Whose Conscience is it, Anyway?

For a long time, the Catholic Church’s teaching on conscience has both enlightened and troubled me. I’m heartened by article 1782 that states I have “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions,” and that I have this right especially in “religious matters.” This teaching is one of the reasons that I’ve stayed with Catholicism for so long. My conscience is loud–especially when it disagrees with authority.

Yet, it seems as though it’s too easy for authority to always have the last word. When I speak up in conscience to say something the Church doesn’t like, it can tell me that my conscience has been malformed if I reject the Church’s teachings (1792) or that my conscience is malformed due to a “habit of committing sin” (1791). Because I consistently disagree with many Church teachings on certain issues, it’s all too easy for someone to invalidate my conscience by citing my “habit” of “sins”(i.e.: dissenting opinions) of this nature.

I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, and I found the first line in Book Two, Chapter 4, in which Augustine writes of a “law that is written in men’s hearts [that] cannot be erased however sinful they are,” to be enlightening. This is in minor contradiction of the official teaching of the Catechism, which does cite sin as being capable of malforming a conscience. And yet, it’s St. Augustine’s profession that rings true in my heart–perhaps in that same place where my conscience lives.

I feel so strongly about many of my beliefs that are in opposition with official Church teaching because many of them absolutely precede the Church in my life. I believe I was literally born with these convictions stamped upon my heart. My parents never officially taught me about women’s or GLBTQ equality. Yet, when I got curious about the Church’s official teaching on homosexuality and looked it up, the first thought that entered my mind was, “They’re wrong.” At the age of 12, I wasn’t an activist for queer rights by any means. I participated in the homophobic jokes that are still so common among adolescents. And yet, the Church’s teaching absolutely refused to take root in my heart. I don’t think this was because my heart was hard, or because I’d sinned so much (at 12?), or because my conscience wasn’t properly formed. According to the Church’s formula for a properly formed conscience, my family had done everything right: I was baptized and raised in the Church, exposed to the Catechism and Catholicism and Scripture at least twice a week. And yet, even with all of this official doctrine forming my moral conscience, my heart said, “No. Absolutely not,” when it came to the Church’s stance on certain issues.

Here’s the law that I think is really written on our hearts: love. The love of God, and the love we’re meant to hold toward one another. I believe that we’re born knowing love–or at the very least, that it’s one of the first things we learn–but that learning hatred and prejudice takes years of training. The mother of a good friend of mine holds some moral views that I would consider “anti-gay.” Still, she never spoke of these issues when my friend was growing up, and by the time my friend learned her mother’s stance, it was irrelevant: she had already decided that folks all along the gender and sexuality spectrum should enjoy the same rights and respect as everyone else.

When I think of people who feel vehemently attached to some of the Church’s more hurtful stances, I know that many of them were raised by adults who felt compelled to totally indoctrinate their children regarding those issues. It seems that hearts, when “left alone,” choose acceptance. I think our hearts are formed ready to love, but that they can be taught to hate. Unfortunately, a lot of people have learned fear, hatred, and prejudice and dressed it up as holiness. And I won’t let them tell me that my conscience is malformed.

Lacey Louwagie is a freelance writer and editor, feminist, and cradle Catholic. Her favorite topics of exploration are religion, spirituality, psychology, and sexuality. She’s a member of the CTA blog team and founder of a speculative fiction writers’ group. In addition to blogging here, she blogs about writing at LL Word.

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