Last week I wrote of the elephant in the room: the gulf, revealed in the analyses of responses to the synod questionnaire on marriage and family, between the moral belief of many of the laity and the teaching of the Magisterium. While I can offer no simple solutions I believe that considering the question of the formation of conscience may shed some light.
I come from a generation in which the formation of conscience was only too simple. You had to do no more than to look at the relevant moral teaching and examine whether it applied to the activity in question. End of conscience formation. The supplementary issue was whether the activity was a grave matter. For example, I was taught that, for theft £5 was sufficient to qualify. Adjusted for current value, that would be £183 today. In sexuality everything was apparently grave – from entertaining an impure thought to goodness knows what. Of course, full knowledge and consent were required. But since the teaching was clear, and we were assured that sufficient grace was always available, even looking at an airbrushed nude in Lilliput carried a penalty which made the medieval torture chamber seem appealing. No wonder that nowadays in moral matters I often consult my wife. Being a convert, her conscience is still intact.
The response of the bishops in general to the publication of Humanae Vitae was to give loyal support to the teaching, while pointing out the need to respect the consciences of those unable to agree. Unfortunately there has been little real guidance on the process of forming the conscience. While this is, in fact, explained in the Catechism, it is not presented in a form which is easily comprehended.
In my generation it seemed very simple. You formed your conscience by applying the moral law as set out by the Church, and you obeyed it. In today’s generation forming your conscience appears very largely to be deciding what you would like to be true and supposing that to be a decision of conscience. I suggest that neither of these explanations serve.
The first issue arises from a paragraph in Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.” Too often this is interpreted as merely a statement of the sovereignty of conscience. What may be overlooked is that this sovereignty requires that we are alone with God. Put in simple terms, that means that we must be open to God. Inclinations, instincts, emotions, pressures are all false friends here. We may not be able to eradicate them, but we must be aware of how they can deceive our fallen natures.
We are asked to make a decision based on what we really think in the depths of the heart. And that’s difficult. It cannot be done without the action of the Holy Spirit. It is true that our conscience ultimately trumps the Church’s teaching – even if that obliges us to leave the Church. But the next step is to acknowledge the Church’s authority to teach the moral law. For some, this may be the point when they judge that the Church must be followed simply because of its deeper understanding, but even those who feel confident to decide are under obligation as Catholics to discover what the Church says and the reasons for this. The intention is not to discover why the Church is wrong, but to discover why it is right. Dignitatis Humanae, in speaking of conscience, does not require us to obey blindly but to “attend” to her teaching. This serious attention is not optional for the Catholic. It is only following this that one may claim a decision of conscience. And whatever that may be, it is sovereign, though it must remain open to new insights.
If I take the vexed question of artificial contraception as an example, it is important to note that dissent in no way affects the status of the individual as a member of the Church. It is clear from different episcopal documents that this most serious outcome is compatible with the continued use of the sacraments. And the confessor who attempts to unsettle a formed conscience exceeds his brief. Yet, another temptation remains. The Catholic who has imbibed the principle that the Church is always right may well be left with a nagging sense of infidelity as a result of his decision. But this is another false friend. In truth, the infidelity would lie in following Catholic teaching rather his own moral decision. No one can hide behind the Church’s skirts on the Day of Judgment.
Moreover, it does not follow that dissent on one issue should lead to dissent on others. A decision of conscience, Newman pointed out, applies to us personally and in the particular circumstance of the decision we have to take. “Conscience (says St Thomas) is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what here and now is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.” Discussion about whether this or that moral principle should be held by the Church may well be interesting and important, but it has no direct bearing on our decision of conscience. The bar may be high, but once we are confident we have made a decision according to our best understanding, we have nothing to fear.