In the quest to better form consciences and correct erroneous principles, there has been severe criticism about whether the Church has a role in speaking out to society about error. In fact, there seems to be a dichotomy that if the Church teaches that we should respect the environment as God’s creation there is applause, but if the Church teaches that we should respect the dignity of an unborn child as a uniquely created person, then there is an uproar and a cry of interfering in society. But what really has happened is that, by reminding society of the basic principles of the dignity of all life, the Church disturbs people’s defining their own existence. This disruption may be resented by some; but it’s a disturbance that ultimately serves the common good.
Conscience, in its Catholic understanding, is an operation of the intellect – an application of principles to facts. It doesn’t act like some inner voice pulling morality out of nowhere. As described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, it utilizes principles that the intellect grasps in its complexity and stores these principles as we grasp or learn them, and then applies them to specific facts and circumstances each time we make moral judgments. The important point is that there must be principles we point to in “listening to our conscience” and not just a “gut feeling.” What those principles are that the person accepts and applies is vital to how a person makes a moral judgment.
An unfortunate example of an erroneous understanding of conscience occurred just last month, when a Jesuit Prep School in Indiana refused to adhere to a directive from the local Archbishop to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage. As a result, the Archbishop announced that the Archdiocese would no longer recognize the school as a Catholic institution. The school, in response, issued a statement saying, “After long and prayerful consideration, we determined that following the Archdiocese’s directive would not only violate our informed conscience on this matter, but also set a concerning precedent for future interference in the school’s operations and other governance matters that [its] leadership has historically had the sole right and privilege to address and decide.”
The Provincial of the Jesuits’ stated that this school “respects the primacy of an informed conscience of members of its community when making moral decisions.”  The word “we” in the statement either means the school as a corporate entity – which can’t have a conscience in the strict sense – or the “we” means the school leaders as a collective of individuals. But if it means the leaders as a group of individuals, they should have used the plural, “our consciences,” rather than some sort of collective conscience among a group of people!
While Church Law establishes that religious orders retain their autonomy in the internal management of their schools, it also says that the diocesan bishop has ‘the right to issue directives concerning the general regulation of Catholic schools’ including any administered by religious orders.
In this case, the students at the Jesuit Prep School aren’t Jesuits, but are members of the Christian faithful from across the Archdiocese, which gives the Archbishop jurisdiction over that school as an apostolic work of the Jesuits under his authority. Church law clearly states “Religious are subject to the authority of bishops, whom they are obliged to follow with devoted humility and respect, in those matters which involve the care of souls, the public exercise of divine worship and other works of the apostolate.”
If the leaders of this school are following their informed consciences, one must ask: informed by whom or what? Certainly not informed by the teaching of the Catholic Church, which teaches that homosexual activity is seriously sinful. If they reject that teaching, then they are heretical. If they reject the authority of their diocesan bishop, they are schismatic. If they are heretical and schismatic, then they are truly not a Catholic school. It is not sufficient for one’s conscience simply to be informed, it must also be well-formed, and not under-formed or malformed.
Certain politicians who support legislation that promotes abortion and other evils contrary to Church teaching, “following their conscience” means that they have chosen not to think in accord with the Catholic Church, but rather to follow the thinking of abortion lobbyists, or the thinking of their political party, or the thinking of secular atheism, or simply do as they please. In those circumstances “following their conscience” means they have accepted some set of principles, whether because of deeply erroneous beliefs or as the result of pressure or political payment, and applied those principles to facts to make a judgment. It is true that if a person seriously misunderstands and is confused about the moral law, then their conscience might lead them to an erroneous conclusion (which they must follow even if they are wrong), but that goes only to their personal moral culpability and not to the objective rightness or wrongness of a judgment. A grievous erroneous moral judgment is all the more reason to call attention to erroneous principles a person may be using.
Pope St. John Paul expressed this in his encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth: “Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. . . . In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience.” He was saying that Catholic teaching rejects the mistaken claim to the primacy of conscience and clearly asserts the primacy of truth. When a parent does not teach moral principles, the child is in danger of poor character formation. If a political leader uses gravely erroneous principles – or refuses to articulate his/her principles – this is a danger that corrupts the body politic. For those of us charged with the care of souls, it becomes imperative to clarify and educate about right principles and call attention to a proper understanding of the moral law.
An erroneous understanding of conscience is an impediment to forming good character and virtuous lives. We need to possess moral virtues so that we can make good moral choices rather than bad ones. To possess a “good conscience” means to be able to judge situations correctly – to assess them from the standpoint of objective morality. This requires a sustained effort. We can’t be too rushed to think through situations carefully. We can’t be too prideful to ask for help, to consult the relevant authorities. We also can’t possess any vices that impede our ability to judge, choose, and act correctly.
The Second Vatican Council gave a good description of how one can attain a well-formed conscience in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes: “In the depths of his own conscience man detects a law which he doesn’t impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘Do this, shun that.’ For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The freedom of a person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must.”