An evil letter in the New York Times about primacy of conscience

This is a letter to the New York Times from the head of the dissident, pro-abortion group Catholics for Choice.  My emphases and comments.


November 22, 2008
The Catholic Conscience [More and more we will see this word "conscience" misused by dissenters.]

To the Editor:

Re “Protests Over a Bush Rule to Protect Health Providers” (news article, Nov. 18), about the rule that prohibits anyone receiving federal funds from discriminating against providers who refuse to perform abortions for religious or moral reasons:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association may be behind the new rule, but their support does not reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching and the views of Catholics[Get that?  The "fullness" of "Catholic" teaching.  Now the writer will attempt to show how his position reflects the "fullness" of Catholic teaching, as if he somehow speaks magisterially.]

Catholic tradition requires Catholics to follow their own well-formed consciences ["well-formed"] even if it conflicts with church teaching. [Here is the problem: a "well-formed" conscience will not conflict with the Church’s teaching.  A "well-formed" conscience adheres to the truth.  I think the problem here rests in the difference between "well-formed" and "well-informed".  There is a difference between having ingested a lot of information and then making a decision about it and, on the other hand, making a decision to adhere to the truth as taught by the Church.  It seems to me that Catholics who desire that their consciences truly be "well-formed" give a logical priority to what the Church has to say, rather than reducing the Church’s teaching to one component, even an important one, among many necessary components.] As the Catechism notes, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.”  [Folks… get ready.  Mark my words, we will hear more and more about this "primacy of conscience" argument as something that trumps the clear teachings of the Church.  It will be used, by Catholics, as a justification for evil actions.]

Catholic teaching also requires respect for others’ consciences. Doctors and pharmacists cannot dismiss the conscience of the person seeking a medication or a procedure to which they themselves may object. For example, they may not ignore the needs of patients who may not be Catholic, or who have made conscience-based decisions to use contraception[So, this writer thinks that a Catholic physician with a "well-formed" conscience, recognizing the absolute primacy of the conscience of another, can then, in "good" conscience perform an abortion.  What he has done is make another person’s conscience the touchstone of your own moral decisions.  Another person’s conscience can "permit" you to do x, y, z.]

One hopes that the bishops are not suggesting that the only well-formed conscience is one that is in lockstep with their own interpretation of Catholic teaching. That would, in fact, be the antithesis of a well-formed conscience.  [The Church does not say that non-Catholics must give consent of mind and will to Catholic teaching.  The Church says that Catholics must give that consent, and that their consciences of Catholics are well-formed when they embrace what the Catholic Church teaches.]

Jon O’Brien
President, Catholics for Choice
Washington, Nov. 18, 2008


What Jon O’Brien wrote was evil.

Let us drill into what he used as his foundation, namely, that "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience." 

This is the first sentence in the first article in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on "Erroneous Judgment"

Let’s have a look:


1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.  [This is why, above, I made a distinction between "well-formed" and " well-informed".  Clearly, many people know lots of facts, but they make the wrong decisions anyway.  Something is missing from their formation.]

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, [here we have the problem of scandal.  Many people see prominent "Catholics" acting in a certain way and they, on their example, follow suit.  This is why Holy Church imposes censures on some people who commit public sins which give scandal.  It is a way for the Church to say "What that person does is not Catholic and he is harming the unity of the Church and endangering souls.] enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, [Did you get that?  "Assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience".  The writer, above, does precisely that.  As a matter of fact, he goes so far as to say that the autonomous conscience of another person can justify you doing what you, in your autonomous conscience, know is evil.] rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, [The Church does have authority to teach on this matter and she has taught.] lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

1793 If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, [that is, the person just can’t learn the truth] or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, [for example, he has been completely misinformed, as might be the case in a person brain-washed in a fundamentalist ideology] the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. [There is a distinction between the objectively sinful act and the guilt one has, as the subject who committed the act.] One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.  [This is a spiritual work of mercy, because it helps that person to edge back from the chasm of evil, the risk of committing scandal, and the ultimate peril of hell.]

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, [true faith, I think, for Catholics is shaped by the Faith.] for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith."

    The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.

Just above this section we read in article 

1785 In the formation of conscience the [1] Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the [2] Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the [3] gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the [4] witness or advice of others and guided by the [4] authoritative teaching of the Church.

Now go back and read that wicked letter in the NYT:


November 22, 2008
The Catholic Conscience

To the Editor:

Re “Protests Over a Bush Rule to Protect Health Providers” (news article, Nov. 18), about the rule that prohibits anyone receiving federal funds from discriminating against providers who refuse to perform abortions for religious or moral reasons:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association may be behind the new rule, but their support does not reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching and the views of Catholics.

