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A Brief Primer on Catholic Faith and Conscience

In 1930, the Anglican Communion abandoned the universal Christian moral teaching of two millennia, which condemned artificial birth control as a grave moral evil, contra naturam, and destructive of marriage. It did so by allowing the individual subjective conscience to overrule the absolute moral norm that such actions are intrinsically evil and thus allow no exceptions.

This was a death knell for Anglicanism as a moral authority. The result has been not only the total independence of Anglicans from their traditional moral teaching but the collapse of religious practice among the laity (except for the African branches of this once vibrant communion). Where private, subjective conscience becomes the ultimate moral authority, religion based on faith is simply no longer tenable.

So it’s shocking that, eighty-seven years later, certain national Catholic bishops’ conferences have taken the same path. In practice, the elevation of subjective conscience as the ultimate moral principle began right after Humanae Vitae in many local churches, especially in Europe. Now the Maltese, Argentinean, and German bishops are making the same mistake about divorce and remarriage, adultery and relevant sacramental disciplines.

This so-called “pastoral solution” was the very path taken by the Anglican hierarchy regarding contraception forty years, more or less, before Humanae Vitae, which, they assured the Anglican faithful, would be rarely applied and only for serious reasons. Actually, it very quickly produced a contraceptive mentality and moral relativism – key elements in the 1960s sexual revolution and an even more radical relativizing of all moral norms. Some Catholic bishops and hierarchies, too, began to weaken. And it was only a matter of time (fifty years, more or less), until this false notion of conscience would be extended to other unpopular moral teachings, like divorce and adulterous second unions. That day has arrived, and it’s just the beginning.

As with the Church of England, by adopting a subjective conscience approach to moral life back in the Sixties, the European Church accelerated already declining religious practice. A recent sociological study determined that about 2 percent of the French population is really practicing Catholics. A few more occasionally attend Mass or other services, but even many of these are not really “believing” Catholics. Many of these “attendees” are nostalgic Catholics, or what the study calls “festive” Catholics who attend Church on social occasions, like baptism or matrimony.

Roughly similar numbers are found in most European countries today. Italy is slightly better off. And now, if history teaches us anything, Malta, once the most Catholic of all, will soon join the trend of declining faith and practice. It’s all really easily understood if we properly grasp what faith actually is and how conscience relates to faith

Let’s begin with an anthropological fact: conscience is a function or act of practical judgment, that is, a function of the human intellect and not some imaginary mystical power of the soul. Thus, conscience, like other intellectual functions, has to be educated and informed from outside. It is not self-informed or innately informed. It has some innate first principles, just as the theoretical or speculative intellect does, but even these principles, except for a very few absolutely primary ones, are often clouded in the intellect.

The problem, as we learn from revelation, is our fallen nature: the intellect has been weakened and darkened. Fallen man’s lower powers, the appetites and passions, are often rebellious toward the higher ones, i.e., the practical intellect and the will.

Our wounded conscience, therefore, needs to be educated, informed by truth. We are not born with innate scientific truths. They have to be learned. So, too, we have to learn moral truths and norms in order to make correct judgments about how to act. Otherwise, conscience will act blindly and come to false judgments in many instances, especially where self-interest is involved.

Even unbelievers need to form conscience via teachers of great wisdom, great moral figures, past and present, whose reason is more perfected – though not infallible, since errors are found even among the greatest philosophers.

But for those who claim to be Christians, correctly educating their consciences, requires the whole person’s obedience to God’s teaching – the God Who teaches us through his designated representatives.

For Biblical Protestants, properly forming one’s conscience entails conforming one’s conscience to the teachings of sacred Scripture as interpreted by great teachers through the ages. But again, they have no infallible teaching authority.

Now, for Catholics, correctly forming one’s conscience means submitting to the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Scripture as interpreted by the great doctors and fathers of the Church, and as authoritatively handed on and developed by the Church’s Magisterium, the heirs to the apostles to whom Christ said: “he who hears you, hears me.” Reason also comes into play in the faithful application of moral norms to particular situations, but reason itself must also be subjected to faith, that is, to guidance of the Magisterium.

Anything else is to withdraw from what St. Paul calls the obedience of faith. Some may argue that a Catholic could, in a rare case, be in good conscience while dissenting. But it would be absurd to argue that the dissenter could also still be in full communion with the Church.

The truth of almost all of the Church’s moral teaching is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit simply because it has long been taught via the Universal Ordinary Magisterium, as Vatican I and II clearly taught. A few moral issues that have arisen only in recent times, and have not yet been authoritatively taught, may be open to discussion and disagreement. But these do not include teachings on matters like contraception or divorce and remarriage (a form of adultery), any more than on theft, fornication, murder, etc.

Not being in full communion of faith with the Church lies at the heart of the prohibition of the divorced and remarried from receiving Communion. And it ultimately has even more serious consequences: the loss of Catholic faith. It is this loss of faith that has emptied our churches and will continue to do so, until this false notion of conscience is firmly and clearly corrected.

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 littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.