But conscience does not mean that Catholics are free to act on the basis of what they personally judge is morally right in spite of Church teaching. Catholic conversion, as the etymology of “conversion” indicates, means a complete turn around (vertere), implying movement in a new direction in conjunction with (con) the community of Christ’s Mystical Body.
Already my conscience has been altered, even though my friend had no time to explain himself to me. When I find myself in a situation in which I am about to tell these jokes, my judgment bearing upon the act is now different as a result of my colleague’s remarks. Here and now I know that choosing to tell these off-color jokes might very well be morally wrong — although at this point I don't quite understand how — , because my friend whom I know to be reasonable told me that it is wrong. My best judgment at this point is that "perhaps I should wait and think about this further". For me to proceed with the jokes because I enjoy making people laugh and judge that doing so is morally noble is not good enough at this point; for I know that I have been wrong in the past, and so I know my judgment might now be mistaken.
If this is true for a colleague, how much more so for the Vicar of Christ himself, or the formulated teachings of the Church that was established not by man, but by the God-man, who sent the Holy Spirit to lead his Church to the complete truth (Jn 16, 13) and who said to the apostles: “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10, 16), and who said to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven” (Mt 16, 19)?
The only time I can reasonably act against my friend's counsel is if I judge, here and now, that were I not to tell those jokes to students, I would be doing what in my best judgment is sinful. If, for example, a Catholic claims to be able to choose In Vitro Fertilization in good conscience while knowing that the Church teaches that such an option is morally wrong, it must mean that he or she is convinced that it would be sinful not to choose that option. That would certainly constitute an erroneous conscience; nevertheless, he or she would be obliged to obey it.
For the most part, however, this is not what people claim when they act contrary to Church teaching. Rather, many simply choose to dissent, and they hide their dissent behind the catchphrase “primacy of conscience”. But conscience does not mean that Catholics are free to act on the basis of what they personally judge is morally right in spite of Church teaching. Catholic conversion, as the etymology of “conversion” indicates, means a complete turn around (vertere), implying movement in a new direction in conjunction with (con) the community of Christ’s Mystical Body. As St. Paul says: “We all were among them too in the past, living sensual lives, ruled entirely by our own physical desires and our own ideas” (Eph 2, 3). But, we have become a new creation (Gal 6, 13), and not everyone is an apostle who has been given the charism of office and commissioned to teach officially in Christ’s name (Eph 4, 11; Mt 28, 20).
Bishops and priests who have been exposed to the rich theological heritage that is ours in the Church have no excuse for employing a version of "conscience" which, in the final analysis, undercuts their very authority and renders it unnecessarily imposing and offensive. If they don't begin to speak out soon and correct this and similar popular misunderstandings, their influence and authority in such a culture as ours can only dwindle so as to become virtually ineffective.
McManaman, Douglas. "A Clarification on the Meaning of 'Conscience'". (May 2006).
Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.
Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Douglas McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 2006 Douglas McManaman