Conscience as Freedom from Truth?

“In the contemporary discussion on what constitutes the essence of morality and how it can be recognized, the question of conscience has become paramount, especially in the field of Catholic moral theology.” So said then-Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1991 address “Conscience and Truth.” This theme of the connection between conscience and truth, especially the truth about the human person, was repeated incessantly by both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the word “conscience” appears 108 times, mostly in contexts in which he was attempting to correct modern errors. As in this passage:

an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behavior could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts (VS, 4).

And again here:

Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. . . .The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself” (VS, 32).

So too, in that 1991 address, Cardinal Ratzinger tells the story of a colleague from his days as a professor who suggested that they “should actually be grateful” that God allows “so many unbelievers in good conscience. For if their eyes were opened and they became believers, they would not be capable, in this world of ours, of bearing the burden of faith with all its moral obligations. But as it is, since they can go another way in good conscience, they can reach salvation.” This exchange would have taken place in a German university in the mid-1950s, still very much in the shadow of the Shoah.

What was that colleague thinking? Thank goodness so many people were following Hitler “in good conscience”? Think of how unreasonable it would have been for the Church to demand these people bear “the burden of faith with all its moral obligations”!

What disturbed him most about this man’s comment, writes Ratzinger,

was the notion it harbored, that faith is a burden which can hardly be borne. . .faith almost as a kind of punishment, in any case, an imposition not easily coped with. According to this view, faith would not make salvation easier but harder. Being happy would mean not being burdened with having to believe or having to submit to the moral yoke of the faith of the Catholic Church. The erroneous conscience, which makes life easier and marks a more human course, would then be a real grace. . . .Untruth, keeping truth at bay, would be better for man than truth. It would not be the truth that would set him free, but rather he would have to be freed from the truth. Man would be more at home in the dark than in the light. Faith would not be the good gift of the good God but instead an affliction. If this were the state of affairs, how could faith give rise to joy? Who would have the courage to pass faith on to others? Would it not be better to spare them the truth or even keep them from it?


Without the anchor of objective truth, “the supposed pronouncements of conscience” become “but the reflection of social circumstances.” “No door or window would lead from the subject into the broader world of. . .human solidarity.”

These documents have been available for decades now, clarifying the Church’s authentic teaching about conscience. So why do we still hear priests tell people that Catholics need only “follow their conscience” indifferent to the truth and the teaching of the Church? Don’t these people read?

Why too must we tolerate statements like this in an article (in The Washington Post from Fr. Pat Conroy, the Jesuit priest who used to be the Catholic chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives) with a title purporting to explain “why there’s room to be pro-choice in Catholicism”?

How do we, within our constitutional system, how do we get to our Catholic value in this case, [when women have] the right to choose. . . .It’s an American value that each one of us can choose where our life is going. That happens to be a Catholic value, too. . . .Choice is a highly American value and it’s a church value. [Twelfth-century (sic) Italian priest and Catholic philosophical giant] Thomas Aquinas says if your conscience says to do something the church says is a sin, you are bound to follow your conscience. That’s Thomas Aquinas!

No, that’s not Thomas Aquinas (who lived in the thirteenth century) and not Church teaching. To cover his bases, Conroy wrote to clarify after his interview: “there is no debate, in my mind, about the tragedy of abortion” – well, thanks, Father. But he added: “she is the one to make her choice; we should not make it for her.”

But isn’t this woman making the choice for her unborn child? And is Fr. Conroy really talking about conscience? Or is valuing “choice” as he does more a “reflection of social circumstances” – namely, the values of certain well-heeled progressives?

Is it too much to ask that these people read the official documents and that they not provide intellectual cover for politicians engaged in the Holocaust of innocent children?


*Image: Pope John Paul II greets Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during his inauguration October 22, 1978. [CNA/Vatican Media]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Respecting People – and the Truth

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s St. Thomas Aquinas

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.