I have heard that people are obliged to follow their consciences, even if it goes against the Bible or the church’s teaching. Is this true?
This is a good question. In order to get to the answer, it could be helpful to note a couple of things about human nature first.
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Have you ever noticed how hard it is to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent? Or how difficult it is to fast on the only two fast days that the church requires (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday)? Honestly, it shouldn’t be a burden in any way whatsoever. When we consider that the church considers a “fast” to be only eating two small meals and one regular-sized meal that isn’t larger than the two smaller meals combined, is that even really a sacrifice?
In the developed world, our “fast” can involve more food than the majority of the world eats on a feast day!
But it is still tough for many people to abstain from meat or to fast. Why?
I think that the only truly hard part about fasting is the fact that someone else has told us that we have to. The fast itself is of such little difficulty; the challenge is submitting one’s will and desires to the will of the church. Again, let’s be truthful with ourselves here. We want what we want, and the fact that the church gets to tell us what to do in this area grates on our ego and self-will.
Because of this, if there is an “escape clause” regarding the church’s teaching, most of us are sorely tempted to take it. This is where the teaching on conscience comes in. If a person must “always obey their conscience,” then I can always “do what I want,” right?
If the church taught that conscience is the “aboriginal vicar of Christ” (as Blessed John Henry Newman maintained), does it mean that it must always be followed? The Second Vatican Council has stated that, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” This means that one’s conscience has weight; it has a certain amount of binding force.
But what is conscience and what is it not?
First, we need to note that conscience is not a person’s personal preferences. Conscience is not a person’s own desires, opinions, or attitudes. In fact, a well-formed conscience will more often convict a person of where they need to repent and reform their lives rather than affirm and validate their choices. Conscience can be understood as the “voice” that comes from a living and active relationship with God. If someone does not find themselves investing deeply in spending time with God in prayer and feeding their mind on Scripture, it is likely that they do not have a well-formed conscience.
Let’s stay there for a moment: Due to our fallen human nature, we automatically are out of relationship with ourselves and God. A conversion (real change) must happen that brings us under the dominion (lordship) of Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about this in an extreme way: our old self must be “put to death.” In addition, almost every serious spiritual writer in the Christian tradition states that one of the critical attitudes of those pursuing Christ is “distrust of self.”
This isn’t being cynical, it’s merely being realistic. We are often our own worst enemy. Our fallen human nature gets us into more trouble that any outside force. Therefore, to imagine that one’s conscience is “naturally trustworthy” or that it doesn’t need formation would be the height of self-deception and hubris.
Conscience more often “binds” a person to action rather than “releases” them. In other words, conscience is often more concerned with duties than it is with rights. A well-formed conscience comes from a living prayer life and intentional seeking after God’s will more than one’s own will. A healthy conscience is therefore more preoccupied with “what does God want?” than “what do I want?” To try to quantify it, a person who does not spend significant time in prayer and study of Scripture and church teaching (as well as find themselves convicted on a regular basis of their sin) ought not to imagine that they have a healthy and well-formed conscience.
Lastly, the church does not teach that we must obey our conscience, but that we must not disobey our conscience. The difference might seem subtle, but it is crucial. If my conscience and a church teaching collide, I must obey the church. The only time I would follow my conscience over and against a church teaching would be if I was absolutely convinced that it would be evil for me to not follow my conscience. A scenario could be something along these lines: I am convinced that it would be evil for me to not eat meat on a Friday in Lent. In order to choose God, I have to eat meat on that day.
This is vastly different than, “I just don’t think there is anything wrong with eating meat today ….”
Nonetheless, conscience is not independent of others or of the church. It is a gift, but it can be wrong. And in the words of G.K. Chesterton: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”
Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.