Catholic tradition requires Catholics to follow their own well-formed consciences even if it conflicts with church teaching. As the Catechism notes, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.”

Catholic teaching also requires respect for others’ consciences. Doctors and pharmacists cannot dismiss the conscience of the person seeking a medication or a procedure to which they themselves may object. For example, they may not ignore the needs of patients who may not be Catholic, or who have made conscience-based decisions to use contraception.

One hopes that the bishops are not suggesting that the only well-formed conscience is one that is in lockstep with their own interpretation of Catholic teaching. That would, in fact, be the antithesis of a well-formed conscience.

Jon O’Brien
President, Catholics for Choice
Washington, Nov. 18, 2008


More and more we will see some Catholics base their claims on the "primacy of conscience".  Be on guard for their errors.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Thomas says:

    Father Z,

    I know how tiring and frustrating it gets to have to constantly refute the same wickedness and stupidity time and time again. Thank you for keeping up the fight anyway. It’s greatly appreciated and it IS effective.

  2. Padre Steve says:

    I posted this on my blog yesterday:
    I think we have to get ready for more of these kinds of attacks on the faith. So many Catholics don’t know their faith and are better formed by the culture than by the Church! We have to get ready for a real spiritual battle.

  3. Fr. BJ says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for this post. I am going to bookmark it for future reference. I think it might come in handy for a future homily which I will most certainly have to preach on this topic.

  4. Tomás López says:

    I noticed that the organization is called Catholics for Choice. Is this the same as Catholics for a Free Choice? Has a word in the name been accidentally omitted, have they changed their name, or is this yet another group of crazies?

  5. Aric says:

    A few years ago I was out with some friends and acquaintances at a bar in Washington, DC. One of the people I had not met introduced herself as working at Catholics for a Free Choice. I was kind of stunned. But I found a silver lining in her working for them. It meant that she was no longer with her former employer, underneath Gus DiNoia in the doctrine office of the USCCB.

  6. David Osterloh says:

    I’ve got plenty of wood, anyone have a box of “catholic matches” handy? its time for the church to smoke em if you got em, (only kidding) but it’s an idea

  7. Ave Maria says:

    This morning as I and 3 other ladies prayed our rosary in front of the local campus abortion mill, the brisk business of the morning saddened my heart. Cars from the next state were pulling in as well.

    It seems to me that so many have become slaves to immorality and the culture of death.

    This is a spiritual battle at the core! I recall the talk from Fr. John Hardon that says that there is no stopping of abortion without the Eucharist. We must go to Christ. May we all consider, especially in this coming time of Advent, a weekly or-better yet if possible-a holy hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the end of abortion, the conversion of hearts and the healing and reconciliation of all those who are or have been involved in the intrinsic evil of abortion.

  8. Lepanto says:

    This letter which Fr. Z. rightfully calls “evil” and “wicked” makes it abundantly clear why Dante devoted the largest part of Inferno to the eighth circle full of the fraudulent and deceivers.

    It’s easy to be brought to hatred by such things, and it is a challenge to pray for those who perpetrate such scandal and outrage as our Lord wants us to do.

  9. avecrux says:

    All these mental gymnastics they try to perform to deny a doctor or pharmacist the right to say “I will not help you murder your child”…it really is satanic to love murder so much that you want to force other people to do it.

  10. Howard says:

    It’s not good for the blood pressure to read too much of this, Fr. Z!

  11. Cavaliere says:

    Geez, if only Adam had told God that he was just following his conscience by eating the apple even though God told him not to, then we would still be living in the garden.

  12. Christopher Sarsfield says:

    I have no doubt this person has excommunicated himself, but it should be pronounced by the Church. I understand the point about not giving someone more notice than they deserve, but with this being in the New York Times ….

  13. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Their web site sickens me.

    Check out the things their readership would have liked to say to Pope Benedict during his visit.

    Or their “Good Catholics Use Condoms” ads.

    I emailed them about my disagreement with Mr. O’Brien’s letter. All of Catechism Part 3, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, Art. 6 (nn. 1776-1802) are relevant. Mr. O’Brien might not have read all of it.

  14. tertullian says:

    The Bishops and the Holy See should sue them to deny them the use of the word “Catholic”.

  15. Pete Morrell says:

    Yes! As I’ve said before, it is precisely this enthronement of the subjective conscience that must be crushed! In my opinion, this idea, and the people who publicly proclaim it, have been allowed to run rampant through the Church since Humanae Vitae. May God grant our bishops the courage to denounce it with all their authority – to bring back the charitable anathema.

