Primacy of Conscience

Sadly, many LGBTQ+ Catholics have fled the Church because of its teachings regarding homosexuality. That is truly regrettable because it's so unnecessary. Church Law is very clear on the subject. While the Church is entitled to hold its fallible teaching generally, the Law specifically says that the Church cannot say that it is sinful for any, specific person to engage in homosexual practices. Some have wondered, when Pope Francis says that if two people are in a loving, same-sex relationship, "Who am I to judge?" They seem to think that he is introducing some new, progressive theology to the Church. Yet, all he is doing is articulating the theology posed by St. Thomas Aquinas and a multitude of others centuries ago. Before Catholics leave the Church, it is vital to fully understand what its teachings really mean and the part that they play in relation to individual conscience. In this first of a series of articles, I propose to tackle the theological construct of "primacy of conscience," the underpinning of virtually everything else in the Church's moral theology. In subsequent articles, I'll take a look at Sacred Tradition, Magisterium, and many of the other core parts of Catholic Belief. In the end, I hope that you will agree that LGBTQ+ Catholics have a proud and important place in the Catholic Church.

1776 Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. ... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God...

1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ, Section One: Man's Vocation Live in the Spirit, Chapter One: Dignity of the Human Person, Article 6: Moral Conscience{Roman Catholic Church. 1993}

For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus.[Rom 2:14–16]{jcecil3. 2003}

Although it received new focus and attention in Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), primacy of conscience has long been rooted in the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. Many a theologian has despaired of it and wished it would go away, but the penultimate of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, made it the cornerstone of his moral theology. In that, he was just one of a chorus of thousands, repeating the same truths throughout the centuries.

The Fathers of the Church have hidden their discussions of primacy of conscience in mind-numbing theocratese to keep the layman from understanding it, lest they realize what it really means. In this blog, I propose to give a brief understanding of what primacy of conscience really means -- and doesn't mean -- in terms that a layman can understand. In doing so, I will limit my citations to sources that are also readable by the layman, yet are rooted in scholarly study. Yet, I cannot avoid quoting from central ecclesiastical and theological texts such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church and certain of the papal encyclicals and other writings.

Before we can get into primacy of conscience, we need to take a look at what conscience is. Conscience is a complex reality functioning on two levels. We need to consider each level in order to see what primacy of conscience implies at each level.

Actual or Situational Conscience

At its most simple level, conscience is a personal act of judgment about a particular course of action that has been done or that one is contemplating doing. It is the application of what one knows to the moral evaluation of a particular act, bringing to bear on it one's personal and religious values, the convictions that one has about what is right and wrong and the experience one has gained in life about what usually results in similar situations. The judgment of conscience, therefore, is by no stretch of the imagination the freedom to do just what I like. Quite to the contrary, it engages the person in the search to find the right answer, to ensure that the judgment one arrives at is, as far as possible, in accord with objective truth. As Pope John Paul II said, "the maturity and responsibility of these judgments – and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject – are not measured by the liberation of conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one's actions' (Veritatis Splendor 61:2)."

Habitual or Fundamental Conscience

It is important to note that the contemporary concept of "conscience" cannot be found in the Hebrew Bible, except perhaps in the Book of Wisdom which was heavily influenced by Greek thought. What we understand by "conscience" today can best be found in the Bible in the image of the "heart." In the Hebrew view, the "heart" is the very seat of morality of the person, the symbol of the inmost depth of personality. All human conduct has its source in the decisions of the heart, where God's word is heard. So the heart is the seat both of conversion to God or turning away from God, as in the challenge: 'O that today you would listen to God's voice, harden not your heart' (Psalm 94:7-8).

Paul introduced and developed the Greek notion of conscience (syneidēsis) which is a type of "awareness" or "consciousness" of moral value as a whole, not limited to a judgment of the morality of a particular action.


The development of the notion of conscience continued through theologians including Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and others culminating in Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, which speaks of conscience at its deepest level as the 'inner core and sanctuary' of the human person, where one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in one's depths', and where 'in a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by the love of God and neighbour'. This law, which the person discovers in the depths of conscience, is 'always summoning us to love and do good and avoid evil' (GS n.16).

Anamnesis and the Primacy of Conscience

Anamnesis ("memorial" or "memory") refers to a sort of original memory of the good and the true implanted in the depths of our being by our Creator who created us in His image. It is not a memory that we can put into words. Perhaps the best analogy is the Jungian notion of archetypes. If we haven't stifled anamnesis (and many do), it is a kind of inner sense that draws us toward good and repels us from evil. Because this is more of an almost primordial sense rather than something that can be rendered as a conscious judgment, anamnesis requires something outside of ourselves to be triggered in a way that it can be used to make moral judgments.

This triggering begins with the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation and continues with our life experiences working through our knowledge. It is a lifelong process of education as we absorb and integrate knowledge from all about us.{Lewis. 2009}

Moral relativism

Moral relativism basically says there are no absolute truths, and that nothing is good or bad. It affirms that good or bad is what an individual says is good or bad. It also means that no one has the right to make moral judgments on another's moral behavior, even if it is for their own good. This is what secular progressives believe.{AskACatholic. 2006} As we will see, primacy of conscience has little to do with objective good or evil. It does mean that we are obliged to follow our conscience when it forbids us to do something or compels us to do something -- even if our conscience is objectively wrong.


Above all, primacy of conscience is not an, "if it feels good, do it" concept. Conscience (which we will define more closely in a bit) is not whim, mood, inclination, or emotion. Conscience, as we'll see, is something that we Catholics form over years of study. When I say that something is morally good for me, that must be based on substantial knowledge, not the expediency of the moment.

The Church's teachings are based on substantial study by many people over long periods of time, usually centuries. Studying it at a superficial level does not suffice. In particular, if our conscience leads us to reject the Church’s teaching, we need to be very sure that we have all the information and knowledge necessary to make that judgment.

1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ, Section One: Man's Vocation Live in the Spirit, Chapter One: Dignity of the Human Person, Article 6: Moral Conscience

We are all a work in process. God is not finished with any of us as long we are alive on earth. In our journey through this life, it is our solemn duty to continue to educate and develop our conscience. Just as a child learns to walk by falling down, so too, we learn the path of virtue largely by trial and error. Good education and formation of conscience will prevent the worst fallings, and encourage the highest virtues, but it is inevitable that we all — to the very last person — will make mistakes. As we mature in holiness, good deeds become a habit — the literal meaning of "virtue". Avoiding "vice" (bad habits) also becomes a habit. Yet, mistakes will be made and you will not ever be done forming your conscience while you are on this earth!

Just as we each individually are in the process of forming our conscience until death, the Church as a whole is in the process of developing her collective conscience until the second coming. For this reason, we must be very leery of and careful with judging another's conscience. A person who says or does something contrary to Church teaching may be in sin or error. However, they may also be the prophetic voice through which the Holy Spirit is speaking to the collective conscience of the Church. Great care must be taken to weight things carefully in light of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, reason, experience, and the dictates of your own individual conscience.{jcecil3. 2003}

The Latin word for conscience is conscientia, "knowing with, within oneself” (Greek, syneidēsis). Theologian Christine Firer Hinze notes that within Christian tradition, conscience "denotes a multi-dimensional, uniquely human capacity for perceiving, judging, and deciding in relation to moral value.

"Christian ethicists," writes Hinze, "understand conscience in three senses: 1) most fundamentally, as an aspect of personhood experienced as an interior "law . . . written on [the] heart" (Rom. 2:15), a personal dynamism and response toward moral value; 2) as the process of analysis and deliberation concerning the right, or good, in particular cases, requiring honest, receptive dialogue with sources of moral wisdom (scripture, religious traditions, other funds of descriptive and normative insight); 3) as the event of moral judgment and decision in the concrete."

In this third sense, notes Hinze, "conscience has been considered an absolute subjective guide: one must always follow it, and external authorities may not force a person to violate it."

Even the hardline theologian, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) stated, "Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority stands one's own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority."

Unlike moral relativists, Catholics do acknowledge that there is a final arbiter of what is "morally right," and that arbiter is Divine Law. Unfortunately, Divine Law is not easily discerned by human beings -- even human beings like Popes, bishops and priests. Consequently, in its truest sense, conscience is the intellectual apprehension of Divine Law. Newman quotes Cardinal Gousset, who writes, "The Divine Law is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience."

