When Conscience Trumps Faith and God

In the late 1980s, a friend who was working with Cardinal Law introduced me to him in Boston. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I do remember that the cardinal encouraged me to write my dissertation on the subject of conscience. He was really insistent, though he never fully explained why he thought it such an important topic. I chose rather to write on the primary end of marriage, but I never forgot his vehemence about the need to examine the true meaning of conscience.

I now often think it’s the critical issue that undermined the Church in the post-Conciliar years in a devastating way. The devastation is clear for anyone with eyes to see: the tremendous decline in the number of practicing Catholics; the moral dissent that has corrupted our institutions of higher learning; the abandonment of the sacrament of Confession by most Catholics; and now the abandonment of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony by a growing number of young Catholics.

The list could go on, but it’s all too depressing. What interests me is what I now see as the key to all this: the false notion of conscience that has taken hold not only in the world around us but within the Catholic populace – the notion of absolute conscience.

When the bishop of my birth diocese returned from Rome following the Second Vatican Council and his participation on the Birth Control Commission, he was a changed man. And he had every intention of changing the diocese according to his vision of the Council and his agreement with the Birth Control Commission’s report. He had joined the majority in dissenting from the Church’s constant tradition on the immorality of artificial contraception, and he was clearly intent on liberating his people from the shackles of the Church’s condemnation.

But after the publication of Humanae Vitae, he had to find a way around Pope Paul VI’s reiteration of the teaching – a “pastoral solution” that would allow people to dissent from Church teaching on this particular matter in good conscience.

The bishop had also brought from Europe the solution to this problem, which turned out to be a kind of virus that would infect much of Church life, while supposedly solving the pastoral problem. It was like the Europeans who brought smallpox with them to the New World. But this was a spiritual virus and even more deadly. He wasn’t the only the bishop who brought this virus home. In fact, it was already here under another form: radical existentialism. But now it was taking root where it would have been thought impossible not long before, in the Catholic conscience, reinterpreted supposedly at Vatican II.

Jimmy Cricket was wrong.
Jimmy Cricket was wrong.

The notion that conscience is absolute is a great anthropological and theological lie. Nothing is absolute but God. And conscience, which is an act of the intellect, declares itself absolute only if it simultaneously declares God is not God. The conscience, like the intellect itself, is subject to God and not an independent entity in competition with God. Every man must follow his conscience in order not to sin, but that is only a partial truth. Because, while man sins if he does not follow his conscience, this doesn’t mean that he does not sin if he follows his conscience.

Indeed, where conscience deliberately refuses to be subject to the law of God, it becomes an agent of sin. When conscience becomes malformed due to the subject’s negligence or bad will, the act the proceeds from that false conscience is sinful. That and much more reflects the Catholic understanding of conscience and its role in salvation.

Now the notion of absolute conscience was not consciously adopted by the Protestant Reformers, but it is implicit in their notion of private conscience. The Reformers saw conscience not as absolute but as subject to the Word of God, precisely as that Word is transmitted in the Bible. But their sola scriptura principle could not sustain this subjection forever. Scripture is not self-interpreting. When the Church is removed as the final authority to interpret Scripture, what remains is simply the private individual. Given the philosophical developments that followed the Reformation up to our own time, the notion of absolute conscience became inevitable. It now trumps even the Scriptures and God himself.

In other words, the notion of conscience that has taken hold in the Catholic Church in the last half-century is even far more radical than the notion of conscience in the Protestant Reformation. The Church always understood that conscience operates at the deepest core of the person’s soul. That is why it is determinative of character and moral standing. But where conscience declares itself absolute, the final arbiter of good and evil, then conscience has displaced God at the core of our being. That is what modern atheistic existentialism really does, and unfortunately the confused notion of conscience that has been perpetuated in the Church post-Vatican II often has more to do with this kind of existentialism, than with the more balanced understanding in the Catholic tradition, repeated in the Council itself.

Conscience truly does stand at the core of man’s personal being, in the deepest recesses of the soul, in the “heart” as the Bible describes it. But it stands there in subjection to God and to his Church, to whom Christ said, “he who listens to you listens to me.” Proverbs (23:26) says, “My son, surrender your heart to me.” It’s the same thing that Christ says to us, but He mediates that surrender through the Church, with which He is mystically one.

