Conscience takes priority over church teaching, says Catholic Catechism

Analysis: Faithful have the right to act in conscience and freedom when making moral decisions

Judging by their attitudes to Yes voters in the referendum, it is clear some priests, and perhaps even a bishop, need to consult the Cathechism of the Catholic Church and documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Whether it comes to marriage in their church, the location of a Vincent de Paul clothes bank, or attendance at confession, Catholics who voted Yes in conscience need not heed such clergy. The weight of church teaching this past 50 years is on their side, not that of the finger-waggers.

It is simply not correct to say that people cannot be a Catholic and be in favour of abortion. Clearly that is the view of those 68 per cent of Yes voters in the May 25th referendum who described themselves as Catholic, according to the RTÉ exit poll.

Most attend Mass: 15 per cent weekly; another 15 per cent monthly; another 32 per cent less regularly. It amounts to over half of Catholics who voted Yes. Are we to conclude that Yes Catholics were irresponsible, immature? That “responsible” Catholics voted No? There is no evidence for that.


Nor did Yes Catholics act in haste. On being asked when they made up their minds, the RTÉ exit poll found 75 per cent of voters, including the Yes Catholics, “always knew” which way they would vote.

To underline this, five years ago in June 2013, 75 per cent of those polled in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll supported abortion where a mother's life and health, including mental health, were at risk, as then proposed by the then Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.


They have the Cathechism of the Catholic Church on their side. A 1992 volume dealt with the issue of conscience: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.”

Quoting the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, it continues: "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."

In forming their consciences, “the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the church”, though few Catholics in Ireland could be unaware of that following six abortion referendums since 1983.

In extolling conscience the Catechism quotes from another Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. It states: "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.

“For a man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary,” the document goes on, “There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

In summary, it is possible for a good Catholic in good faith to act contrary to the teachings of the church.

Such a view, of course, is abhorrent to traditional Catholics who believe the church’s teaching authority, its magisterium, must be followed unquestioningly.

Such people would have been happiest with the papacies of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI. Benedict is a follower of the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Even here, however, there is flexibility, not dogma. Speaking about conscience, Newman wrote: “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” And this: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ [a Catholic title for the Pope].”

Changing positions

The Catholic Church has changed its positions before. In 1986, Benedict, then Dean of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, described homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and “an objective disorder”.

Eight years ago, Benedict said homosexuality “remains contrary to the essence of what God originally willed”, adding that homosexuality among the clergy was “one of the miseries of the church” and was “incompatible with the priestly vocation”.

Three years later, however, his successor Pope Francis said, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? You should not discriminate against or marginalise these people.”

Last month he told Chilean abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz: “that you are gay does not matter. God made you like that and loves you like this and I don’t care. The Pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.”

Francis has not changed church teaching on homosexuality. He has just interpreted it differently. The same happened – if in reverse – on abortion. The Catholic Church had always said that abortion was sinful, but in 1969 it went further to call it homicide.

Before then, no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul and became a human being. “Ensoulment” was the word used to describe this. That, it said, took place at “quickening”, when there is the first movement in the womb.

In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s.

Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church. Even as recently as 1974 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged that the issue of ensoulment was still an open question.