Conscience and Disagreements on Social Teachings

There is much confusion today about the obligations of Catholics towards positions on political matters taken by individual bishops or conference of bishops or even the pope himself.

Such positions are often referred to as part of the Church’s social teaching, which can be very misleading. Some confessors, myself included, increasingly encounter devout Catholics who ask if they are guilty of sin because they disagree with bishops or the pope on issues such as U.S. immigration policy, Obamacare, the death penalty, etc. My response is to assure them that they are not guilty of sin for such disagreements. But they have a duty to be informed on such issues and to respect the opinions and persons of those with whom they disagree, including Church leaders.

In Catholic social teaching, fundamental moral and social principles are binding. They then have to be applied to complex practical problems. In concrete cases, the principles are more remote than the first principles of the natural law. And when it comes to their application, we are generally not dealing with the same kind of certitude that we find when primary moral principles are applied to personal moral acts.

To suggest that political positions taken by a bishops’ conference – based upon their reading of practical situations related to economic policies, the environment, immigration policies and such things – are equivalent to doctrinal pronouncements binding on Catholic conscience is quite misleading.

For instance, if a Bishops’ Conference says that building a wall is a bad idea, or – as a couple of individual bishops have written – is an irrational or useless policy, these are political positions plain and simple. They are not doctrinal pronouncements, and they definitely do not bind in conscience. They simply represent the political opinion of this or that bishop or this or that conference on a particular social, political, or economic issue. Catholics are totally free to reject them if, after careful consideration, they find them lacking.

Judge Gorsuch with President Trump and Mrs. Gorsuch

John L. Allen Jr., a respected journalist who generally writes for a couple of liberal Catholic publications, wrote about Judge Neil Gorsuch, newly nominated by President Trump for the Supreme Court: “Considered a reliable conservative on most issues, Gorsuch seems likely to align with the Catholic Church’s positions [my italics] on many matters but create possible heartburn on others.” Allen is referring here to what he calls social teaching issues, and he lumps together abortion and religious freedom on the positive side, and the death penalty and immigration on the “heartburn” side. The assumption here, unfortunately, is that all these positions are morally grounded in ways that have the same moral weight and degree of certitude in their application. That’s a mistaken assumption.

Allen would probably not say that the bishops’ positions on matters like immigration, healthcare, and the death penalty are as equally grounded in magisterial teachings as are the bishops’ positions on abortion and religious freedom. The latter positions are clearly based upon magisterial teaching that is irreformable and exceptionless in application. The former are, at most, based on their specific understanding of how certain social principle should be applied in a particular and very complex situation. In short, these are political positions, like being for or against some criminal sentencing policy, or for or against government control over heath care.

When Allen says that Judge Gorsuch’s previous immigration and death penalty decisions disagree “with both the Vatican’s and the U.S. bishops’” views, and identifies these positions as “the Catholic Church’s positions,” what can he possibly mean? These positions are not magisterial positions as such, and do not claim to be doctrinal or necessary applications of Catholic social teaching – that is, positions of the whole Catholic Church, which is what is implied.

The fact is that Allen can only be speaking about the political positions of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference (and not even of each and every bishop), and the political position of Pope Francis and some of his Curia, but hardly the position of the universal Church. To speak of “the Catholic Church’s positions,” then, is totally misleading since it excludes from “the Catholic Church” all those Catholics who have their own political position on an issue where they are not bound in conscience.

You can, for instance, support the death penalty, if you judge that there is no effectively practical way of safeguarding the common good. Even St. John Paul II’s proposed development in the Magisterium – that the death penalty be used as rarely as possible – allows for such prudential judgments.

Moreover, the moral duty of judges, including Catholic judges, assuming they are not dealing with an issue that is governed by an absolute, exceptionless moral principle, is to interpret and apply the law accurately and fairly according to the intention of the legislature that created the law. Their job is not to agree with some political positions, not even their own, but to be faithful to the law itself. If the law cannot be faithfully applied without violating the judge’s conscience, then the only moral recourse is resignation.

So the “positions” of the loosely defined “Catholic Church,” which really amount to some leaders in the Catholic Church, are not necessarily relevant and are non-binding on the Catholic faithful. Such positions should be considered – as should other positions and a broad range of factors – in forming our consciences. But to suggest that they are in fact binding on Catholics who have come to informed disagreement is not theologically sustainable.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was 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