Week of April 21, 2004

What Vatican II did, and didn't, teach about conscience

Elections and voting booths are never `faith-free' zones

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Vatican II must be the most widely praised and rarely followed council in Catholic history — at least when it comes to candidates and voters.

Catholics who appeal to the "spirit of Vatican II" and claim to be following their consciences when they ignore Catholic teaching on issues of vital public importance would be wise to revisit what the council actually said.

What did Vatican II teach about conscience?

The council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) defines conscience "as man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one's neighbor" (16).

The council added that, "Through loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems that arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience (emphasis added) prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct" (16).

In its Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), the council went on to say that, "It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity, so that he may come to God, who is his last end. Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (3). So far, so good. We're always obligated to follow our consciences. But, if we're serious in our Catholic faith, we also need to acknowledge that conscience does not "invent" truth. Rather, conscience must seek truth out, and conform itself to the truth once discovered — no matter how inconvenient. Conscience is never just a matter of personal opinion or private preference. It never exists in a vacuum of individual sovereignty. It is not a pious alibi for doing what we want, or what might get us elected.

Here's the key to understanding conscience:

Just as John the Baptist demanded conversion, repentance, humility and honesty from ancient Israel, so a right conscience speaks to the individual heart. And always, as Vatican II noted in its Declaration on Religious Liberty, ". . . (I)n forming their consciences, the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority (emphasis added) the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature" (14).

Vatican II can never be invoked as an alibi for Catholics ignoring grave public evil or failing to act on their faith in the political sphere. That's a distortion of the council's message. It also misreads the U.S. Constitution. America's Founding Fathers did not say, and never intended, that religious faith should be excluded from civic debate. They intended one thing only: to prevent the establishment of an official state church. A purely secular interpretation of the "separation of church and state" would actually result in the "separation of state and morality." And that would be a catastrophe for real pluralism and the democratic process.

If we're sincere about our faith, "conscience" can never be used as an excuse for dismissing what the Church teaches by pointing to her theological critics, voter surveys or public opinion polls, and then doing what we find more convenient. That's dishonest. And God made us for something better than that.