Reviving the Role of Conscience in Catholic LGBT Discussions

Often left out of the Catholic hierarchical discourse about the morality of lesbian and gay relationships is the very important Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience.  For the record, here is what the Catholic Catechism says about the importance of obeying one’s conscience:

“A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.” (Section 1790)

The Catechism says a lot more about  conscience, too, but no other statement contradicts the directive quoted above.  In fact, the Catechism quotes the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), section 16, which offers a reason why conscience must be respected above all other rules and laws:

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

[To view the Catechism’s full text about conscience, click here.]

Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Recently, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany, discussed the teaching on with a German magazine, and he specifically applied the teaching to homosexuality. Crux reported on the interview:

“German Cardinal Reinhard Marx has stated that decisions about sexual morality must be discerned according to a well-formed conscience, respecting “the interplay of freedom and responsibility.”

“The chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference said in a new interview that a person ‘has to be guided into the full reality of the faith and heed the voice of the Church. It is not sufficient to say that one knows by oneself whether something is good for you, or not. That would not constitute a conscientious decision-making process in the context of the Gospel.’

“Speaking to the German magazine Herder Korrespondenz, Marx affirmed that this also applies to homosexuality.

A ‘truly comprehensive assessment of the severity of guilt’ is not possible without looking at the individual’s conscience, without looking at his reality, at the concrete circumstances.”

“Marx warned against interpreting this ‘interplay of freedom and responsibility’ as ‘relativism,’ saying that while ‘there must be respect for the decision that one freely takes,’ it is always within the context of the Gospel.

“ ‘It would be quite terrible to consider this as relativism, like some indeed have repeatedly claimed, as though everyone could just go about doing whatever they please.’ “

Marx’s comments on consistent with the Catechism’s teaching on conscience which also stresses that a person must have an informed conscience and that prayer and reflection on Scripture, Jesus’ passion and sacrifice, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, advice from others, and  church teaching are parts of the process of conscience formation.  In section 1785, the Catechism states:

“In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are 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.”

I am reminded by what I heard eminent theologian Father Charles Curran say in a talk on conscience.  Curran remarked that the Catholic view on conscience does not conform with the American idea of “rugged individualism,” which prizes people making independent decisions.  The Catholic view of conscience is more of a communal process in which the individual makes a decision by considering the wisdom of our faith tradition and comes to a decision based on conversation and interaction with other people, not alone.

Marx’s comments about “concrete circumstances” also reminded me of what Baltimore’s Archbishop William Borders said about making conscience decisions.  In those situations, Borders said:

” ‘. . . the role of the conscience is that of a judge, not a teacher; . . . conscience does not teach what is good or evil, nor does it create good or evil. It weight accumulated data, makes a judgement in very concrete, not theoretical, situations, the concrete situations’ of one’s life.” (quoted in the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s 1983 pastoral plan, A Ministry to Lesbian and Gay Catholic Persons:  Rationale for Ministry)

Marx’s intervention is consistent with the approach of Pope Francis who said this about conscience in Amoris Laetitia:

“Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”. (section 302)

“. . . [E]very effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.” (section 303)

It is very good that Marx has reintroduced the idea of conscience into the Catholic discussion of sexuality.  It has been absent from the discussion for far too long.  Most famously, the U.S. bishops had made a decision to eliminate a discussion of conscience which had appeared in an early draft of their 1997 document Always Our Children (about pastoral ministry to parents with lesbian/gay children) from its final version.

Conscience is not an “escape clause” in church teaching, and neither is it an opportunity for people to make decisions willy-nilly.  The teaching on conscience is a foundational teaching of the Catholic Church because it describes the most important aspect of faith: the relationship of God with each of God’s beloved.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 20, 2018

6 replies
  1. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. ” — But yet, my (former) pastor assured me, my 50-year-old conscience was not fully formed if it led me to accept and embrace my LGBTQ son, his path forward and his loving relationships, and if I rejected what the pastor called “our Lord’s teachings” on homosexuality. I fear this prominent pastor has caused estrangement in many Catholic families. (Our PFLAG chapter has encountered a number of anguished parents from his parish. )

    Reply
    • Kris
      Kris says:

      I’m sorry, but such pastors as this man, including Cardinal Marx, have really no regard for the primacy of personal conscience. When they speak of conscience, what they actually mean is ‘ a person’s following the moral norms set down for him or her by others. It is a form of tyranny, and tyranny usually ends in revolt and revolution.

      Tell your son to love well: to love self-sacrificingly. He won’t need to look for Jesus, for he will already be there.

      Reply
  2. Thomas Smith
    Thomas Smith says:

    Thank you, Francis, for this thoughtful take on the Primacy of Conscience. We are re-discovering the timeless truths so eloquently expressed by Thomas Aquinas: “The same act which is right and good for one person according to their circumstances may not right and good for another according to their circumstances.”

    I love my Larry. I see the face of God in his kindness, his generosity and his attentiveness. This fact is stronger than any theology.

    Reply

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