I am confused. The Church teaches that we should follow our conscience, but then turns around and teaches us that we must obey Church teaching. Who am I supposed to follow, the Church’s teaching or my own conscience? How will I know what is the right thing to do?
Yes, it is true that the Church teaches that no person must be forced to act contrary to his/her conscience. Nor must they be prevented from acting according to their consciences, especially in religious matters (Dignitatis Humanae). The reason that the Church can teach this, however, is because she knows that
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. (CCC 1776)
What the Church is telling us is that when we truly listen to our consciences, we will hear God speaking to us. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God; He made us and we are on a journey back to Him. He wants for us to be very happy, and, because He made us, He knows best all that is good for us. So, He builds inside us this conscience through which He will try to guide and lead us to do what is good and right.
In this life, we will face many serious, moral decisions, and we will have choices to make. These choices cannot be made blindly. In other words, our consciences must be informed. This means that we must first take certain steps to learn everything we can in regard to what we are trying to make a decision about. This is called discernment.
Let us say that you are a parent, and your son or daughter has come to you and asked you to help them to have an abortion. This would certainly be a grave moral decision requiring the formation of conscience. What do you do? The first thing to do is to listen to what the Church has to say on the matter and why. Remember that the Church was established by Jesus Christ (who was God Himself) and given authority by Him to teach in His name. So, when we listen to the Church, we hear God. In a case as grave as abortion, what the Church teaches should be what we follow because she speaks for God and teaches infallibly in matters of faith and morals.
In making decisions or choices that are less grave, there are additional steps we can take to inform our consciences in order to do what is right before God. We should consult professionals and get expert advice. Find out what is involved in any procedures that will be required. Then, seek advice from trusted friends and family or anyone who might have gone through the same experience. Finally, take the matter before the Lord in prayer, asking Him to reveal to you through your conscience what you should do.
When you have done all these things, make your decision, and move forward. This way, even if you make a mistake, you will be able to say to God that you did all you could; you did your best. He knows our hearts and minds and will know if we are sincere. You see, the Church can say “follow your conscience” because she knows that if you truly listen to God in your conscience, then what you hear will be no different than what the Church teaches, for she teaches only what God has revealed to her. There is no conflict between following your conscience and following the Church.
© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon
For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: email@example.com. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.