Where conscience becomes absolute, the Church is relativized, and that means Christ is also displaced from the core of our being. There will be no renewal until this virus is eliminated. This demon must be cast out.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid,” says Aristotle, “ and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse.“

  • Jerry Rhino

    The following quote, from the Winnipeg bishop’s conference, has never been addressed by any pope since it was published. De fide divina et catolica implies a catholic, or universal view
    (including Canada).
    26. Counsellors may meet others who, accepting the
    teaching of the Holy Father, find that because of particular circumstances they
    are involved in what seems to them a clear conflict of duties, e.g., the
    reconciling of conjugal love and responsible parenthood with the education of
    children already born or with the health of the mother. I accord with the
    accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but
    without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given
    directives, they may be safely assure that, whoever honestly chooses that course
    which seems right to him does so in good conscience.

    Gaudium et Spes, one of the
    sixteen documents of Vatican II, states: “Deep within his conscience man
    discovers a law 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, tells him
    inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law
    inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be
    judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is
    alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

  • Stanley Anderson

    Fr. Pilon writes, “Scripture is not self-interpreting.” I would agree with perhaps a caveat that it “points” to where the interpreting is instead to come from. And so in that respect, I suppose one could say that it is indirectly self-interpreting.

    I like to use the example of a person who subscribes to a “sola prescriptura” version of drug use — ie, he accepts ONLY what the label on the medicine bottle tells him. So he follows the prescribed dosage recommendations and such.

    But he explicitly ignores the message at the bottom that says, “If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, consult a doctor”. He reasons that that would force him to go to some other source than the bottle label itself, and that he will not do. And yet the label IS the thing telling him to consult a doctor.

    And that is (one of) the problems with sola scriptura — ie, it says over and over “consult a doctor, consult a doctor, consult a doctor”, and that direction seems to be ignored by the sola scriptura proponent.

  • Richard A

    I think that’s ‘Jiminy’ Cricket.

    • Bro_Ed

      Yes, you are right. Also, where was Jiminy wrong and what has it to do with this subject?

      • Tamsin

        Jiminy sang the song “Give a Little Whistle” to Pinocchio,

        When you get in trouble
        and you don’t know right from wrong
        give a little whistle, give a little whistle

        When you meet temptation
        and the urge is very strong
        give a little whistle, give a little whistle…

        Take the straight and narrow path
        and if you start to slide
        give a little whistle, give a little whistle
        and always let your conscience be your guide…

        • RainingAgain

          These song lyrics provide an alternative view:

          “…every man’s conscience is vile and depraved

          You cannot depend on it to be your guide

          When it’s you who must keep it satisfied”.

          (Man In The Long Black Coat by Bob Dylan).

          I thought it perceptive of Dylan to realise that the individual making his own judgement on a moral situation he was involved in has, by definition, a dog in the race.

        • Bro_Ed

          Well, for Disney “once over lightly” philosophy, I think that’s pretty good.

    • Jerry Beckett

      His friends call him “Jimmy”.

  • slainte

    One wonders why conscience is not subject to the fall and the residual effects of original sin?

    And why doesn’t it need to be “properly formed” by application of Christ’s teachings through the Church?

    • Frank

      It does…Fr. Pilon pointed out that conscience must be subject to the law of God. The Catechism covers this in Paragraphs 1776 and following, especially 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.”

      Can’t link it here due to TCT’s posting policy, but there is a wonderful searchable online Catechism on the website of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church of Picayune, MS, which is easily found.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    There is an instructive story told about M Emery, one of the great Moral Theologians of the 19th century.

    On the occasion of Napoléon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. Cardinal della Somaglia told M. Emery, Supérieur of St. Sulpice that he could not attend without wounding his conscience. M. Emery told him that, in that case, he should on no account do so, for any consideration whatsoever. It transpired that M. Emery had been consulted by a number of the other 18 cardinals, then in Paris, and he had told them he thought they could attend the ceremony with a clear conscience.

    In response to a letter from Cardinal Fesch, the Emperor’s uncle, M. Emery explained this apparent inconsistency. He personally saw no harm in attending, but he had given his advice to Cardinal della Somaglia on the basis that one should never act against one’s own conscience, even if it were erroneous.

    In the event Cardinal della Somaglia kept to his view, contrary to M. Emery, and did not attend the marriage ceremony.

    Both men, we may suppose, shared the same principles on the indissolubility of marriage, the jurisdiction of the Holy See, remote material cooperation and the obligation not to give scandal; they differed on the application of these principles in the particular case and who is to say which of them was right?

