Forming One' Conscience
I am writing this column the day after the election in which Maine voters rejected the law that would have radically changed the definition of marriage in our state. I am so very grateful to the Mainers – Catholics, Evangelicals and others – who recognized the consequences of such a change and voted to preserve the millennia long understanding of marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman.
During the marriage campaign, I heard a number of discussions and several messages came to my office expressing confusion over the Church’s role in the debate, dissent from established Catholic doctrine, and the right to follow an informed conscience. This is why I have chosen to write about the proper role of conscience and respect for the teaching authority of the Church.
First, it is the Church’s right and responsibility to speak out on moral issues and to educate its members and others. The Church also has an obligation to help form properly the conscience of her members. But when Church doctrine and one’s conscience seem to be at odds which takes precedence?
The answer can be found in the Catholic Catechism: “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful…The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC #1783). Without question, we are called to make judgments in accord with an informed conscience.
Unfortunately, making right judgments is not as simple as merely following our conscience. Indeed, “…conscience can either make a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” (CCC #1786).
It is Catholic teaching that we must always obey the certain judgment of our conscience when it has been properly formed. The danger is the possibility – and in some cases the probability – of erroneous judgment. “Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment” (CCC #1792).
The Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage, like its teaching on the life of the unborn child, is clearly “authoritative” at the highest level. A properly formed conscience cannot and does not reject authoritative teaching. Those who understand the Church’s authentic teaching authority accept, embrace, and are obedient to this guidance as a gift.
It is my role as your bishop to live and teach the truth in love. I will not shrink from that responsibility. Making known established Church teaching, emphasizing the genuine teaching authority of the Church, as well as explaining the proper context of an informed conscience are critical especially during controversial and emotional debates. None of these must ever give way to popular political opinion. This is the evangelization challenge for all baptized Catholics. Nothing less than the truth – God’s truth – is at stake.
As we enter more deeply into the Advent season and prepare to celebrate Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation is a profound reminder that the Son of God took on human flesh in order to teach us how, as his brothers and sisters, to be fully obedient to the will of the Father. May this holiday season be a time of humility, renewal and recommitment for all of us to embrace fully and authentically the gift of our humanity, as did Jesus! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland