peterson_saraIn the very first column I wrote for (Natural Family Planning  - Why Not?) I mentioned that the issue of freedom of conscience could be a column (or perhaps book would have been more accurate) in and of itself.  Well, here at last, is that column.

I would be willing to wager a month's worth of bathroom cleaning that every single person reading this column has heard someone say, "I know the Church teaches that using contraception is wrong, but my conscience tells me otherwise and the Church also teaches that I must follow my conscience."  What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act he is going to perform, is in the process of performing or has already completed," (1778) and in Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II says that "the judgment of conscience has an imperative character: man must act in accordance with it."

So a person's conscience is not her feelings about something, but rather the use of her intellect and reason to determine what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, and once a person has carefully and objectively considered the situation and determines what she believes to be right, she is morally obligated to follow that judgment even if it will be difficult, costly or unpleasant.

So far, so good. Almost everyone, Catholic or not, understand the moral obligation to do what one believes to be right (to follow one's conscience) up to this point, but to stop here and claim that all that is required of me is to carefully consider the situation and then do whatever I believe to be best is an incomplete and badly distorted understanding of authentic Catholic teaching.  Because there is no reference to an objective standard of right and wrong - because ultimately I alone decide for myself what is right and what is not - this kind of  "freedom of conscience" is nothing more than simple moral relativism.

Catholics believe in objective truth and recognize the Catholic Church as the teacher of that truth.  So simply by acknowledging ourselves as Catholics we claim to accept the authority of the Church to inform our consciences through Her teachings.  Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "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 law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. The faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason. They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church." (2034, 2037)

So really there are two parts to the obligation to follow one's conscience.  One must first properly form one's conscience by accepting the official teachings of the Church in matters of faith and morals (and this unquestionably includes the area of sexual ethics and family planning) before making a "judgment of reason" about a particular act.  The teachings of the Church are to be the starting point for determining whether a given act is right or wrong and we are always morally obligated to adhere to these teachings as we work out their particular application in our lives. Or, put another way, "Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church." (CCC 2039)

As an example of how this works, the Catechism tells us that, "for just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children," but we are cautioned that it is every couple's "duty to make certain that their desire [to postpone or avoid pregnancy] is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood." (2368) There is, however, no official Catholic list or formula for determining what constitutes such a just and unselfish reason.  Husbands and wives must prayerfully examine their particular situation, weigh these two requirements (generosity and responsibility) against each other and arrive at a decision about their own, unique family circumstances.  No one can do this for them and it is their moral obligation to follow the dictates of their consciences once they have arrived at a decision.

On the other hand, we are also told that "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" -  that is, contraception is intrinsically evil (2370) and here there is no need (or room) for interpretation.  That contraception is evil and always immoral applies to every person in every situation and we are morally obligated to accept this truth as the starting point for any consideration of whether or how to space or limit the births of our children

And what of the objection that we free to disregard Church teaching on some particular matter because the Church doesn't always teach infallibly? As any skeptic will point out, there have been many occasions on which officials of the Church - even popes - have proclaimed untruths and you have probably heard someone use this argument to justify picking and choosing which teachings to follow.  The fact is, however, that matters of faith or morals which all bishops gathered throughout the world have, at any point in history, declared to be held definitively are taught infallibly* and the intrinsic, universal evil of contraception is one of these (prior to 1930 all Christian denominations - not just the Catholic Church -  held that contraception was always gravely immoral).

Finally, it is important to understand that no one, including individual priests or bishops, can release us from the moral obligation to follow the Church's teaching on contraception.  Freedom of conscience is, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "never freedom from the truth but always and only freedom in the truth." (Veritatis Splendor)

* It is beyond the scope of this column to explain in detail the different ways in which the Church teaches infallibly, but for those who are interested there is an excellent article (The Magisterium and Moral Norms) on this subject it volume 7.3 of Envoy Magazine.  Visit for subscription information or to order a copy of this particular volume.

To read more about the teaching authority of the Church and the formation of conscience see the Catechism of the Catholic Church sections 1776-1802 and 2030-2040, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor and the book Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, & Defense by Rev. Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle Jr. and William E. May.

Copyright 2009 Sara Fox Peterson