  16. Calleva says:

    These people are so badly catechised that it would be risible if it were not so tragic. Their talk about respect for others’ views is nothing more than moral relativism. They seem to think that we can be Catholic only insofar as it doesn’t make uncomfortable demands on our lives or the lives of others.

    I’ve just come from a TLM Requiem Mass at which the Dies Irae was sung. We should have a healthy respect for the Four Last Things. The sad thing is that these (non-)Catholics for Choice won’t believe in hell whereas a ‘well-formed conscience’ presupposes a thorough understanding of the Faith. Sadly for these people, they are in a pact with ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’.

  17. Neil, London says:

    I do believe the time has come for bishops to seek to reply to these letters, on a case by case basis, when they appear in influential organs like the New York Times. It would be very difficult for such publications to refuse to publish responses when they come from an authorative source. These tendentious and, I agree, Father, evil letters purporting to come from “representative” Catholic groups are utterly scandalous. Every single time something like this appears in major newspapers, bishops should respond through their press offices. If thsy are refused the right to reply, they should make an issue of this through other means … their own diocesan newspapers, the internet, whatever, to make it absolutely clear they are being silenced in favour of “Catholic” voices promoting error and lies. This is possible, and it is necessary.
    Pray for bishops.

  18. Philip says:

    That last line is really chilling. I feel so recalcitrant.

  19. Mark says:

    In totalitarian regimes, the broader method used in this letter went under the name of “delamination”. In this case, its author tries to delaminate the conscience of an individual Catholic from the magisterial teachings of the Church. To achieve this, he’s essentially saying (whether he realizes it or not) that the Church doesn’t really intend to form individual consciences for their good, but only to manipulate them for Her own selfish and materialist ends. The author’s subtext seems to be that the Church hierarchy is about temporal power, and thus they are a fraud and can be ignored “in good conscience”.

    In real life, most of those who fell prey to such “delamination” methods later came under intense pressure to submit their now supposedly “freed” conscience to the dictates of the state. They were required to march in rigid lockstep with the “magisterial” pronouncements of their new political masters, and not to question them. No deviation from this heavy yoke was tolerated.

    The antidote to this “delamination” is “Solidarity”. First and foremost solidarity of conscience, will, and act with Christ and the authentic teachings of His Church, with the faithful Bishops, priests, laity, and all people of good will.

  20. Ottaviani says:

    Why is this man not excommunicated?!!!

  21. Mike says:

    “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.” – G.K. Chesterton

  22. Geremia says:

    You should have mentioned that this it is very Protestant (sola fide, “only faith”), not Catholic, when Jon O’Brien says: “Catholic tradition requires Catholics to follow their own well-formed consciences even if it conflicts with church teaching.”

  23. michigancatholic says:

    Fr, what you’re speaking of has been the case on a pedestrian basis for a good long time out of earshot of priests. By and large, many Catholics do as they darned well please and you probably don’t hear the half of it…..

    As for the vocal folks like these, yes, they’re very encouraged by the recent turns of politics and culture (or lack thereof). They’re dangerous but wouldn’t be nearly so if the vast majority of ordinary Catholics weren’t so confused by negligence and poor catechesis. Put that with people who hate Catholics on principle and I think we’re in for a hard time.

  24. michigancatholic says:

    Because, Ottaviani, the-powers-that-be apparently only excommunicate right-wing dissenters.

  25. Rhiannon says:

    Thanks for this critical look at the article. I am not even a Catholic but I agree wholeheartedly that freedom of conscience is a completely horrible idea. More and more the world’s ideas are being presented as Christian ideas and it makes me quite sad.

  26. q sugon says:

    A group of faculty members of the Ateneo de Manila University also appealed to the primacy of conscience in their position paper in support of the Reproductive Health Bill 5043 that legalizes contraception and sex education in the Philippines:

    “We respect the consciences of our bishops when they promote natural family planning as the only moral means of contraception, in adherence to the teachings of Humanae Vitae (1968). In turn, we ask our bishops to respect the one in three (35.6%) married Filipino women who, in Declaration of support for the Reproductive Health Bill’s immediate passage into law their “most secret core and sanctuary” or conscience, have decided that their and their family’s interests would best be served by using a modern artificial means of contraception. Is it not possible that these women and their spouses were obeying their well-informed and well-formed consciences when they opted to use an artificial contraceptive?”

