Letting Your Conscience Be Your Guide (What Jiminy Cricket Didn’t Tell You)

“Always let your conscience be your guide” (Jiminy Cricket, from the movie Pinocchio, 1940).

“One of the key pastoral problems facing us is the widespread misunderstanding of the role of conscience, whereby individual conscience and experience are exalted above or against Church teaching” (Pope John Paul II, Address to Bishops of New England, September 21, 1993).

While most people would agree with Jiminy Cricket’s advice to Pinocchio, Pope John Paul II’s quote illustrates that, in certain cases, the recommendation could be problematic.  One look at various newspaper editorial pages will illustrate a growing belief among Catholics that an individual’s conscience trumps Church teaching, especially if they are in opposition to each other.  Adding “fuel to the fire” is a plethora of Catholic politicians who, while professing the importance of their Catholicism, adamantly support positions that are directly opposed to Church teaching.  One doesn’t have to look too hard to find numerous Catholic politicians who support abortion and same sex “marriage”.  It is also relatively easy to locate Catholic acquaintances who disregard Church teachings on everything from weekly Mass attendance to artificial birth control.  Let’s look at the official Catholic position on conscience and see if it’s ever permissible to obey one’s conscience when it conflicts with Church teaching.

Using conscience to determine right from wrong is hardly a new matter and can be witnessed in Adam and Eve’s Old Testament encounter with the serpent.  In the garden, God gave Adam permission to eat the fruit from any tree except the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:17).  Eve also indicated her familiarity with this command (Gen 3:3), although she ignored it when the serpent offered a contrary opinion.  Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” and decided to eat the forbidden fruit, sharing it with Adam (Gen 3:6).  This episode gives us an example of two individuals who decided to follow their conscience, even though it was in opposition to God’s command.  Unfortunately, just as the Lord warned, the results for Adam and Eve were not good!

Objectively speaking, the Church teaches that we must always obey our conscience.  There is little disagreement among Catholics that deliberately carrying out immoral actions is sinful.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly affirms this fact and indicates that by acting in opposition to the certain judgment of one’s conscience, we “condemn ourselves” (CCC 1790).   However, there is another piece to this teaching that is often overlooked:  It is possible that our conscience can make an incorrect judgment that “departs from reason and the divine law” (CCC 1786).  Just like Adam and Eve, our conscience can allow us to make the wrong decision.  In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS), Pope John Paul II stated that “Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” (VS 60). Therefore, we must always strive to educate and inform our conscience in accordance with God’s commandments.

According to the Catechism, the education of our conscience is a “lifelong task” (CCC 1784).  The Vatican II document Dignitatus Humanae (DH) instructs that in forming our consciences “the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” (DH 14).  It is precisely here that we see the contradiction in the position of those who claim that it is possible to “follow their conscience”, even when it conflicts with Church teaching.  The Magisterium clearly teaches that we must form our conscience in accordance with the teaching of the Church, thereby eliminating a major argument in the arsenal of those who use “freedom of conscience” to dissent from Catholic teaching.

While the above citations make it clear that it is never morally acceptable to disobey Church teaching based upon one’s conscience, why is it done so frequently?  When Catholics refuse to obey Church teachings, it is often due to their failure to recognize the living presence of Jesus in His Church.  To many people, the Church is a hierarchy composed of hypocritical and fallible human beings.  Why should we listen to the same bishops who “made so many bad decisions” concerning the priestly abuse crisis?  Why should we obey the men who are “anti-women” and “anti-gay” and who affirm that position by refusing to admit women or homosexuals to the priesthood?  Unfortunately, short-sighted positions such as these completely overlook the fact that the Church is a heavenly, not an earthly, institution.  While the Church on earth is comprised of imperfect humans, the head of the Church is actually Jesus Christ who sent His Holy Spirit to keep her free from error.  This is a hard concept for many to grasp, but it is critical to accepting the authority of the Catholic Church.  The reason we should listen to the Church is that, by doing so, we listen to Christ.

If the above reasoning still isn’t enough, there is a sobering statement in the Catechism that should get the attention of anyone who has chosen to disobey Church teaching based upon their own conscience.  This statement pertains to those who claim immunity based upon limited knowledge of Church teaching.  If someone “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good”, they can still be held responsible for the evil action committed (CCC 1791).  This matter becomes especially serious when the sin committed is grave (or mortal).  While space doesn’t permit me to list all possible variations, such things as deliberately missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation, living together outside of wedlock and the use of artificial birth control could all potentially fall into the “mortal sin” category.  Being in the state of mortal sin is extremely troublesome when one considers the following two statements:  “Therefore, you must also be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44) and “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell” (CCC 1035).

None of us know when we will be called home to be judged by Almighty God.  I can imagine nothing more frightening than suddenly appearing before the Lord and having to explain why we didn’t listen to Jesus speaking through His Church, especially if it caused us to be in the state of mortal sin.  There is no earthly pleasure, pride or indulgence that is worth the price of eternal pain and suffering.  By obeying the voice of Christ as spoken through the teachings of His Catholic Church, we can be assured of not being in that terrifying position.  Instead, we will one day stand before God, eagerly awaiting these longed-for words:

“Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your Master” (Mt 25:23).


Gary Zimak is the author of several books, including A Worrier's Guide To The Bible, From Fear To Faith and Stop Worrying & Start Living. Gary is a frequent speaker at parishes and conferences across the United States and Canada and is recognized as the leading Catholic speaker on the topic of overcoming anxiety. He is the host of Spirit In The Morning on Holy Spirit Radio in Philadelphia and the creator and host of Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, the only Catholic podcast designed specifically for worriers. Gary is also a regular guest on EWTN TV and radio. For more information, visit his website FollowingTheTruth.com.

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  • philip1

    Wonderfully well written article sighting Pope John Paul II “the widespread misunderstanding of the role of conscience, whereby individual conscience and experience are exalted above or against Church teaching” G.K. Chesterton, in his classic book Orthodoxy, wrote “Why should your conscience be any more reliable than your rotting teeth or your quite special defect of eyesight?” “A Catholic”, says Chesterson, “is a person who has plucked up courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that something else may be wiser than he is.” “What is really working in the world today is Anti-Catholicism and nothing else.” “The Modern Mind” is not at all accustomed to making up its mind.” “I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favor even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control…. But these people know perfectly well that they dare not write the plain word Birth-Prevention… where they write the hypocritical word Birth-Control. They know as well as I do that the very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public….” Autobiography The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Ignatius Press 1987 G.K. Chesterton died in 1936.

  • Narwen

    ” When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will. ”
    – Venerable (soon-to-be-Blessed) John Henry Newman, C.O. (This was written, BTW, in 1875 !)

  • Esther Brown

    The more I hear and see i.e. people living together outside of wedlock and working as extraordinary ministers within the church; the more I a feeling like a stranger in  my church. Priests seem to be hiding behind indivual conscience issue. Who is going to form these consciences if priests, bishops etc. are afraid to stand up and be counted. I grew up hearing about a horrible God. I am not saying we should go back to such teaching but we need proper boundries. How can anyone say something is not a sin when scripture says it is. I am not addressing the many rules of Judism but laws based on the ten commandants.