The consequences of conscience
December 19th, 2012
By George Wesolek
During the election period, there were many essays, columns and discussions about the role of conscience in making well formed and correct decisions on moral and ethical matters.
These discussions have pointed out the church’s long-standing teaching on conscience formation and have emphasized that this formation is not built on a whim or personal preference but on time-honored standards that make the magisterium of the church a foundational principle in the process.
But there has been an essential element missing in the conversation.
Usually, the discussion follows the process and then ends with the (true) conclusion that if you have followed this course in forming your conscience then you are required to follow it (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1790).
Often conscience formation is an exercise in logic instead of an honest effort to understand what the church teaches and why. Many never get to the why. It is a bigger commitment, and more threatening, to delve into the rationale underlying church teaching, especially on sexuality and morality. It is far easier to listen to arguments, pro and con, then decide which most comfortably fit with one’s life experiences and emotions. In this scenario, the bishops are just one voice among many conflicting opinions. This is not discerning conscience. It’s listening to a debate.
What is rarely mentioned, if at all, are the consequences that result from this.
Example: If one were to discern in a conscience formation journey that for him or her Jesus Christ is not divine but something else following the intense debates about the nature of the Christ in the early Christian era, would there not be an obligation to leave the Roman Catholic Church which has professed the truth of Christ’s divinity for 2,000 years?
Being required to follow one’s conscience after a rigorous examination has a natural consequence. Yes, I do not believe in the divinity of Christ. How can I stand shoulder to shoulder with other Catholics at Mass and profess the creed? It is an unconscionable and fundamentally dishonest action. It would seem clear that, in conscience, I have abandoned the tradition and that I need to honestly admit that and find another tradition that fits my beliefs, and, at the very least, discontinue my participation in the faith that is so clear and consistent on this issue.
What about social issues flowing from the church’s moral doctrine today? Most of the discussions around conscience formation have been about these: abortion, homosexuality/same-sex marriage. Many Catholics have announced loudly and clearly that they have come to a conscience conclusion that foundationally disagrees with the church on these issues. The conversation usually ends with the affirmation of their right in conscience to follow that path, but it rarely speaks of the consequences of making such a decision so far from the church’s constant and unalterable position on these matters.
I know fellow Catholics who publically and loudly proclaim their right to differ with the church and, in the same breath, declare themselves faithful to the church. I can only conclude that they firmly believe that the church, will one day, after 2,000 years, change its teaching on homosexuality and abortion.
This is delusional at best and announces a clear misunderstanding of the doctrine of the church. Yet, in the discussions about conscience, the consequences of their conscience journey end with their having the “right” to believe as they do. More than that, they seem to believe in their “right” to change the Catholic Church and the minds of those Catholics who are deluded enough to uphold magisterial teaching.
The logic of the conscience formation journey, rather, means that they need to consider where they belong with such decisions. Is it time to move on, based on conscience? Is it time to take stock and move to a real and honest place that reflects their decision-making?
Wesolek is communications director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
From December 21, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.