deferring to a higher authority. Here I am clarifying that the conscience has an innate disposition to listen to the Wisest Authority. When one does not listen to the wisest authority, one does not follow the primordial instinct of his/her conscience. Such listening is not merely the collection and adherence of conclusions, but a type of trust and seeking of understanding after giving such teachers the benefit of the doubt (faith). This automatic orientation can be suppressed by one’s sin, whereby we appropriate to ourselves the Divine Prerogative to define knowledge of good and evil (my truth). Such a prideful act (which we are all guilty of) ends up being rooted in a naïve and foolish attitude toward reality. We come to believe that our own fallen intellect and affect are trustworthy when it comes to discerning truth without the Grace of the Church. Rather than beginning with deference to God (faith) than seeking understanding, we make our obedience contingent upon our will and fallen-understanding. Thus, a person who “follows their conscience” without reference to the Logos is objectively not following their conscience.
The advice given to follow your conscience in this way runs disjunctively to Pope Paul IV’s document on contraception revealing an implicit dichotomy. It would be like me saying to someone: “There is no way act x is right, but follow your conscience (implied: which might dissent) as that is always the right option. Here is how the Bishops of the Philippines put it when admitting their pedagogical error in offering such advice:
It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5 percent of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples. Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives, but we did not then know how to help you discover God’s presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: “follow what your conscience tells you.” How little we realized that it was our May 2010 consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you.
(Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, “Love is Life,” October 7, 1990)
Its a Matter of Faith
The object of this point is not to speak directly to the matter of contraception - rather to point toward something lacking which is far more fundamental: faith. Faith informs the Christian-Conscience. The Catholic Faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all ways of truth, and that the Church herself, in her Universal Magisterium is participating on God’s infallibility. In this sense, the Church and Christ are one, and this is a matter of faith. Thus, if anyone promotes the forming of one’s conscience without deferring to Christ who is concretely in His Church’s Magisterium, then the fundamental issue is that this person lacks faith in God. The absence of faith therefore takes us back to the mission of Evangelization. And it becomes clear here that Evangelization does not merely apply to those on the peripheries of the visible Church but also those who are visibly members of the Church while nominally so when it comes to God’s law.
Universal Call to Evangelize
How does one teach the teacher? I think that was part of Christ’s own pedagogical style when it came to the Pharisees, and Scribes. When we are in the mode of teaching, we typically exclude the disposition of a student. Thus we find ourselves unteachable, and we do not heed what comes “out of the mouth of babes.” I’ve found a type of balance however, when I only share what others have revealed to me. And even then I find myself still pondering if I’ve understood it correctly. But when I present something as though it were my own original idea, or as though I have complete inexhaustible understanding of that doctrine I always err.
When we have habituated ourselves in a suppressed conscience - that is a self-taught conscience, we must ask how will that affect us as a student. Are we teachable? Therefore, Evangelization, when it comes to a matter of faith teaches us that the whole of the Church, internally and extrinsically needs to be converted to the Gospel in such a way that we are all students. For this reason we see even in the Bishops Ordination Rite, the book of the Gospels opened above their head. None of us are above God’s instruction! Rather than being merely frustrated with dissent - might we identify the wound of the absence of faith, and seek to remedy it. When one dissents, there is an absence of relationship and trust with the Lord - and this ought to not only frustrate us, but break our hearts. Jesus hungered for the faith of the woman at the well, and thus we must not resent the absence of faith in others who cannot defer to the Holy Spirit in the Church, but rather ache for a change of heart in them, for their own sake. Consider the words of Pope Paul IV applying to all of us who need ongoing conversion:
“The Church is deeply aware of her duty to preach salvation to all. Knowing that the Gospel message is not reserved to a small group of the initiated, the privileged or the elect, but is destined for everyone, she shares Christ's anguish at the sight of the wandering and exhausted crowds, "like sheep without a shepherd" and she often repeats His words: 'I feel sorry for all these people’.”
(Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, pp 57.)
In many ways, therefore, the laity have the great gift of the Holy Spirit that can bring about a conversion in the hearts of leaders/teachers of the faith, be they clergy or otherwise. I cannot think of any statement which buries the incredulity of clericalism and idolatry of scholarship. With that, I plea for you to seek to bring about a process of evangelization which is more than offering an apologetic, but helping the very ministers of the Church to encounter in a beautiful way, the Holy Spirit who leads us into the way of Truth and Love.
Pray for us!