  27. tim mccarthy says:

    Dear Fr. Z.,
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m reving up my rosary for you as I write.

  28. Richard says:

    What if my conscience tells me its wrong to follow the conscience of another? Where in God’s good revelation does it say we will be judged by the decisions of others, and not our own? Even when we influence or assist others to do the wrong thing, we are still culpable of our decision to influence them.

  29. Richard A says:

    We will be seeing more and more of how “conscience” always moves in the direction of abortion. It is only the conscience of the one who wants an abortion, or wants to peform one, that is binding. The consciences of those opposed are supposed to submit.

  30. Hicardo says:

    Upon reading this article, I am struck by the author’s appeal to Catholics whose consciences don’t “lockstep” with the “bishop’s own interpretation of Catholic teaching”. There are very few Catholics out there unaware of the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception. The media itself is obsessed with the Church’s teaching in these regards.

    The question arises: “How does one define or identify oneself as Catholic?” If one can simply appeal to one’s own conscience to decide if he or she is Catholic, then what it means to be Catholic can mean anything. But if anyone can say he or she is Catholic for any which reason, then it really means nothing for one to claim he or she is Catholic, e.g., “I like dogs, therefore I am Catholic.” “I took a vacation to Florida last summer, therefore I am Catholic.” In such a case, one believes and does anything, but still claims the title “Catholic”. One wonders if it would be too nice to consider them even “Catholic in name only”, since there is most likely then some general association of the individual with some sort of universal standard on what it means to be Catholic.

    “Catholics” either have to use the Church’s own standards to identify themselves as Catholic, or they really can’t call themselves Catholic. To assert that one’s own conscience trumps the Church’s teaching on a matter, especially when the Church’s teaching can be found by reading either a secular newspaper or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is simply a direct disassociation of oneself from the standards by which one is to identify oneself as Catholic in the first place.

    The author’s appeal to Catholics whose consciences don’t lockstep with the bishop’s own interpretation of Catholic teaching is only an appeal to a bunch of people who only call themselves Catholic. Of course, this is assuming such people are invincibly ignorant of the Church’s teaching on abortion or contraception, which, indeed, may be the case…in a sort of parallel universe, that is.

  31. Linus says:

    Father Z,
    Excellent response. The arguments given by Jon have been around since at least the 60’s. Not surprising to see it resurrected by Catholics for Choice.

  32. Richard A says:

    This is the first shot in the next phase of the attack on life. Until now, the conscience has been absolute in guiding the behaviors of those who promote abortion (euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research). Now that they smell blood in the water though, the conscience can’t be so absolute that those of us who object to murder can be allowed to live in peace without being dragooned into participation. Gird your loins, this is going to be another nasty battle!

  33. Mark says:


    I like your tounge in cheek comment, but like Don Chichote you’re chasing after windmills. A conscience that’s operating independently of the objective moral code is on thin ice, and is by no means free. It’s under influences of those things that are not subject to the objective moral code (like mere emotions).

  34. Thomas says:

    I believe it is misleading to say that “a well-formed conscience will not conflict with the Church’s teaching,” unless one is speaking of the Church in the sense of the mystical body of Christ. The Church in this sense never errs. But it is certainly possible that the institutional complex of the Catholic Church, at a particular historical period, might not be be in conformity with the Church. There are two senses of Church at work here. For example, the Church (as mystical body) did not protect abusive priests, but the Church (the human institution) did. As for the immediate context, the issue is a matter of public policy involving a prudential judgment. That the Bishops support this particular public policy should certainly weigh into someone’s decision, but nobody excommunicates themselves by opposing the rule. To be sure, O’Brien’s letter is misleading, but he is correct on this: a well-formed conscience need not be in agreement with the teachings of the human beings who currently serve the Church in the capacity of Bishop and Pope (though it is certainly fair to presume that it will be in such agreement most of the time). In other words, agreement with the Church (in the human sense) is not the sign of a well-formed conscience; agreement with the Church (the mystical body of Christ) is.

  35. Mark says:


    Are you saying that there is a possibility of two magisterial teachings by two Churches: one by the Church “in the human sense”, and on by the Church as “the mystical Body of Christ”?

    Which of these two Churches does the Pope speak for in ex cathedra pronouncements?

  36. Michael says:

    This “President” is talking nonse. It is true that everyone must follow his conscience, but if somebody’s conscience cannot accept the Church teaching it is not a Catholic conscience but an erronsous conscince.

    If the error is invincible such a person is not guilty: although, by following it, he commits a material sin, it is not a formal sin, because he doesn’t violate his conscience. Let’s hope that it is the case with the “President”, although it is not a compliment to him.

