Does an erroneous conscience oblige us

This post continues the series on the authority of conscience.

It seems that an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to act in accordance with our conscience.

1. For the obligatory force of conscience is derived from the necessity of pursuing a good or avoiding an evil that conscience judges as something necessary to be chosen or avoided. But when conscience is in error, that which is judged to be an indispensable good or to be evil is not actually such. Therefore, an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to choose or avoid it.

2. Again, an erroneous conscience may be in contradiction to a higher law, such as the divine law. But a lower rule of our behavior, as conscience, cannot overrule a higher rule such as the divine law. Rather, when two rules conflict, we are obliged to follow the higher one. Therefore erroneous conscience at least does not always bind.

But against this stands the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states that “every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” (ST I-II, q. 19, a. 5) Therefore even an erring conscious obliges the will to follow it.

Further, the Church assembled in Council of Vatican II teaches, “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.” (Dignitatis humanae 3). The Catechism similarly states: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC 1790)

I respond that, as stated previously, conscience is a judgment by which constraints, or rules for action in relation to the attainment of happiness are known as applicable to specific concrete actions. Conscience always proposes something as a rule for a concrete action, which is to be done or avoided; for example, “I must complete this work assignment, as I have promised to”, or “I must not receive Holy Communion, because sacramental confession is necessary before every Holy Communion, and I have not been to confession since my last Holy Communion” Whether the rule or the application therefore is objectively correct, by conscience we hold something as a rule for a concrete action. And, given that conscience is erring, the discrepancy between the “objective” truth of the matter and the judgment of conscious is unknown. Otherwise conscious would not be erring, but still deliberating or doubtful.

Since we can and mustchoose the good and choose to avoid evil inasmuch as it is known to us, we are therefore obliged by conscience, even when this conscience is mistaken.

It is worth noting, however, that the feelings that correspond to conscience may sometimes counterfeit conscience, producing quasi-judgments about what we should do. For example, an emotionally and physically abused spouse might feel guilt at the thought of separating from an abusive spouse, and, corresponding to this guilt, the thought “I can’t do that!” They might continue to have such feelings and thoughts, even have careful, prayerful discernment that has lead to a prudent decision to separate, for their good and the good of the children.

We are not, in principle, bound by these feelings and thoughts, and especially not when they are in contradiction to the true judgment of conscience, which is not a feeling or impression, but a judgment of our mind according to the truth as best we are able to know it.

The response to the first is apparent from this. When a man has an erring conscience, he is not obliged to follow that conscience in virtue of the objective good or evil in the action in question, but in virtue of the good or evil which he believes to be in it. Thus, if a man believes that chewing the consecrated host when receiving Holy Communion is wicked, he is obliged to avoid choosing to do that, not because it is objectively a bad thing to do, but because his will relates to it in the way that he understands it, as a bad thing to do.

To the second we may reply that a higher rule can override the obligation of a lower rule only when the two rules can be separated from each other. For example, if a bishop orders that a priest remain in pastoral duty in his diocese rather than transfer to another diocese or pursue contemplative life, the pope could overrule this ruling of the bishop. But if the higher rule is only applied through the mediation of the lower rule, the higher rule cannot nullify the lower rule. If, for example, the priest could only knew the decision of the pope through the bishop’s order, he would be obliged to what the bishop claimed the pope had decided, whether the bishop was telling the truth or not. But morally binding laws are applied to specific acts through the judgment of conscience, and therefore we are bound to follow conscience, though it at times be objectively mistaken.

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