The Primacy of Conscience, the Synod and the Catholic Faith

COMMENTARY: St. John Paul II warned against an illegitimate application of conscience in Veritatis Splendor.

(photo: Amazon)

Primacy of conscience has been thrust to the fore of Church-wide discussions on marriage, contraception and homosexuality at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. But as we saw happen in the debates over Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), which condemned contraception, conscience should not be the only, or even the most important, category for moral doctrine. Many were (and still are) willing to let personal conscience, however informed, override authoritative Church teaching on contraception and conjugal morality.

Expressing a view held by a number of bishops attending the synod, Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich spoke of the primacy of conscience for the divorced and remarried during a press briefing on Oct. 16. “I try to help people along the way. And people come to a decision in good conscience. Then our job with the Church is to help them move forward and respect that,” he said. “The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.”

Yet how do we know — especially if Catholics have rejected Church teaching in “forming” their consciences — they have made this decision “in good conscience”? What does it mean to say we must “respect” their decision? It seems to imply, wrongly, that it is legitimate to substitute one’s decision of conscience for an authoritative teaching of the Church. Conscience is not only a personal reality, but an ecclesial one, too: thinking with the mind of Christ and his Church. 

These tensions between conscience and the authoritative teachings of the Church have arisen at the synod, specifically related to Paragraph 137 of the assembly’s instrumentum laboris (working document), which deals with the relationship between personal conscience and the objective moral norm prohibiting contraception in Humanae Vitae. It states:

“In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience, as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart, which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.”

According to theologians David Crawford and Stephan Kampowski, “The instrumentum laboris fails to emphasize that conscience makes reference to the law inscribed on our hearts, which is how ‘God’s voice’ should be interpreted.” But just as crucial is its failure to state clearly that conscience is formed in light of the Church’s objective moral norm which expresses God’s plan for procreation. By simply “combining the two,” the primacy of the objective (God’s law) is significantly downplayed in favor of the subjective (personal conscience). 

Properly understood, conscience plays a vital — indeed, sacred role — in moral decision-making, for it is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1796). But conscience must always be properly formed before one should follow it. Today, however, conscience is often understood subjectively, largely as a matter of following one’s feelings about right and wrong, rather than what is truly morally good. Thus, conscience is often portrayed as a serpent on one shoulder and a saint on the other, each whispering its urgings in one’s ear. In contrast, Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, taught that conscience is “the sanctuary of man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes within him” (16).

Note it is God’s voice, not ours, that the Council teaches “echoes” within us. In the modern view, conscience is one’s own “voice,” untethered from moral truth.

Pope St. John Paul II was so concerned about the problems with the modern view of conscience that he devoted significant space to it in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (54-64). The synod participants would benefit greatly by considering St. John Paul II’s treatment, sensitive as it is to the objective as well as the subjective aspects of morality.

John Paul teaches that conscience is “a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It … applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. … Conscience thus formulates moral obligation in the light of the natural law: It is the obligation to do what the individual, through the workings of his conscience, knows to be a good he is called to do here and now” (Veritatis Splendor, 59).

Here, we see the objective aspect of morality: Conscience is man’s last and best guide — the “proximate norm of personal morality” (60) — to what is morally good as that is grasped through his reason, in light of the natural moral law.

But John Paul II is not unaware of the subjective aspect of morality. In fact, he recognizes that conscience involves an “interior dialogue of man with himself [which] can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law” (58). Conscience mediates that moral law to us. 

In discerning the proper pastoral response to such issues as Communion for the divorced and remarried without an annulment, the synod fathers should pay particular attention to what John Paul II says in Veritatis Splendor (55), since it anticipated the discussions over the relationship between conscience, doctrine and pastoral practice leading up to and into the synod. More than 20 years ago, the Pope was warning against an erroneous understanding of conscience popular with many of our contemporaries, both Catholic and secular.

It is one that emphasizes its “‘creative’ character,” while no longer calling its actions “‘judgments, but ‘decisions.’” These decisions would need to be made free from authority, Tradition and the Church’s magisterium, i.e., they would have to be made “autonomously,” in order for persons to achieve “moral maturity” (55).

In this context, again, then as now, some believe that the process of human maturation is stunted by what is perceived to be uncompromising moral teachings of the magisterium, especially on sexual matters. They’re seen as “the cause of unnecessary conflicts of conscience” (55).

But John Paul II’s remarkably incisive response to this claim should also be appropriated by the synod: “[T]he authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth, but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth, but also because the magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience” (64).

The Pope is reminding Catholics that the magisterium is Christ’s gift to the entire Church. It in no way impedes our quest for spiritual growth, but enables that quest to be firmly rooted in moral truth, i.e., what is truly good for men and women.

And so, the synod, I would argue, must avoid all traces of what John Paul II called “a separation, or even an opposition, in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the magisterium and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept” (Veritatis Splendor, 56), i.e., a moral absolute.

Letting divorced-and-remarried couples decide whether to receive Communion or married couples decide whether they could practice contraception are perfect examples of this separation or opposition John Paul II warned against as an illegitimate application of conscience.  

This proposal would not lead to Christian conversion, but confusion; not holiness, but heterodoxy. The synod must reject any form of it.

Mark Latkovic, S.T.D.,

is a professor of moral theology at

Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit

and the author of What’s a Person to Do?

Everyday Decisions That Matter (OSV, 2013).