    If the error is vincible, that is itself an evil, the sin both material and formal, and whatever he does in so far as it refers to the particuar issue in which his conscience is in error, is sin: even if what he does is not materially evil it is a formal sin because he violates his conscience. If what he does is materially evil it is both material and a formal sin, for two reasons: because he follows the the erroneous conscience which is erroneous through his own fault, and because what he actually does is evil.

  37. Kathy says:

    How easily we can lie to ourselves in the name of a “well-formed conscience.”

  38. Linus says:

    The question arises: Does a Catholic who is well informed as to the teachings of the Church on Faith and Morals but cannot assent to one or more of these teachings ( it doesn’t matter which) have a ” well formed conscience?” I think not: a ” well formed conscience ” always assents to the teachings of the Church. Can the dissenter discribed here be a practicing Catholic in good standing – in the state of grace? I think not.

  39. Michael says:

    Fr. Z. – Please, see my earlier comment in the Post.

    I think the main problem is in the lack of openness with which the doctrine on conscience is proposed by our hierarchies, and by you Father too. In view of your position this can be justified, because you might be accused of saying what the bishops do not say, and you cannot count on their support; more likely, you would be rebuked. So, I understand you.

    If the conscience of an individual conflicts with the teaching of the Church, that individual doesn’t believe what the Church believes on that particular issue, i.e. he is not a Catholic, or at best he is an immature Catholic. But nobody has the guts to tell it to him.

    A mature Catholic accepts the entire body of Catholic doctrine at least implicitly. It is incoherent to say: I am Catholic, but I don’t accept what the Catholic Church believes.

    But our hierarchies, in their effort to be pastoral and to appease everybody in order to keep him somehow “in” – which is admirable in principle – play a hazardous game by failing to address the things in their proper terms.

    The result is that the views of people like the “President” gain a certain legitimacy, on the basis of which they can, in principle, reject any moral doctrine, and still believe to be Catholic. Worse still, they have occupied the key positions in the Church and are spreading their errors among the innocent – all that with a tacit consent of the hierarchies.

    LINUS: “Can the dissenter discribed here be a practicing Catholic in good standing – in the state of grace?” I would rather omit the word “practicing” because it is the matter principle, not what one actually does – we are all sinners. Also: the whole phrase “in good…grace?”, because one can be ignorant through no fault of his own, and God only knows what is the case. But otherwise, I agree.

  40. Thomas says:


    It is my understanding that the Pope’s ex cathedra pronouncements reflect the Church in the fullest sense of the word, the mystical body of Christ. But ex cathedra pronouncements are, in fact, rather rare. I think it is a mistake to propose a strict identity between the Church and any of its various parts. The church is an assembly, of which the bishops are a part. And while the Church on earth is moving towards its perfection, it would be a mistake to suggest that its imperfections reside only in the laity. Disagreeing with a bishop or even a pope is not the same as disagreeing with the Church. A well-formed conscience is one that accords with the Church; this is not the same thing as a conscience that accords with the bishops. That there will be overlap is to be fervently hoped. But, as a matter of principle, it is possible for a well-formed conscience to be in disagreement with what a bishop (including the bishop of Rome when not speaking ex cathedra) teaches.


  41. QC says:

    Thomas, I think you and some others may be confusing conscience with faith and reason. Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk explains this very well. We receive truth through reason and faith–that is how we assent to it. Conscience, however, is engaged in decisions concerning concrete acts in a particular circumstance. We use our conscience to decide how to act in a particular situation given the truth that is known.

    Thus, conscience can never come into conflict with the teaching of the Magisterium, which is engaged in the general proposition or condemnation of truths and errors respectively. Rather, conscience can come into conflict with the positive commands of the Pope (or bishops, etc.). For example, if the Pope condemns abortion as morally evil one cannot use conscience as an excuse to refuse to receive that truth. However, if the Pope says something like, “go fight in the Crusade” conscience may come into play in deciding whether or not to do so.

  42. QC says:

    Here’s a link to Newman’s explanation–it’s better than mine (it is actually cited in the Catechism)

    As an aside, I like St. Catherine of Siena’s explanation of conscience. She says it is like a guard dog that barks to warn us of evil and wags his tail at good. But we must feed him (with the doctrine of the Church) or else he becomes weak and unable to bark–in fact, he may even die.

  43. Mark says:


    I assume our discussion is confined to the area of morals:

    Can you think of one example where a “well formed” conscience can be in agreement with the “Church”, but in disagreement with the Pope or a Bishop?

