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A reader has a question about conscience vs. bishops

Thursday, June 19, 2014 11:59 PM Comments (29)
I greatly enjoy your work and own several of your books. I have a question that I hope you can answer. Is there a duty or virtue of obedience to our priests, bishops, and the pope? I understand that we sin if we deny dogma or have a certain level of doubt as to dogma, but what should our attitude be towards matters that are not dogmatic? To what degree should we give our bishops the benefit of the doubt?

Here's an example. In my state, the bishops of each diocese strongly opposed a legislature measure to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While I understand their position, I think they are wrong. In short, I think that if we are asking homosexuals to adopt the heavy cross of chastity, we can't be taken seriously when at the same we time oppose efforts to protect them from discrimination. Virtually any discrimination against a chaste homosexual would seem to clearly be unjust discrimination. I further think that this position harms our efforts at evangelization, which I regard as more important than avoiding persecution for our beliefs. (As an aside, I'd be interested in your position on such matters.) At any rate, assume that I maintain this belief intellectually--should I follow the bishops out of obedience, trusting in their divine authority over me, or should I feel free to be in discord with the bishops?

I think this is somewhat similar to your statements about voting and boycotts. Like most individuals, I will never be in a position to make any significant difference on this issue, so my position on this matter may be more important to my soul than to the society at large. Would it be better to be obedient even if I believe the bishops are wrong?

Thanks for any insight you might have and keep up the great work.

I can't speak to the specifics of the legislation you mention since I don't know anything about it, nor about what your bishops said about it.

My opinion on treatment of homosexuals is much like yours (and, I might add, the same as the Catechism's):

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

So I too think that we must careful against tying up unjust burdens for chaste and celibate homosexuals who are trying to live according to the teaching of Jesus and the Church--and indeed even for those who are not. But again, I hasten to add that, knowing nothing about your particular state's legislation nor about your bishop's view on it, I am totally agnostic about whether it or they are in fact unjust toward homosexuals in this instance.

As to your core question, the teaching of the Church on conscience is clear:

1776 "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."


1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.

1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:

Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.

1780 The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment.

1781 Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God:

We shall . . . reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."


1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path,54 we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.55


1786 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.

1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.

1788 To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.

1789 Some rules apply in every case:

- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;

- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."56

- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble."


1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "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." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

1793 If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith."60

The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.61


1795 "Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (GS 16).

1796 Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.

1797 For the man who has committed evil, the verdict of his conscience remains a pledge of conversion and of hope.

1798 A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.

1799 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.

1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.

1801 Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.

1802 The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.

The key here is "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience". That includes "when he is certain the bishop is commanding something contradictory to the faith or morals of the Church".

The real trick, of course, is finding an example of that. Sure, there are cases where a bishop will do, or ask somebody else to do, something stupid or immoral (the past decade has powerfully reminded us all of this fact). But on the other hand, as a general rule, the bishops (especially when they are speaking out of the Tradition and to the general public and not out of their own personal opinions and judgment calls) are far more likely to be on the right side of an issue and we, who are just operating from our gut or whatever the water cooler consensus on stuff is, are likely to be wrong or going off half-cocked. Lots of us want to imagine we are courageously standing up to injustice when what we really mean is "I don't see the point of this!" If that is what we are really saying, then G.K Chesterton has sound advice:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

So again, without having the faintest idea what the proposed law or bishops involved are, my first questions in response to a charge of unjust discrimination would be "What is meant by 'unjust'?" If (as many Americans mean it) "unjust" is simply a synonym for "discrimination", I would not be so certain, since (as the bishop's follies have also demonstrated) it was sometimes precisely the failure to discriminate that put pedophilic and ephebophilic homosexual priests in jobs that placed them in intimate and private contact with population of children and adolescents where they had no business being. And as the appalling rate of sexual abuse in our public schools demonstrates, failure to adequately discriminate in hiring teachers has serious consequences too. So I would not regard a hypothetical law which aims to prevent these evils as necessarily being against the faith and morals of the Church and would cut bishops slack if they supported it. Indeed, I would understand if they went a bit overboard in the direction opposite their previous folly. That's only human nature.

