The Role and Freedom of Conscience

By Bruce Sabalaskey
Copyright 2000. All Rights Reserved.

1. Introduction

The conscience is a highly misunderstood concept today, due primarily to lack of good catechesis, as well as being a much abused tool to foster the errors of modernism on today's Catholics. Freedom of conscience is used to justify any belief or behavior inconsistent with Catholic doctrine and dogma. Touting the common phrase "Spirit of Vatican II," dissenters claim that Vatican II focused on changing the Church to become up to date with the modern times. That is simply a misrepresentation of the Truth. While dissenters want to replace the Truths contained in teachings of the Church with their own under the guise of "getting up to date," what Vatican II really focused on was to find a new method to teach the same unchanging Truth (see the Opening Speech of Pope John XXIII). Essentially the intent was to change the method of teaching, not the teaching itself. This article will summarize the Church's teachings on conscience, while focusing on the authentic teachings of Vatican II, and point out the common errors today.

For a more detailed analysis of conscience, please see the Catechism of the Catholic Church (sections 1776-1802) and Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas.

2. Definition of Conscience

Before we begin, let's start with some definition of terms. First, what is the conscience? The Oxford dictionary defines conscience as:

  1. a moral sense of right and wrong, especially as felt by a person and affecting behavior (my conscience won't allow me to do that)
  2. an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one's behavior (my conscience is clear; has a guilty conscience)

One will notice the focus on "sense" and "feeling." Such is to be expected from a secular (i.e. humanist) book. In today's society, most people, Catholics included, would agree with such a definition. However, this definition is defective and partially contradictory with Catholic doctrine. As will be discussed later, such a definition is vague enough to support erroneous modernist views of freedom of conscience.

In Vatican II Gaudium et Spes, the conscience is defined thusly:

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. [Cf. Rom. 2:15-16.] Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. [Cf. Pius XII, March 23, 1952: AAS (1952), p. 271] In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.

Comparing Catholic doctrine and secular views highlights the differences. One can easily see the modernist dissenters follow the secular humanist definition of conscience.

Catholic View of Conscience Secular (Humanist) View of Conscience
God's law written into a person's very heart. Moral sense or inner feeling.
A law which man does not impose on himself, because it comes from God. Emanates from within the person ("sense," "feeling")
Love good, avoid evil, love God and neighbor - always. No guidance as to what "goodness" means. Therefore, anything goes as long as the "conscience is clear."
To be obeyed. Just another factor which affects behavior.
Offers a person his/her very dignity. Dignity is ignored.

3. The Role of Conscience

What is the purpose or role of the conscience? Even the secular dictionary definition has this part right. Very simply, the conscience is used to guide moral behavior. Where the dictionary offers such guidance via human "sense" or "feeling," all subject to concupiscence[1], As was seen above, the very definition of conscience in Catholic doctrine also expounds on its role, which is to "summon man to love good and avoid evil" and "hold him to obedience" to "a law written by God into man's heart."

Dissenters always quote the Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae opening statement #1:

"A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty."

Dissenters do agree with Catholics that the conscience is used by guide a person's behavior. However, they quickly diverge from Catholic teaching with regard to forming their conscience and applying conscience to the situations of daily life. In summary, a dissenter reduces the role of conscience to "informed choice," a term commonly heard when promoting abortion. Continuing with Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae, it is clearly seen that true Catholic teaching reaffirms the necessary obedience to the teachings of Jesus' Church:

#1: "First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it."

"This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power."

#2: "It is in accordance with their dignity as persons--that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility--that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth."

Canon Law confirms this:

Canon 748 1 "All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right, to embrace and keep it."

Quite clearly according to Vatican II, the role of conscience is to seek God's Truth, embrace it, and then hold on to it once found. This negates the concept of pluralism as will be discussed later.

4. Formation and Application of Conscience

Now that we know what the conscience is and it's purpose, how does a person form his/her conscience so that proper behavior can be obtained? And when is the conscience to be used? Catholic teaching is again straightforward.

Vatican II Lumen Gentium explicitly requires the conscience to be Catholic and for the Catholic conscience to guide every action of the person all the time - no exceptions:

#36: "Because of the very economy of salvation the faithful should learn to distinguish carefully between the rights and the duties which they have as belonging to the Church and those which fall to them as members of the human society. They will strive to unite the two harmoniously, remembering that in every temporal affair they are to be guided by a Christian conscience, since not even in temporal business may any human activity be withdrawn from God's dominion."

So how are Catholic consciences formed? Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae tells us clearly:

#14: "In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. [Cf. Pius XII, radio message, March 23, 1952: AAS 44 (1952) pp. 270-278] For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates further, while referencing Dignitatis Humanae:

#1784-1785: "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to 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[1]. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart. In the formation of the conscience, the Word of God is the light for our path [Cf. Ps. 119:105], 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 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teachings of the Church [Dignitatis Humanae #14]"

So Vatican II states obviously that humans can know how to behave via the unchanging Truths taught by the Church, that they are obligated to learn said Truths, and to live their lives - via a properly formed and informed Catholic conscience - according to those Truths. Dissenters totally ignore this Truth as taught by the Church for it's entire existence and reiterated by Vatican II.