    This is what I think: you’re proposing that there can be a disembodied magisterium of the “Church”, parallel to the flesh and blood magisterium of a Pope, and that the two are not always in agreement. The question that arises here is how will a person discern this parallel magisterium? Will such a disagreement be self evident, that is, how can we then avoid subjectivism and the road to Protestantism? Can we be sure that such habitual disagreements will not spill into ex cathedra teachings?

  44. Michael says:

    Thomas 25th Nov.

    What does the notion “Church” mean to you? I see no way of knowing what the Church believes whether regarding the facts, i.e. what the things are (God, Trinity, Incarnation, Sacraments etc) or regarding choices, i.e. what ought to be done (morality), other than what we are, directly or indirectly, taught by those whom Christ appointed to teach (Magisterium: Pope and Bishops). It seems to me that your “Church” is an abstraction, but it is up to you to explain what you mean exactly.

    Now what the Magisterium proposes for belief regarding facts or morals can be proposed infallibly (not only by the Pope on rare occasions, but also by general councils, as well as by the “Ordinary Magisterium” which is most frequently the case in matters of morality), but it doesn’t have to be proposed infallibly which doesn’t however mean that what is proposed isn’t true, only that what is proposed in not proposed infallibly.

    A Catholic is under the moral obligation to accept both, i.e. what is proposed infallibly and what is not proposed infallibly. To the former he gives assent of faith (de fide), to the latter he gives a “religious assent”. It is a grave matter not to give assent, and if done with a sufficient reflection and freely, it comes under the mortal sin against faith.

  45. Thomas says:

    QC: Thanks for the Newman reference. If I understand correctly, Newman\’s (and your) point is that conscience determines how we act upon what we believe (be it through faith and reason). I suppose Aquinas (and Aristotle) would see conscience as a matter of prudence. Thus, I can believe that abortion is morally evil and still, as a matter of conscience, have an abortion or perform one. I speak mainly in theoretical terms, but I also think of my grandfather who, when faced with the choice to save his wife or to save the baby, told the doctor to save his wife. He was able to save both– lucky for me. Does such a choice reflect a conscience that is not well-formed? Perhaps, but I\’m inclined against that judgment. But the central point is well taken: to say that conscience conflicts with Church teachings is to make something of a category mistake. Conscience is a matter of practical reason (truths applied to concrete circumstances), but the Magisterium deals only with the truths by which practical reason makes its decisions in light of circumstances. Interesting.

  46. Thomas says:

    Mark and Michael: I understand your shared apprehension at the rather abstract way I am talking about the Church. An analogy might help: we often speak of how \”Science\” tells us that, say, human genes are made of proteins. It\’s a strange way to speak, I suppose, but it makes a certain sense if we think of \”Science\” as the totality of empirical knowledge about the physical world. On the other hand, \”Science\” never tells us a thing; rather, scientists do. Scientists tell us (or try to tell us) the truth of Science. And yet we know that some scientists are sometimes wrong, while others are sometimes right. Now, by and large, we trust certain groups of scientists (because they have been right before; because of the station they have reached within their profession; and so on). We tend to trust them and for the most part, trusting them is the reasonable thing to do. But it would be a mistake to identify everything scientists say with Science. We can certainly privilege our favored scientists over others, but we always have to recognize that, sometimes, they may be wrong. The analogy is imperfect, of course, but my point is that, while it is true that the bishops ought to be privileged as a source of the Church\’s truth, and we ought to trust them (because they have been right before; because of the station they have reached within their profession; and so on), it is a mistake to identify what they teach with the Church\’s truth. What they teach may be an expression of the Church\’s truth and, usually and for the most part, should be accepted as the Church\’s truth. But, still, their not the same thing. What the bishops say is not the Church\’s truth because they say it; rather, they say it because (we hope) it is the Church\’s truth. One doesn\’t ultimately disagree with the Bishop, but with the Bishop\’s arguments. If the Bishop is right, it\’s not because he is a Bishop, just like the scientist isn\’t right just because he\’s a scientist. Ultimately (if we are able– and it is a problem that many unqualified people think themselves qualified), we must judge for ourselves whether the Bishops are correct. Faith seeking understandings applies here, as well. Our understanding of that to which we assent may very well– and legitimately– differ from the understanding of the one to whose claims we assent.

