Conscience is never just a matter of personal opinion or “a pious alibi for doing what we want, or what might get us elected,” says Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
In a recent column in the Denver Catholic Register, the archbishop tries to clarify the teaching on conscience in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and what it actually means.
Often, laments the archbishop, Catholics do not understand the teaching and interpret it to justify their personal opinions and preferences.
“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,” wrote the archbishop.
“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,” said the archbishop.
“Rather, conscience must seek truth out, and conform itself to the truth once discovered — no matter how inconvenient,” he said.
Vatican II states that, in 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,” the bishop pointed out.
“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,” he said.
“America's Founding Fathers did not say, and never intended, that religious faith should be excluded from civic debate,” said Archbishop Chaput. “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,” the bishop concluded. “That's dishonest. And God made us for something better than that.”