Essentially, conscience is one's best judgment, in a given situation, on what here and now is to be done as good, or to be avoided as evil. Because conscience is one's best judgment, hic et nunc, a person has a duty to obey it. The Fourth Lateran Council says: "He who acts against his conscience loses his soul".{McManaman. 2006}

When speaking of divorced and remarried (without annulment) Catholics, perhaps Chicago's Archbishop Cupich put it best:

I try to help people along the way. And people come to a decision in good conscience. Then our job with the Church is to help them move forward and respect that. The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I've always done that.{Latkovic. 2015}

Case-by-case, not generalities

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: ... Conscience is a law of the mind; yet (Christians) would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise… (Conscience) is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ. [emphasis added]

1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: Return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ, Section One: Man's Vocation Live in the Spirit, Chapter One: Dignity of the Human Person, Article 6: Moral Conscience

Conscience works on a case-by-case basis; it cannot speak in generalities. Let's look at some examples{AskACatholic. 2006}:

Generality Individual instance
Eating meat, apart from Fridays of Lent, is not a sin according to Church Law. If your conscience told you that eating meat on any Friday was a sin, then it would be a sin for you.
Abortion is forbidden by Church Law. If you are a pregnant woman with cancer of the uterus and will die without a hysterectomy, your conscience might tell you that it's the right thing to do in this particular instance even though it will cause, indirectly, the death of the fetus.
Your conscience cannot tell you that, in general, it is wrong to steal. Church Law may say something else. When someone is starving, stealing may be the right thing to do and may be necessarily from the standpoint of an informed conscience.

It is informed

Our conscience must be informed through our obligation to study and follow the Magisterial Teaching of the Church. That's an obligation imposed on all Catholics, apart from primacy of conscience.

Of course, those who favor absolutist control of the Church over all behavior argue against primacy of conscience, despite all the teachings of the Magisterium to the contrary. For instance, Father Anthony Fischer, OP, makes this argument:

Catholics recognize that there is profound disagreement in the community about many moral issues, including the abortion issue. This does not however reduce the issues to ones of personal choice. The morality of slavery or apartheid have been the source of considerable disagreement: but this does not mean that these hard issues should be left to the 'personal' decision of those involved.{Fischer. nd}

What Fr. Fischer fails to recognize is that there has, indeed, been considerable disagreement over slavery. In particular, until the Civil War, the Catholic Church and its Sacred Magisterium taught that slavery was a natural part of civilization with substantial justification in the Bible and Sacred Tradition. It held that abolition was against Divine Law. After the Civil War, well, it would appear that the Church adopted a significantly different view of Divine Law and suddenly found slavery abhorrent.

As one goes back through history, one finds countless issues, including the structure and mechanics of the Universe, the physical locations of Heaven and Hell, the past of Mary of Magdala, and yes, slavery, where the Church has made reversals, sometimes abrupt, in its teaching. There is certainly little to justify the supremacy of the conscience of the contemporary princes of the Church over that of laymen.

Indeed, in the same source, Fr. Fischer is compelled to admit:

None the less it is important to understand the difference between conscience and personal preference or arbitrary private intuition (cf. Vatican II,  The Church in the Modern World (1965), §30, on "wallowing in the luxury of a merely individualistic morality").Conscience is the inner core of human beings whereby, compelled to seek the truth, they recognise the objective standards of moral conduct, indeed the dictates of God's law, and make a practical judgment of what is to be done here and now in applying those standards (Rom 2:15-16; Vatican II, On Religious Liberty (1965), §§2,3; The Church in the Modern World (1965), §16). Thus the moral character of actions is determined by objective criteria, not merely by the sincerity of intentions or the goodness of motives, (Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), §51) and all people are called to form their consciences accordingly.

Thus, the Catholic is obliged to inform himself/herself of the objective evidence — evidence which includes not only the clearly fallible Magisterium of the Church but also the findings of Science and other objective reality -- as a part of forming his conscience and of making those moral judgments. Such judgments cannot be capricious, but neither can they be rooted solely in whatever the teachings of the Church are for the day.

Using the Church teaching on abortion as an example, Fr. Fischer makes it clear that the arguments against primacy of conscience hold little weight because, as he says:

Thus for a Catholic to disagree with what the Church teaches on abortion, he or she would need to have very clear reasons and convictions. These could only follow a genuine search for meaning through docility to church teaching, reading, prayer, taking counsel, developing the virtue of prudence, and so on. Any conflict would then be within the person's conscience, rather than between conscience and some alien magisterial authority.

The arguments against primacy of conscience always end up in the same place. Conscience must be informed and formed based on knowledge, judgments must be made on that knowledge, and having made those judgments, the Catholic is compelled to follow his or her own conscience over and above the Magisterium of the Church.

In days of yore, when the vast majority of the population of the world was illiterate, sources of knowledge, such as books, were few and carefully (some might say jealously) guarded, and the only educated people were the clerics of the Church, one could make a cogent argument that it was the duty of the faithful to follow everything the Church taught. That is simply no longer the case. In fact, many of the lay faithful are provably better educated and more unbiased in their assimilation than are the clerics of the Church.

