1. Primacy of Conscience - Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to develop an informed conscience and to act in accord with it.
On its surface, this statement seems innocuous, and to a certain degree, it's correct. As Catholics, we are obligated to follow our conscience. No one can be forced to act against their conscience (one of the reasons the Church doesn't recognize forced baptisms). The problems begin when you start scraping away the surface.
It is telling that this is the first Right in their list. It's as if they're claiming that the Church (i.e., the Hierarchy) refuses to allow anyone to follow their conscience. Which of course is untrue. A cursory reading of the Catechism (paragraphs 1776-1802) disproves that notion.
This first 'right' forms the underpinning of their entire structure - and a little analysis shows that, while it is true that we must listen to our conscience and act in accordance with it, the ACC has omitted and/or distorted aspects of the Primacy of Conscience. Such omissions and distortions contribute to a weakened and insufficient foundation.
The Church, to the best of my knowledge, has never stated that we must develop a merely "informed conscience". A vague descriptor as 'informed' begs the questions: Informed by what, and by whom?
Paragraph 1783 of the CCC, in part, explains: "Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator." I think the key words in that passage are "moral judgment", "well-formed" (which is by degree greater than informed) and "conformity with the true good". All so very important. And Paragraph 1785 expounds on this formation: "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. (emphasis mine)
The ACC provides some theological rationale to support the Primacy of Conscience, which can be found here. They quote the Catechism, albeit quite selectively, as well as two passages from Vatican II documents. They admit that the references are "not comprehensive nor exclusive". One would think, though, that their reference ought to be their strongest arguments. With that in mind, it is not what they cite that is troublesome, but in what they fail to cite.
From the catechism, only Paragraphs 1782, 1783, 1784 (which is truncated) and 1790 are referenced. They totally reject paragraph 1785, and omit paragraphs 1791-1794, which complete the section on "Erroneous Judgment", started in paragraph 1790. To be a fully mature Catholic, it would seem that the entire section needs to be considered. And what I find telling in their omission is Paragraph 1792: "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 in moral conduct." (emphases mine)
Bottom line for the ACC crowd - they're conflating primacy of conscience with autonomy of conscience. These are not synonymous terms. As St. Thomas once said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I am obliged to follow my conscience, but my conscience might be wrong."
There is no room in the ACC's collective hive for the notion that their consciences might be wrong and misguided. A person's sincere belief in following their conscience does not automatically confer rightness in those beliefs. They've convinced themselves that sola conscientia - by conscience alone - will guide them safely along the narrow path to salvation. Now, don't get me wrong - I judge no one's ultimate eternal resting place. But based on observable objective reasoning here, can it really be said that to oppose Church teaching on subjects such as contraception, women's ordination and abortion - which according to the ACC is fine because they're only following their formed consciences - means that they're on the road to heaven? I find that hard, if not impossible, to justify.
And neither does the Holy Father. In his book On Conscience, written when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he writes:
"It is, of course, undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience, or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience, or what one takes to be such, is always right - indeed, whether it is infallible - is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth - at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas that constitute the very pillars of our existence."¹Social conformity - if you notice, many of the ideas the ACC promulgates reflect ones that our culture has accepted and promotes. In other words, they have adopted the culture's conscience - it is the culture that has primarily informed their conscience - and have thus conformed their beliefs to the prevailing attitudes than try and transform the culture by way of authentic Christian example and evangelization.
"Liberalism's idea of conscience was, in fact, presupposed here: Conscience does not open the way to the redemptive road to truth - which either does not exist or, if it does, is too demanding. It is the faculty that dispenses with truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which would not like to have itself called into question. Similarly, it becomes the justification for social conformity."²
More from On Conscience:
"...this conversation became glaringly clear a little later in a dispute among colleagues about the justifying power of the erroneous conscience. Objecting to this thesis, someone countered that if this were so, then the Nazi SS would be justified and we should seek them in heaven, since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience. Another colleague responded with utmost assurance that, of course, this was indeed the case: There is no doubting the fact that Hitler and his accomplices, who were deeply convinced of their cause, could not have acted otherwise. Therefore, the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their (albeit mistaken) consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation.I didn't provide that quote to equate the ACC with Hitler - honest! But it provides the framework for the idea that says: God is obligated to honor a person who faithfully followed their erroneous conscience, and grant them salvation as a result. No one can be forced to act against their conscience - erroneous or not. But God is not obliged to accept a person's faithful willfulness to be disobedient in good conscience. If that were the case, then why struggle with truth, goodness, sacrifice or morals?
"Since that conversation, I knew with complete certainty that something was wrong with the theory of the justifying power of the subjective conscience - that, in other words, a concept of conscience that leads to such results must be false."³
One final quote:
"Some thirty years later, in the terse words of psychologist Albert Görres, I found summarized the perceptions I was trying to articulate. The elaboration of his insights forms the heart of this address. Görres shows that the feeling of guilt, the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to the spiritual make-up of man. This feeling of guilt disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience's complaint against my self-satisfied existence. It is as necessary for man as the physical pain that signifies disturbances of normal bodily functioning. Whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill, "a living corpse, a dramatic character's mask," as Görres says."⁴Guilt is a four letter word to the ACC. It's like sunlight to a troll. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is never made available at their gatherings, or at Call-to-Action events, because to do so would actually awaken their consciences. There is no room in their theology for personal sin - accept for the sin of not following their conscience. But it is a healthy sense of guilt that gives life to our conscience - ignore or suppress or avoid feelings of guilt, and you starve the conscience. Starve the conscience, and a person is liable to justify any behavior as okee-dokee, and convince themselves and others that what they do is just, right and good.
The ACC may claim "primacy of conscience", but in the end, what they get is "deprivation of conscience".
(Part Three will look at the 2nd right: Community: Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in a faith community and the right to responsible pastoral care.)
1. Ratzinger, On Conscience (2007 Ignatius Press), pg 12
2. ibid, 16
3. ibid, 17
4. ibid, 18