People seem to think conscience is how we feel about something. If we like something, it is not a violation of our conscience. If we dislike it, we believe it goes against conscience. From there, anyone who tries to make a moral judgment of an act is accused of “violating a person’s conscience.” That’s a false understanding though. Conscience isn’t a feeling or a preference. A feeling says “I feel fine about this.” Conscience says, “You must not do that.” In fact, conscience often compels us to go against what we want to do and tells us what we must do. The Catechism describes conscience as:
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: (1749)
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.
When conscience tells us something is morally wrong, we cannot disobey our conscience and perform that act. But that being said, conscience is not an infallible guide. Whether through (among other things) ignorance, cultural blind spot, or falling into vicious habit, we can become deaf to the call of conscience or even wind up thinking evil is good. The person who, through no fault of their own, is ignorant about some moral truth (called invincible ignorance), does not sin in following a conscience in error. But if a person could learn if they bothered to look does not have this excuse and has some level of guilt for their actions. As Gaudium et Spes #16 tells us:
Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.
As Catholics, we need to remember we do not have the excuse of invincible ignorance. We profess that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord who gave her the authority to teach in his name. We believe that she shows us how to truly live the Christian life (Matthew 28:20). If we do not avail ourselves of this gift from Our Lord, we are without excuse for the wrong we do. As Lumen Gentium #13 tells us,
They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.
What this means is, when the Church teaches how we need to live, we cannot appeal to conscience against the magisterium. We measure the formation of our conscience against the teaching of the Church, not the teaching of the Church against our conscience. When a bishop speaks out on the morality of a subject, he is not violating our conscience if it makes us feel uncomfortable. If he’s making us feel uncomfortable, perhaps he is awakening an awareness of where we have gone lax. But as Catholics we believe those who lead the Church have the authority and responsibility to speak out, as the Catechism teaches:
2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.” “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”
2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.
2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.” The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.
So, to argue that those entrusted with forming our consciences are violating them, because they teach that X is wrong, is to speak dissent as well as nonsense.
Even if a bishop should speak with a lack of charity or gentleness in his teaching (as opposed to the person in the wrong being offended), this does not take away from his teaching office. Of course the bishop or priest should be careful not to discourage the sinner when he speaks out against the sin, but harsh words do not change truth into falsehood. Remember, we’re not talking about priests or bishops teaching heresy or other dissent. We’re talking about teaching what we are bound to believe.
[Edit: Reader Colin Leicht made a good point on Facebook that bears addressing. A bishop or priest who, on account of fearing to hurt our feelings, avoided teaching the truth would be preventing us from forming our conscience properly.]
But what if he does not speak as a bishop? It happens at times. Archbishop Chaput recently wrote on the sorry plight of this election, speaking it as “thoughts from a brother in the faith, not as teachings from an archbishop.” In such a case, he makes clear that he is not making a binding teaching, but speaking just as a fellow Catholic. Even here, we should treat the bishop’s words with respect, recognizing his personal learning and the personal grace provided him by God. In doing so, he explains the problems we should think about and we would be foolish not to consider what he says. I won’t put what he says on par with a teaching from the Pope. But I find his words helpful all the same.
Because the Church forms our conscience properly, we cannot claim conscience as an excuse to disobey the teaching authority of the Church. When the bishop teaches in communion with the Pope and says “X is a sin,” Catholics cannot accuse him of violating conscience with their teaching. If we find that what our feelings and preferences tell us go against Church teaching, that is a sign that our own conscience is malformed and needs to be corrected.