5. Practical Matters - Decisions and Errors

Now that we see a person's conscience is God's law written into his/her heart, and that it is the obligation of the person to form said conscience, the next basic area is how to practically apply one's conscience to matters of daily life. A key question is can conscience err? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, due to our concupiscence[1]. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expounds well in detail, liberally referencing the Bible and Vatican II, on how to use your conscience as well as how errors are made:

#1786-1789: "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. 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. 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. Some rules apply in every case:

#1790-1794: "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. 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." [Gaudium et Spes 16] In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. 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. 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. 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."[1 Tim 5; cf. 3:9; 2 Tim 3; 1 Pet 3:21; Acts 24:16] 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. [Gaudium et Spes 16]"

Since dissenters follow the notion of "informed choice," they again ignore the Truth as taught by Vatican II. As a side note, one will observe that the so-called and often touted "spirit of Vatican II", with respect to conscience, does not at all agree with the real Truth of Vatican II.

6. Freedom of Conscience

Now to the fundamental point for which we've all been waiting. So what exactly is freedom of conscience? Back to Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae, starting with its opening statement:

#1: "A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty."

Does this mean that anything goes, as long as one acts on his or her own judgment responsibly motivated by a sense of duty? If the notion of "informed choice" is used, then one could come to such a conclusion. That is what dissenters want, who further claim that the "restrictive old-fashioned" teachings of the Church are coercive and oppressing their right to choose. So then, what is true freedom of conscience according to Catholic teaching? Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae has the answer:
 

#1: "Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

#3: "Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law--eternal, objective and universal--whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means."

"Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth."

"Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it."

"On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.[3]"

"The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed."

"There is a further consideration. The religious acts whereby men, in private and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs. Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious."

#4. "The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself."

"Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles."

"Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties."

"Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one's right and a violation of the right of others."

"In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from. freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. Finally, the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense."

Boiling down the long explanation results in one simple idea - that no one can be forced against his/her will to believe one thing or another. Only the individual person has the right to choose his/her beliefs. Yes, that means that even the 100% Truth of Catholic beliefs cannot be forced onto a person. Canon Law confirms this:

Can. 748 2 "It is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience."

However, this does not imply that one can believe anything and act accordingly, especially if one claims to be Catholic. As clearly stated previously, Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae tells us "In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church." Jesus teachings as transmitted through His Church provide us the real freedom - the freedom from sin and eternal death (i.e. loss of salvation).

7. Errors Commonly Derived from Misunderstanding Freedom of Conscience

Various errors flow from the incorrect application or a distorted view of freedom of conscience. The most common errors today are directly inter-related and are essentially part of a self-affirming system of error. 

7.1 False Religious Freedom - Any Religion is as Good as Another - False Ecumenism

Let's refresh our memory with respect to the teaching of Vatican II Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom:

#1: "Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

We see the real definition of religious freedom, that being immunity from coercion. Applying an erroneous view of freedom of conscience to religion leads to the modernistic, but false, notion whereby "one religion is as good as another." Vatican II clearly states not that any belief system is good, but rather that a person is duty-bound to seek and hold to God's Truth [Dignitatis Humanae, Canon Law #748]. While it is true that one cannot force another to be Catholic, similarly one cannot just believe any religion's tenets and then claim to be Catholic. 

Subsequently derived, then, is a false ecumenism whereby dissenters want to incorporate other faith's ideas into Catholicism. Vatican II specifically teaches that the Catholic Church has the complete fullness of Truth, and that it is the (singular!) Church founded personally by Jesus Christ [3]. There is one true Church and one true Faith. There is no need and no logic to incorporate erroneous faith ideas into Catholicism which already possesses the fullness of Truth - because that Truth came from Jesus Christ. These themes are much more fully developed in the recent document Dominus Iesus.

Those dissenters who want to "update the Catholic Faith to modern times" are really people who reject God's gift of Faith and want to take others down with them - misery loves company as they say. Here we learn how totally hypocritical are the dissenters. True Catholics have the right to the Truth as taught by the Church. Dissenters are trying to coerce the Church to accept their errors and opinions which thereby pollutes the Catholic Faith. Therefore, by oppressing the Truth, the dissenters deny a true Catholic's right to a pure and proper Catholic Faith. Obstinate dissenters should convert to the Truth or, failing that, just leave the Church and go find a religion which suits their fancy. Of course, the father of lies, the author of dissension, doesn't want dissenters to leave because his plan is to destroy Jesus Christ's Church.

