Dear Grace, I am confused about something. If the Church teaches that we
should follow our conscience, but then turns around and teaches us that we must
obey Church teaching, then what is the difference? Who am I supposed to follow,
the Church’s teaching or my own conscience? How will I know what is the right
thing to do?
Yes, it is true that the Church teaches that no person must be forced to act
contrary to his/her conscience. Nor must they be prevented from acting according
to their conscience, especially in religious matters (Dignitatis Humanae).
The reason that the Church can teach this, however, is because she knows that
“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" (CCC 1776).
What the Church is telling us is that when we truly listen to our conscience, we
will hear God speaking to us. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God;
He made us and we are on a journey back to Him. He wants for us to be very
happy, and, because He made us, He knows best all that is good for us. So, He
builds inside us this conscience through which He will try to guide and lead us
to do what is good and right.
In this life, we will face many serious, moral decisions, and we will have
choices to make. These choices cannot be made blindly. In other words, our
conscience must be informed. This means that we must first take certain steps to
learn everything we can in regard to what we are trying to make a decision
about. This is called discernment.
Let us say that you are a parent, and your son or daughter has come to you and
asked you to help them to have an abortion. This would certainly be a grave
moral decision requiring the formation of conscience. What do you do? The first
thing to do is to listen to what the Church has to say on the matter and why.
Remember that the Church was established by Jesus Christ (who was God Himself)
and given authority by Him to teach in His name. So, when we listen to the
Church, we hear God. In a case as grave as abortion, what the Church teaches
should be what we follow because she speaks for God and teaches infallibly in
matters of faith and morals.
In making decisions or choices that are less grave, there are additional steps
we can take to inform our conscience in order to do what is right before God. We
should consult professionals and get expert advice. Find out what is involved in
any procedures that will be required. Then, seek advice from trusted friends and
family or anyone who might have gone through the same experience. Finally, take
the matter before the Lord in prayer, asking Him to reveal to you through your
conscience what you should do.
When you have done all these things, make your decision, and move forward. This
way, even if you make a mistake, you will be able to say to God that you did all
you could; you did your best. He knows our hearts and minds and will know if we
are sincere. You see, the Church can say “follow your conscience” because she
knows that if you truly listen to God in your conscience, then what you hear
will be no different than what the Church teaches, for she teaches only what God
has revealed to her. There is no conflict between following your conscience and
following the Church.
Grace MacKinnon. "Decisions of Conscience." (June, 2003).