A number of bishops have announced that Catholics in irregular unions whose consciences are “at peace” with God must be allowed to receive Holy Communion. This has never been the belief or practice of the Church, yet they assert it is rooted in the traditional teaching that conscience must be respected, even when mistaken. They fail to mention, however, that only the dictates of conscience are binding, not all its judgments, and that conscience is subject to the teaching and judgment of the Church. Once these truths are taken into account, the coherence of the Church’s apostolic practice stands out as clearly as the errors of the recent, unwarranted innovation.
In Catholic thought, conscience has two roles. First, it sometimes commands that a particular action be done or avoided. The action can be external or internal. Conscience has this authority naturally because it is an expression of practical reason, which comes from God. Although distorted by imperfection and error, the dictate must be obeyed because it is the echo of God’s voice. This is why our primary duty in life is to form conscience according to the truth and to obey its commands regardless of any earthly authority.
The second role of conscience is judging past, present, or hypothetical actions. This might be called our “sense of morality.” It judges, for example, whether certain acts are right or wrong, better or worse, or permissible, but without commanding a present action. At times it lacks clarity or certitude. As a judgment of reason, it cannot be equated with feelings or opinions. Unless joined in a particular instance to a dictate for action, these judgments can and must yield to commands from legitimate authorities.
We obey the dictate of conscience because we must, not because it is correct. In that moment, it is all we have to guide us. Afterward, the judgment of conscience may reassess our actions or previous judgments in light of a better understanding of the truth. It might even reveal that we were culpable about an erroneous dictate rooted in an ill-formed conscience. Thus, the two roles are distinct, but inseparable.
It is crucial to recognize that conscience, like the related human capacities of reason and will, has been created for a purpose: to enable us to respond and to commit ourselves to God, others, and creation. As such, conscience engages the entire human person, expressing an on-going dialogue that shapes our relationships and who we become. It has eternal significance.
This means that conscience, both in its dictates and its judgments, is personal and communal, not “private” in an autonomous or subjectivist sense. No one stands as an isolated individual before God in conscience because everyone exists in a myriad of relations with others. This includes a relation to Christ and the Church, who intercede and collaborate with the Holy Spirit to draw every person to share life with God. Christians, of course, stand as members of Christ and his Church.
These truths about conscience present a dilemma. The fallible dictates of conscience must be followed in response to God for the sake of ourselves, others, and the world. We do not want, deliberately or innocently, to act or to judge incorrectly because of the harm this would do. Nevertheless, we know that through innumerable and unrecognized influences – including sin –we suffer from defects and errors that distort our perceptions and judgments. Who, then, can trust himself, alone, to judge morality and circumstances accurately, especially when these involve vested interests (e.g., the validity of a marriage)?
It was precisely to enlighten and strengthen conscience that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel and drew humanity to himself as members of his Church, establishing her pastoral office and infallible Magisterium. The Church, like her Spouse, does not replace or coerce conscience, but with Him serves conscience by teaching, correcting, healing, and, when needed, rebuking. That is the entire mission of Christ and the Church, since in conscience we acknowledge sin, receive the Gospel, and live as children of God. Thus, it would be a betrayal of Christ to suggest that conscience, as dictate or judgment, lies outside the Church and her judgment.
Recognizing her apostolic duty, the Church has undertaken to declare consciences wrong when they violate the Gospel and has applied various pastoral remedies to bring her members to alter mistaken beliefs and practices. Her motive is simple: Jesus came to free everyone to share his joy by living God’s truth in love, even those burdened and imprisoned by innocent errors.
Consequently, the Church has never limited herself to helping the faithful discern whether their conscience is “at peace with God,” as some have recently claimed, insisting instead that Catholics are bound in conscience to accept and to live the Gospel as taught by the Church. Otherwise, no one in good conscience could ever have been refused Holy Communion, even if their beliefs and behaviors were damaging to themselves and others.
Contrary to recent innovations, the Church has consistently taught that a judgment of conscience cannot appeal to “the greater good” to justify evil actions, such as targeting civilians during war, contraception, or sexual relations outside a valid marriage. Those making such appeals must set aside the fallible judgment of their conscience in favor of the Gospel proclaimed by the Church. Of course, they must obey their conscience if it erroneously commands the action. The Church, however, can still seek to dissuade and correct them, even withholding Holy Communion, in order to lead them and others from harmful behaviors to healthy ones. This in no way judges their personal culpability or denies them access to God’s grace.
The Church must judge consciences and confront error and evil, culpable or not. We know the tragedies that have unfolded when bishops and clergy set aside Catholic teaching and discipline in their lives and in the Church. That some pastors have mandated a repetition of this mistake is disheartening. That genuine pastoral care continues nevertheless is a source of solace and hope.