What is the “Formation of Conscience?”

Papal theologian: “”Conscience is the act of practical reason”

Gay and lesbian Catholics who disagree with Church teaching on sexuality know that the  best defence against our critics is the primacy of conscience, which is well established in Catholic doctrine. It’s also a theme which had renewed attention during the recent Synod of Bishops’ assembly on marriage and family, the “inviolability of conscience” and the closely related “interior forum” received much attention.

Against this, orthotoxic rule book Catholics often retort that conscience is not simply giving way to personal feelings, but must be properly “formed”, implying that a well-formed conscience must be in accordance with the Catechism. The truth, however, is that accordance with conscience is neither a simple matter of licence, nor one of blind adherence to external rules.

So what is it? How are we to find a sound balance between these two extremes? Pope Francis’ personal theologian, Father Wojciech Giertych, put some important guidelines in an interview with Lifesite News.

He denied that conscience could be identified with mere feelings – but then, nobody seriously suggests anything so simplistic. What we have to do, he says, is to seek “the truth” of the matter by practical reason, and that means “taking all factors involved into account”. He also said that there are three specific criteria that determine an individual’s perception of the truth related to an act of conscience. These are the intention, the object of the act, and the circumstances. “If one is missing, then the whole act is inappropriate.”

That “all factors” is important, because it rules out limiting our consideration to the single source of the Catechism prohibitions under the sixth commandment.

Instead, we must also take into serious consideration, the rest of Catholic and biblical teaching on sexuality in general, what we know of sexuality outside of Catholic teaching, from science – the place of sexual ethics in Catholic teaching as a whole.

The Catechism, before passing out judgement on specific sexual acts,  makes some important general points. These include instructions to accept our sexual identity and integrate it into our personality.

Now, let us put all this together. From science, we know that a same – sex affectional orientation is entirely natural and non-pathological,. From scripture, we know that the Lord said “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a companion” (Genesis 2). From the Catechism we are told to accept and integrate our sexuality into our personality. By applying an act of reason to the circumstances of homosexuality, a judgement in conscience will see that there is a world of difference between a sexual expression of love between two men in a committed, faithful and permanent union, and a casual sexual experiment by an otherwise heterosexual, married man seeking some anonymous extramural gay sexual adventure. Between these two obvious extremes lie many intermediate areas, where the judgement of conscience will be less obvious.

Finally, we must also note that in the bigger picture of Catholic teaching as a whole,

There are varying levels of Church teaching, not all of which require absolute agreement. (Those that do, are recited in the Creed). Furthermore, there is the important doctrine on the “sensus fideii”, which states that Church teaching cannot err when it has the consent and agreement of the whole people of God.  It  should be obvious to all that the teaching on sexual ethics emphatically does NOT have that consent and agreement of the whole people.

(Source: Terence Weldon, at  Queering the Church)

4 comments to “What is the “Formation of Conscience?””
  1. ‘He denied that conscience could be identified with mere feelings – but then, nobody seriously suggests anything so simplistic. What we have to do, he says, is to seek “the truth” of the matter by practical reason, and that means “taking all factors involved into account”’

    Seems so left brain and masculine, furthermore, the reasoning seems to focus on physicality to the exclusion of other factors such as those associated with the mind and spirit (soul). Whole people often means men with disregard to what women might feel.

    • Thanks for the input, Claire. I can agree that seeking the truth by “practical reason” is a typically “male” response (with some reservations about stereotyping “male” vs “female” characteristics). I don’t see though, why “taking all factors” into account, is included in this. I would have thought that if anything, holistic thinking is more typically female?

      And although the passages quoted seem to focus on physicality, I certainly do not accept that that is implicit in the concept he presents. “All” must surely be understood to mean exactly that – which includes such matters as mind andt. spirit – and, to bring it close to home, matters of sexual orientation and fundamental gender identity.

      As noted in my response to an earlier comment, this whole issue needs further fleshing out. Your observations will be helpful in expanding the understanding of “all” factors.

    • Thanks Stephen. This whole issue needs further expansion. I’ll refer to your text, and refer to it as I dig in deeper. (If you can supply a page reference, I’ll cite it in this post)

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