Thread ID: 7 At 4/1/2008 6:16:50 PM Alistair wrote:

True or False: "You are obliged to follow your conscience but if your conscience takes you outside the Catholic Church, you have to follow your conscience and leave the Catholic Church."


Mike Augros Answers

This question is a particular case of the question regarding an erring conscience: Does an erring conscience oblige us to act in accord with it?

If we assume that the Catholic Church is or can be in error, or that being in it is or can be bad for someone, then the answer to the question is obviously “Yes, if your conscience takes you outside the Catholic Church, you must follow it.” There is no difficulty in that case.

A Catholic, however, must believe that being in the Church cannot really be bad for someone, and that the greatest good for any person is impossible for him to achieve except by being, in some way (even if unwittingly), a member of the Church. And yet, among the people who leave the Church, not all do so because of weakness or malice, but some do so while believing that what they are doing is the right thing, and even think that remaining in the Church would be wrong or hypocrisy since they no longer believe in what the Church teaches. Hence the difficulty arises: Are they obliged to follow their conscience, which is leading them to do something which is not really good for them, or are they obliged to disobey their conscience, which seems inexcusable?

St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether an erring conscience binds someone to act in accord with it (see, for instance, De Veritate Q17 A4). His answer is yes—although there is a slight distinction between the way that a true conscience and an erring conscience binds. The true conscience binds simply and absolutely, as a man who knows adultery is wrong is simply bound not to commit adultery. But the false conscience binds only on a condition, namely as long as the man is still possessed of a false conscience, since he can lose that false understanding without sin. For instance, someone who thinks it is a sin to drink coffee is bound, so long as he truly thinks this, not to drink coffee; but he is not simply bound not to drink it, since he might some day realize it is not a sin, and then he may drink it without sin. Again, the true conscience binds per se, whereas the false conscience binds per accidens. We are obliged to follow a true conscience precisely because it is true, but we are obliged to follow a false conscience not because it is false, but because we think it is true—in other words, not because of what it is, but because of our mistaking it for something it is not.

Hence a man sins by leaving the Mormon Church if he believes it to be the will of God for him to remain in it, and a man sins by attending the Catholic mass if he does this only to please his wife, while believing his action is an offense to Allah. And a man does not sin if he abandons the Catholic Church after he has become convinced that it is the Whore of Babylon.

One must understand, in all of this, that the badly formed conscience must not be badly formed by one’s own sin or negligence. A badly formed conscience neither excuses nor obliges me if it is badly formed because of my prior vice, or because I refused to look far enough into the truth for fear of having to change my life or habits, or else out of indifference. Hence a vicious man’s conscience might not bother him anymore, but that does not excuse anything he has done—he has voluntarily silenced his conscience, so that his silence cannot excuse him. Similarly, a man who gets drunk of his own accord and gets behind the wheel might not be able to see where he is going, or he might drive in a way that corresponds to his blurred or distorted vision, but he is not excused for any accidents he might cause, since his lack of coordination and vision resulted from his own choice.

When a person leaves the Catholic Church, then, everything depends upon his own understanding of what he is doing. Christ says that “No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:62) He is speaking of the man who leaves the Church not because he thinks it is false, but because, knowing it is the truth, he does not wish to live according to that truth, or because, through his own lack of interest in the truth, he has neglected to consider the teachings of the Church so that his faith in them could endure the transition from spiritual childhood into spiritual adulthood. A child’s understanding of the faith is usually insufficient to meet the attacks upon it which come with a growth of knowledge and experience—hence we are generally obliged to take the time, as we grow older, to mature in our practice and in our understanding of our faith, lest it die.

But suppose a child is raised by abusive “Catholic” parents, who are drug addicts, or porn addicts, or who cheat on one another, and who “teach” their child the Catholic faith in a version all their own, filled with errors etc. Suppose further that every Catholic thing the child encounters in life is repugnant—priests who molest children, and stories of the Spanish Inquisition, of burning scientists and artists at the stake, of selling indulgences, of fornicating and murderous popes, and on and on. When such a child grows up, and “abandons the Catholic Church,” might it not be truer to say he has abandoned a mockery of the Church, since that is all he ever had presented to him? And what reason would he have to investigate the Church any further, or according to what general rule could we expect him to do so?

There does remain some question as to divine providence. Why would God allow such a soul to have no other experience of the Catholic Church than a predominantly negative one? We are tempted to think God would never allow this, and therefore anyone who remains outside the Catholic Church, by choice, for his entire life, is guilty of some sin.

I do not think that is the truth. God allowed many thousands of years to go by in human history before there was a Catholic Church. God allows millions of souls to grow up in Islam, surrounded by Islam, with not a word about Christianity, or only bad words about it. And experience seems to show that there are as many saints who do not call themselves “Catholic” as there are villains who do.

While the Catholic Church is the ark of salvation, and no one gets to the shore of eternal life except by being inside it, there are different ways of being inside the Church. Perhaps it is important to God, to his purposes in human history, to show that mere orthodoxy is not the same as sanctity.