Last week I came across a publication explicitly dedicated to lobbying for abortion… and simultaneously claiming to be Catholic. (See my footnote for more on abortion.)
Inside the magazine’s front cover was a list of several quotations. Among them: “Conscience is the most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes). “A good conscience is the palace of Christ” (St. Augustine). “I shall drink — to the pope if you please — still to conscience first and to the pope afterwards” (Bl. John Henry Newman). “He who acts against his conscience always sins” (St. Thomas Aquinas).
The implication, of course, is that the Church may say that abortion is a grave moral evil, but if your conscience tells you otherwise, then abortion isn’t wrong for you. This (mistaken) conclusion is related to moral relativism, of course, yet it also springs from understandable confusion over the relationship between one’s individual conscience and the Church’s authority. Confusion on this point is understandable: The Church simultaneously teaches that “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (no matter what his conscience is telling him) and that the moral law “is universal in its precepts” with authority over all people.
So there seem to be two commandments: 1) Obey your conscience and 2) Obey the moral law, which the Church authoritatively teaches and explains. For many people, these two dictates sometimes point in opposite directions. So how are they compatible?
In a nutshell: They’re compatible because your conscience can be wrong… and you are morally responsible for making it right, i.e., for bringing it into alignment with the moral law. Sounds a bit harsh, but think of it this way: Everyone knows that slavery is wrong. But for hundreds of years, self-proclaimed Christians owned slaves and often whipped or raped them. We now condemn the slaveowners for doing this, even though their consciences (apparently) didn’t tell them slavery was wrong. Whatever their cultural background or family upbringing, they should have recognized that slavery is an objective moral wrong and is completely incompatible with Christianity.
So virtually 100% of people believe the Church’s teaching on conscience and authority when it comes to slavery (when it comes to issues directly related to their own lives, however, they may not). They realize that there is such a thing as an objective moral law (slavery is wrong!) and that everyone’s conscience is accountable to the moral law. Slaveowners were guilty of sin not because their consciences condemned slavery (since apparently their consciences did not) but because they neglected to form their consciences, replacing God’s commands with social norms and utilitarian considerations.
Similarly, a murderer may not feel guilty for killing someone — his conscience may not say “Don’t do this, murder is wrong!” But he remains guilty of murder because he so radically neglected the proper formation of his conscience, or (more likely) because he so determinedly ignored his conscience that he managed to pervert its original accordance with the moral law.
Of course, there are degrees of guilt and responsibility. If the murderer was physically abused as a child, abandoned by his parents, and forced into a gang as a teenager — thus lacking a moral education and never experiencing God’s love — he would be less guilty for committing murder than a sane, well-educated Christian murderer would be. For the protection of society, the court system puts murderers in jail without making these distinctions. The Church, in her mercy, does. Yet note the general emphasis on moral responsibility.
To bring this post full-circle, the Church teaches that abortion is always wrong even if your conscience does not condemn it. The Church cannot err; your conscience, however, can. For a more extended reflection on these issues, read Pope Benedict’s lecture “Conscience and Truth,” which he delivered (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) to a conference of bishops in 1991.
To close with St. Paul:
I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.
Footnote: I am not condemning women who have had abortions. Though Catholics believe that abortion is wrong, we recognize that many women feel pressured or forced to have abortions and that they suffer greatly as a result. If you’re hurting from an abortion, I would refer you to Project Rachel, the Sisters of Life, and your local parish, which can help you find healing and peace.
If you’re pro-choice, I would ask you to consider the evidence that abortion hurts women and that human life begins at conception. Abortion is not just another surgical procedure; it ends the life of a human being.