  • BXVI

    I have always struggled with the concept of the “primacy of the conscience”. It seems to me that this concept has led more souls away from the Church since Vatican II than anything other than the standing of “No Salvation Outside the Church” on its head.

    The rationale supporting the admonition to follow our consciences seems quite circular to me. Am I right that it goes like this?

    1. Follow your conscience.
    2. But only if it is well-formed.
    3. And if it is well-formed then it will align perfectly with Church teaching.
    4. If it does not align with Church teaching, it is not well-formed, so don’t follow it.

    Primacy of the individual conscience seems an essentially Protestant concept to me. As a Catholic, should I not subordinate my conscience the the teaching of Holy Mother Church whenever the two diverge? Is the following statement not the essence of what it means to be Catholic: “I am not my own authority”.

  • RaymondNicholas

    I remember when I was seven and performed my First Confession. I had no problem understanding right from wrong. It just seemed so obvious from the affects of my doing wrong that other “bad things” happened, things that I could not foresee. I won’t go in to playing with matches or turning the steam iron upside down to see what would come out. So, the sisters and priests were right. Later on, that same inner voice came to me when I contemplated something devious and I knew. But there were others “voices” that helped me rationalize my sins because the sins made me feel good and why should there be consequences to feeling good? Now, in my geezer stage, I see that nothing has changed from time that I was seven. There still is absolute right and wrong, there still are consequences that I cannot foresee from sinning, and even if the sisters and priests no long know how to teach the truth of the Faith, it doesn’t change the immutable truths that Christ gave us and which have been handed down for two thousand years, to which I am obliged to accept because nothing else seems quite as right.

    • Phil Steinacker

      Excellent and candid analysis, Raymond.

  • robert bunselmeyer

    Excellent, thank you father. The secular refrain is that one needs not all the muss and fuss of religion and God. Conscience will tell us what to do. But what is conscience? How is it formed?
    What is there in conscience to prevent “what I believe to be good” to slide off into “what I believe?”
    Or into “what I want to believe”? Or into “what I want”. It is only a short distance from the unregulated conscience to the unregulated individual.

  • veritasetgratia

    Yes Father so true. Early 1970’s the Bishops here and in the U.S. circulated letters to the laity interpreting Humanae Vitae’s words on contraception; here it was said that a Catholic could be right with God if he himself was the final arbiter of what was right re contraception and if he chose to be in breach of the Pope’s decree. Those Bishops’ instructions were deadly because that principle of private interpretation has been applied to other moral choices. Effectively that taught protestantism to Catholics, a while ago re-named ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’. I am just wondering whether God is going to wait till this same generation (baby boomers) dies out entirely (laity and clergy) before He raises up a prophetic voice with authority within the Church? He may allow this generation to experience the effects of its choice (of freedom at all costs) before it dies out. He did that with the Hebrews who left Egypt.

  • Katherine Anne McMillan

    Thoughts form convictions, convictions form decisions, decisions motivate actions, actions form your personality, your personality will determine your destiny. Bishop Sheen said, “Attitudes are made. They are made less by the way one thinks than by the way one lives. If we do not live as we think we soon begin to think as we live. We suit our philosophy to our actions and that is bad.”

  • Manfred

    Cardinal Law…protector of predator-priest John Geoghan (200 young victims)…protector of sodomite priest extraordinaire, Fr. Paul Shanley..who attempted to foist Shanley off on the Archdiocese of New York until Cdl O’Connor learned of it…who was removed from the U.S. and made the Archpriest of St. John Lateran in Rome until Pope Francis removed him …wanted you to write your dissertation on CONSCIENCE? Curious.

  • Christine Hickey

    Thank you, Father Pilon, for addressing the “my conscience is absolute” issue which has so infected the Catholic Church. I converted to Catholicism in 2008…so relieved to have found true authority there, only to be told by an RCIA director, (a “former nun”) that her “conscience” superseded the clear teaching of the Church in regard to the evil of abortion “in certain situations.” I knew this had to be wrong, and was shocked at this attitude coming from a person of influence and direction to “new” Catholic converts. I had studied Church teaching with “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” as my source for over two years, along with sincere prayer that my study would be guided by the Holy Spirit and asking for God’s grace in bringing me home to the Catholic Church if that was His will. I was a joyous convert to the faith after many years of seeking truth, and I am so thankful to God that my conversion took the path that He formed and I was not confused or discouraged by this experience. I pray that your article will be spread far and wide. Our people perish for lack of knowledge…