    Moreover, the bishops are not the only possible source for the Church\’s truth. The Church (in the earthly sense) also includes the laity; those faithful who have died; and various theologians both in an outside the Catholic tradition (the Church may well \”subsist\” in the Catholic Church, but it\’s not the only place the Church is found). Why do you assume that this line of thinking leads only to subjectivism or Protestantism? Is not the sense of the faithful also a sign of the Church\’s truth? Or do we only define \”the faithful\” in this case as those who never disagree with the bishops? Do you rule out in principle the possibility that a group of serious, educated Catholics might disagree with the Bishops and be correct? How can you? There are times in history when the Church has been betrayed by its Bishops. Some evil,ignorant men have been bishops. Respect the office, give it\’s due (which is extensive), but don\’t teach that we\’re supposed to just hand over our minds to it. I daresay God expects better from us and the endowment of reason He has given us.

    I should add that I really am speaking theoretically, and do not have any particular teachings in mind (well, maybe ordination of women and celibate priesthood, and probably married couples using contraception). I think the Church on earth is, right now, mostly being well served by its Bishops. I write merely here of abstract principles. I regret that the \”hermeneutic of suspicion\” so dominates the world today. But I would add that all teachers must earn the trust of their students if a \”hermeneutic of credulity\” is to obtain. If the Bishops find themselves enmeshed in a culture of dissent, they must surely bear some of the responsibility for this.

  47. mrteachersir says:


    The Body of Christ has three aspects: the Militant (the earthly), the Suffering (those in Purgatory), and the Victorious (the Heavenly). All three are One Body. In this One Body, there is one Faith. The guardian of this Faith for the Church Militant is the Bishop of Rome: “on this rock I will build my Church, and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”. The Faith of the Body of Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. It is objective and true. We have this guarantee from the Logos Himself to the apostles (as a group): “I will send the Holy Spirit, who will guide you in all Truth”. To reject the Church is to reject the Logos, for it is His Truth that the Church teaches, not Her own.

  48. Michael says:

    You evidently do not believe that the doctrine that the Church does not consider herself authorized to confer the priesthood on women, and the doctrine on contraception, have both been proposed infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium (LG 25/2), nor do you consider yourself morally bound to accept both. So, we must face the fact that our faiths differ radically, i.e. either you are Catholic and I am not, or you are not and I am; but we can’t both be Catholics because we do not share the same faith. Now, because in these matters I share the faith with the Pope and bishops who are in communion with him, I consider myself a Catholic and will explain to you the Catholic position on other matters you asserted.

    Your entire first paragraph can be summarized briefly thus: what the bishops teach has to be taken seriously but with a pinch of salt; and ultimately it is the enlightened yourself, as one who is above those to merely believe to be enlightened, that is the ultimate stance to assess whether what the bishops teach is true and accept it or false and reject it. I find this position distinctly un-Catholic, and can’t buy it.

    Likewise distinctly un-Catholic is your notion of the sensus fidelium in the second paragraph: it excludes the bishops; as if the bishops were not faithful. What you call “the sense of the faithful”, if they set themselves up against bishops, is in fact the nonsense of the unfaithful.

    But let me now go back to your first paragraph.

    I anticipated your explanation of the “Church”, but did not want to presume it. It is a false dichotomy: Church v. bishops. The Church is both invisible and visible. The invisible is known only through the visible: they are not separable entities but the aspects of the same entity: the visible aspect is the sign of it its invisible reality. She is the Universal Sacrament of salvation. The individual sacraments are like tentacles by which she reaches out: through their Consecration a new bishop receives episcopal character, the constitutive elements of which are the functions of teaching, ruling and sanctifying, by which he participates in Christ who is the Prophet, King and Priest. The Church is the sacrament of Christ. He is the Principal Minister of the sacraments, who through His Church confers the sacrament of Episcopacy, and who said: I am with you until the end of the world, teach all nations, who hears you hears me.

    The invisible Church is not an abstraction like science, but the Mystical Body. And bishops are not merely theologians, as scientists are experts in their particular area. We do not “trust them” merely “because they have been right before; because of the station they have reached within their profession; and so on”, but because they share in the Priesthood and Kingship of Christ. While “it is a mistake to identify what they teach with the Church’s truth” it is also a mistake to hold that the two are separate entities: what they teach is the visible articulation of the Church’s truth, and the sole authentic articulation for that matter. Others may articulate it materially, but as long as this articulation is not authenticated, we cannot be certain of its authenticity.

    We trust scientists on the basis of their merits, which is up to a point applicable to the bishops too, but we principally trust bishops because they are bishops, endowed with the supernatural character (see above). So, to say: “What the bishops say is not the Church’s truth because they say it; rather, they say it because (we hope) it is the Church’s truth” is the same dichotomy as above. The comma should be put at the end of the quote and the assertion extended: “but what they say is nevertheless the sole authentic articulation of that truth.”