That's why I include the whole text from the Catechism, and not just CCC 1800. Because conscience requires formation and is more than just what our gut tells us. Sometimes our gut turns out to be wrong, as this excruciating passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn demonstrates. In this scene, Huck is struggling with what his culture has brainwashed him is "right" and wrestles with what the Church would call a badly formed conscience as he struggles for light on whether to turn his friend Jim, an escaped slave, over to bounty hunters (don't be put off by Twain's use of the N word. This is one of the most damning indictments of the corrosive effect that slavery and racism has on the heart and mind in all of world literature from the greatest novel in American literature):

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he'd GOT to be a slave, and so I'd better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion for two things: she'd be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she'd sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn't, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they'd make Jim feel it all the time, and so he'd feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of ME! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire."

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie -- I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter -- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking -- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell" -- and tore it up.

That is why the Church insists that we are responsible to educate our conscience. Everything in Huck Finn's gut tells him he should do what his culture tells him to do. So he ends up sick with guilt--for doing the obviously right and heroic thing.

Of course, in our culture, the irony is that most post-moderns will immediately, reflexively, and unthinkingly apply this to gay "marriage" and see themselves precisely in Huck Finn's position, "bravely" opposing the Church and its allegedly unjust rejection of it. The analogy to opposition to slavery is a hugely inviting one and likening the Church to slave owners and similar oppressors an absolutely commonplace trope. And so advocates of gay "marriage" bravely face the applause of our culture and conform completely to it--in exactly the way Huck Finn does not. What is really counter-cultural in our time is to make a searching inquiry into the question "What is marriage?" and begin to discover that if we make marriage mean (as gay "marriage" advocates wish it to mean) "any consensual relationship" then eventually "marriage" comes to mean anything. And a word that means anything is a word that means nothing. The consequences of this "What could it hurt?" approach to the foundational building block of all civilization will eventually be discovered when we enter the "How were we supposed to know?" phase of human history. But in the meantime, I simply note here that appealing to Huck Finn for dull conformity to the consensus of post-modern culture is not quite the slam dunk most advocates of gay "marriage" imagine it is. Advocacy of gay "marriage", like advocacy of the far more pernicious and destructive cultural consensus on no-fault divorce (which was the real bullet to the brain of the family) is not courageous. It is as conformist as jelly.

All that said, the verdict of the properly formed conscience is always binding on us. To disobey it is always sin, even if we are (as we often are) mistaken or partly blind. So if you really examine the situation and come to the conclusion that your bishop is asking you to do something repugnant to the faith and your conscience, then you must obey your conscience. But do really be certain that this is the case. If the Church is simply asking you to do something that seems within reason, but inconvenient, or that seems "old-fashioned" or various other changes on "I don't see the point of this!" my general recommendation is docility rather than otherwise. The world is not suffering from an over-abundance of obedience to the guidance of the Church as a rule. So my rule of thumb (which I have never felt bound to break at any point in my entire life as a Catholic) is to do as my priests and bishops ask me to do. Usually such things fall in the "Will you help out with RCIA? Or the youth group? Or say a 'Hail Mary' as penance" category of things, not the "Will you do something obviously evil because I'm the Boss" category. On very rare occasions, I will be asked to think about some public or political issue, but I've never been told how to vote.  It is, in my experience, vanishingly rare that a priest or bishop asks me to do something that is repugnant to my conscience or the teaching of the Church.  It is vastly more common that the world tells me to ditch some aspect of the faith because the world hate it, or some political tribe within the Church tells the bishops to shut up about some cow sacred to that tribe.  As a general rule of thumb, this trick is achieved (on the Left) by appealing to "primacy of (uninformed) conscience" as when the Church's teaching the Pelvic Issues is blown off and (on the Right) by appealing to "prudential judgment" (as when the Church's clear and obvious teaching on Just War was blown off a decade ago, leading to the present catastrophe in Iraq.  The world would typically be a far better place if we'd just listen to the Church's teaching and assume that when we disagree with it the fault is not in the Magisterium, but in ourselves.  As I say, not infallible, but a pretty darn solid rule of thumb.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.