Sedevacantists often pick on one point that they use to claim that the Vatican II Council is invalid, that being on religious freedom. They believe that in the past, many Popes have taught that religious freedom is against the teachings of the Church. Referring back to Dignitatis Humanae #1 above, what Vatican II teaches is that the unchanging Catholic doctrine is still, has always been, and always will be - in effect. Vatican II is by no means inconsistent with past Church teachings. 

What is made crystal clear is that civil society may not coerce a religious belief, such as forced in atheistic communist China, and that individuals cannot be forced to believe the Truth, even the Catholic Faith of the One True God. The Catholic Church is obligated to teach the Truth to the best of its ability, but the bottom line is that God endowed each person with a free will, and that person must - by that same free will - accept the Truth. Faith is a gift which must be accepted by the person, and it cannot be shoved down their throat. A person can refuse the gift of Faith, and their soul will suffer the consequences of their choices for all eternity after their particular judgment after death.

7.1. Pluralism - One can Believe Anything Given Thoughtful Consideration

Pluralism is the concept whereby many belief systems exist and that each one, with its set of rules, is roughly equivalent to another. All one needs to do is thoughtfully consider the information or opinions (and perhaps even some facts!) to form a responsible opinion used to guide behavior. Pluralism depends on a misapplication of freedom of conscience because with many belief systems to choose from, a person requires "freedom of conscience" to pick what belief system best suits that person. Instead of modifying behavior to match a belief system, the pluralist searches for a belief system - or more likely, a syncretistic (i.e. pick and choose from here and there - like New Age does) set of parts of belief systems - which matches, or better stated, justifies, his/her behavior. This, of course, in error. The Church teaches that pluralism, which inherently lacks the concept of a transcendent unchanging Truth, leads to a totalitarian society. [2].

One popular belief system hatched from pluralism is "situation ethics" where the rules of moral behavior are dependent on the circumstances rather than being set upon a firm solid foundation of unchanging Truth. This is effectively a license to justify any immoral behavior since one can easily find some excuse given our concupiscence. [1]

Another common behavior of dissenters who practice pluralism is the aggressive attack on orthodox Catholic teaching. Such dissenters will claim that the Churches teachings - and those who faithfully follow them - are "oppressive" or "intolerant" or "deny a person their rights." The fact of the matter is that the dissenters are essentially intolerant of and are oppressing the Truth of God as taught by His Church.

Some dissenters also claim that pluralism is acceptable as long as one adds the qualifier of "without harm to the other person," which is clearly false. For example, abortionists and women who choose abortion purportedly claim their right as enabled by freedom of conscience but it is obvious that an innocent unborn baby is killed. This is a real example of whereby those in power - the adults - force their erroneous belief on a person incapable of defending himself at the cost of his very life - the baby. 

Pluralism has clearly been condemned throughout Church history, from Biblical times to the Catechism of the Catholic Church today. 

CCC #815  What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity "binds everything together in perfect harmony." [Col 3:14] But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion: profession of one faith received from the Apostles; common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments; apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God's family. [Cf. Unitatis Redintegratio 2; Lumen Gentium 14; CIC, can. 205.]

John 17:11  "And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one."

Luke 11:17  "But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls."

Mark 3:24-25   "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."

Matthew 12:25  "Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand;"

Rather, the Church teaches unity - that we all believe the same dogma and doctrine in the Faith. Lack of unity leads to destruction, and pluralism is certainly a lack of unity since everyone can believe something different. A fuller treatment of this subject is contained in Dominus Iesus

Conclusion

This analysis has shown that Vatican II has clearly and consistently promoted the authentic and unchanging Truth of the Catholic Faith as handed down from Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Your conscience is God's very law written into your heart, which must be nourished to keep it alive and well. Form your conscience enlightened by God's Truth. Don't settle for ignorance, which is certainly not bliss, but rather possible damnation (Hosea 4:6) due to negligence. Why wait? Start today, your soul depends on it.


REFERENCES

[1]
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2515: "Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man's moral faculties and, without being in itself an offence, inclines man to commit sins. [Cf. Gen 3:11; Council of Trent DS 1515]"
[2]
Encyclical letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Centesimus Annus)
#44. "If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which a person achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends. Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate--no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it. (Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Libertas Praestantissimum: loc. cit., 224-226.)".
[3]
Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)

#5. "... The mystery of the holy Church is already brought to light in the way it was founded. For the Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the kingdom of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand' (Mk. 1:15; Mt. 4:17)."

#14. "... Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it."

#19. "... By preaching everywhere the Gospel (cf. Mk. 16:20), welcomed and received under the influence of the Holy Spirit by those who hear it, the apostles gather together the universal Church, which the Lord founded upon the apostles and built upon blessed Peter their leader, the chief corner-stone being Christ Jesus himself (cf. Apoc. 21:14; Mt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20)."

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