In fact, many of the arguments against primacy of conscience have all the vestiges of a clergy terribly fearful of losing their power over the faithful and trying to preserve it by denying the knowledge that the faithful have and attempting to maintain rigid rules based on historical and other inaccuracies by embodying them in a mystique called the Sacred Magisterium.

At present, the model of conscience used by most bishops is problematic in two ways. First, it emphasizes obedience, law, and hierarchical authority and thus departs from the Catholic tradition's close linkage of conscience, practical reason, and freedom. Second, on account of this departure, these bishops needlessly lapse into using a sectarian model of the Catholic conscience ill-suited to the Church's mission in a democratic pluralist society like the United States.

With this emphasis on law, the distinctiveness of the bishops' model of conscience comes into view. Where a theologian like Thomas Aquinas speaks of conscience combining obedience to moral law and the exercise of practical reason, the bishops heavily favor the former over the latter.{DeCosse. 2012}

The problem in modern society is that authority is earned, not given. People think for themselves. They are skeptical. They value their freedom and individuality. Hanging onto its control mechanisms emanating from the Medieval days, the Church has lost the control it so desperately tries to conserve while ignoring an even older theological underpinning -- primacy of conscience -- that would secure its place in the contemporary world.

1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.

1789 Some rules apply in every case:
  • one may never do evil so that good may result from it;
  • the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
  • charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to … do anything that makes your brother stumble."

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ, Section One: Man's Vocation Live in the Spirit, Chapter One: Dignity of the Human Person, Article 6: Moral Conscience

Man's apprehension of God and Divine Law has been described as seeing through a veil or attempting to see the bottom of a creek through murky water. We catch glimpses here and there, basic forms without detail, things that seem to change before our eyes. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to keep trying. In doing so, we have to work within a basic moral structure that encompasses (1) the end does not justify the means, (2) the Golden Rule, and (3) observance and adherence to the concept of basic human dignity.{jcecil3. 2003}

Catholics, we acknowledge, are compelled to study and understand the Magisterial Teachings of the Church when forming their consciences in order to make moral decisions. Nonetheless, the Church cannot make those moral decisions for them; each Catholic must make those moral decisions for himself/herself. That much is doctrinally rooted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the most compelling statement of what Catholics believe.

However, unlike many Protestant faiths, the Catholic Faith is built on three fundamentals: the Bible, Sacred Tradition, and Science. The problem is immediately obvious. The Bible was written 2,000 or more years ago; while it may contain eternal truths, it also must be interpreted in the context of the culture and times in which it was written. Its application to today may become quite strained. Sacred Tradition is newer but still rooted in old writings. All of that leads to a Church that can be very stodgy and slow to change.

The third, co-equal leg of that stool of Faith is Science which we know to be constantly changing, evolving, and growing. One only needs to look at the actions taken against Galileo when Church leaders could not accept a new, indisputable view of the construction of the Universe. Or how the Church had to revise centuries of erroneous tradition as views toward the role of women in society forced the Church to acknowledge long-suppressed truths about Mary of Magdela. Sacred Tradition has been proven wrong time and time again as centuries of error, injustice, and human suffering were peeled back to display its flaws.

When contemporary Catholics are confronted with things like contraceptives and same-sex marriage, they have quite a dilemma, to give more credence to centuries of Magisterial Teaching -- all of which may have been erroneous -- or give more credence to modern knowledge. Indeed, in many cases, what we may be looking at is not error in Sacred Tradition but, rather, the misapplication of Sacred Tradition to new situations that it could have never envisioned.

Ultimately, those are decisions that must be made by every Catholic for himself/herself. It does mean that every Catholic must strive to become and remain fully informed of the Church's Magisterial Teaching and modern science and , in the final analysis, relying on the conscience that God gave each of us.

1776 1776 Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. ... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. ... His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ, Section One: Man's Vocation Live in the Spirit, Chapter One: Dignity of the Human Person, Article 6: Moral Conscience

Pope Francis reminds that Jesus, Himself, was not an automaton who instinctively knew what was right or wrong. Instead, he prayed and sought to divine God's will from His own conscience, as we must do.

So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.{Gagliardi. 2014}

Understanding primacy of conscience, we believe that God's voice lies in our souls, and the gravest sin of all is to fail to listen to it. Yes, the Church has moral authority, and we need to listen to it -- but only if we can understand that it is fallible and challenged by our human consciences. Basically,

When in doubt, follow Church teachings. When you find yourself having trouble agreeing with the Church, make absolutely sure you are right before you act.{jcecil3. 2003}

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