According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a human person “has in his heart a law inscribed by God,” “calling him to love.” This is a person’s moral conscience. (#1776)
The moral conscience urges a person “to do good and avoid evil;” it also judges particular choices, approving those which are good and disapproving those which are evil. (#1777) Our conscience enables us to understand the principles of morality, decide how to apply those principles in specific circumstances, and judge the moral status of concrete acts. (#1780)
The human person "has the right to act in conscience and in freedom" and “must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (#1782, 1790)
The Catechism says a person’s moral conscience must be informed and enlightened so that it “formulates its judgments according to reason, [and] in conformity with the true good" willed by God. (#1783) Shaping a well-formed conscience is a lifelong task which is rooted in the Word of God, assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others, and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.(#1784-1785).
Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example by others, enslavement to one's passions, a mistaken notion of autonomy, rejection of the Church's authority or teaching, lack of conversion or charity may all be a source of errors in moral judgment. "One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience." (1792, 1793)
The Catechism says that individuals are “sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult.” In such situations, a person “must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.”(#1787) In this effort, a person “strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times” with the assistance of “the virtue of prudence, … the advice of competent people, and … the help of the Holy Spirit….”(#1788)
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Here are some guidelines for how to form a moral conscience, particul-arly in a situation where you may misunderstand or disagree with a specific truth or teaching of the Church:
• Consult with a pastor, pastoral staff member or spiritual guide who understands and can explain the Church's teaching clearly and correctly. Identify the fundamental truths or values on which this teaching is based and determine how essential this teaching is to the core of Catholic faith.
Beware of making decisions based on information you read in books or online which may not accurately explain the Church's teaching.
• Assume that the Church's understanding of God's revelation and human nature is fuller, deeper and more reliable than any individual's.
Even though the Church's teaching may seem ideal, unrealistic or wrong to you, start from the assumption that it is correct and applies to your personal circumstances.
• Evaluate your personal opinions, feelings and circumstances carefully. Honestly assess the reasons why you are unable or unwilling to agree or comply with the Church's teaching.
This is best done with the assistance of an trusted companion such as a pastor, confessor or spiritual guide who understands the Church's teaching as well as your personal circumstances.
• Pray for the grace to understand and appreciate the underlying truth or values which are reflected in the Church's teaching and for the grace to discern what is possible for you in your particular circumstances.
Be patient, and allow time for God's inspiration to guide you directly or through others who know and love you.
• Consult with your pastor, a confessor or reliable spiritual guide before making a final decision. The goal here is to determine to what extent you can or cannot understand or follow the Church's teaching. To what extent is it possible to honor the teaching in part? To what extent is it possible to honor the underlying truth or value which is reflected in the teaching?
• Continue to pray for the grace to understand or comply with the Church's teaching more fully, in spite of your personal circumstances. Pray for the grace to appreciate and honor the underlying truth or value reflected in a particular teaching.
Be open to changing your decision as your understanding or circumstances change.
• Consult with your pastor, a confessor or reliable spiritual guide if you are troubled by your decision.
• Remember that God knows you are an imperfect and sinful person and loves you nonetheless.
Trust in God's mercy and love even if, after careful discernment, your decision does not agree with the Church's teaching.
If we decide that we cannot understand or comply completely with the Church's teaching, we should avoid coming to the conclusion that the Church must be wrong. Although at times prophetic individuals and groups within the Church come to different conclusions which the Church officially accepts at a later date, most of us are not prophets.
If we are led by a morally responsible conscience to believe or act in a way which is contrary to what the Church teaches at the present time, we should continue to assume that the Church is correct and that for more or less legitimate reasons I am unable or unwilling to agree or comply. We should continue to participate as fully as possible in the sacramental and spiritual life of the Catholic Church, being careful not to give scandal to others who may be confused by our belief or behavior.
If we are led by a morally responsible conscience to believe or act in a way which is contrary to what the Church teaches at the present time, we should do so with a spirit of humility and respect, a desire to remain in communion with the Catholic faith community, and the intention to believe and obey as fully as possible in what the Church believes and teaches.
We should proceed cautiously and with patience, aware of our own limitations and sinfulness, always desiring to be transformed by God's love and mercy.
-- Dave Cushing (02/12)