    “One doesn’t ultimately disagree with the Bishop, but with the Bishop’s arguments “. This isn’t clear. If a teaching is authentic, the arguments are relatively irrelevant. If the arguments are inadequate, it doesn’t follow that the teaching is erroneous. – And this is extraordinary: “Our understanding of that to which we assent may very well—and legitimately—differ from the understanding of the one to whose claims we assent.” Sorry, I only hope that I have misunderstood it, otherwise it is a nonsense. If you do not understand what is proposed to you in the same sense as the proposer understands it, you don’t know what is proposed: you can neither assent nor withhold an assent. The “Faith seeking understandings”, requires an inquiry with the bishop in order to understand what he has in mind.

    Re: second paragraph. I dealt above with the status of other possible sources. Your notion of “the sense of the faithful” can’t possibly be reconciled with what is in LG 12. You have in Familiaris Consortio (can’t find now the exact place in my copy) that it is in not to be sought in results of sociological research. Catholics who are sufficiently mature can participate in the magisterium only in so far they think with the Church, in agreement with the magisterium, so that each participation never constitutes an independent “magisterium”. See also CIC 812.

    “Do you rule out in principle the possibility that a group of serious, educated Catholics might disagree with the Bishops and be correct?” No, and it doesn’t have to be a group. But you miss the point. The authenticity of the bishops’ teaching must be presumed, and the onus of proving the opposite is on those who disagree. The “serious, educated Catholics” in this context are only those of competent experts who arrive at their conclusion only after a renewed scientific investigations of all grounds, and even then the are morally entitled only to a “quiet” non-assent, not to an usurpation of the teaching office, still less to an usurpation of the governing office by mobilizing public opinion. It is important to understand that for the sake of the good of the Church and the unified action, they must not make of their own difficulties with the Church, the Church’s difficulty with them. In constructive way they should first convey the difficulties to their Ordinary by whom they are authorized to teach, then to their colleagues, they can give a talk on strictly professional meeting, publish in strictly professional magazines – everything is open to them to contribute if they want to do it constructively, and are willing to be assessed by their genuine merits. That, obviously, applies to those teachings that are not proposed infallibly, for the infallibly proposed teachings like the two I mentioned at the beginning, it does not apply of course.

    And it doesn’t apply to the educated Catholics whose knowledge of the subject in question is second hand, based on a few books and/or notes or handouts from lectures which are themselves compilations of original research published elsewhere, still less if these books/lectures are written by dissident theologians. With such a literature they have already allowed themselves to be brainwashed, and their opinion is not theirs: they are parrots.

    “There are times in history when the Church has been betrayed by its Bishops. Some evil, ignorant men have been bishops.” True, but most of the heresies were initiated by theologians. Each one of us is subject to his Ordinary, but what he teaches is overruled by the higher theological sources (the whole episcopate: ordinary teaching, council; and both include the pope; and pope alone) if he is in error. So, if one realizes the error he can consult the higher source. There is no loophole. But if you have anything to bring I am available.

  49. Michael says:

    Have a look at my reply to Thomas

  50. Mark says:


    Thank you for you reply. My comments are as follows:

    What science knows to be the truth of the material world changes, as discoveries are made, and inventions enable an ever greater exploration of the physical world. Scientists subject their work to peer review for good reason, to refine and sharpen it. In the hard sciences, the glory of this exciting work is that it can be expressed in mathematical language, whose logic is compelling. In the soft sciences, the discoveries are expressed via logic, which is no less compelling than mathematics. One might say, science and its methods reflect the glory of our Creator, in some limited way.

    Our Church, on the other hand, is the guardian of revealed Truth. As Dietrich von Hildebrand put it in his book “Trojan Horse in the City of God” about our faith in Christ and the infallible magisterium of His Holy Church:

    “It takes for granted that there is no room for change in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church. It admits no possibility of change except that development of which Cardinal Newman speaks: the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it”.

    Revealed Truth is already complete and defined, as necessary for our salvation. It is definitively captured in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, thus any person can have an authoritative expression of it. It can only be formulated in a more explicit way.

    I don’t see any possibility that a revealed Truth can be given to the laity, but to the exclusion of the bishops. Such an imagined reversal has already lead to Protestantism and subjectivism, a wide road well traveled. If one has questions about a particular pronouncement of a Bishop, let the already defined magisterium of the Church be the only arbiter, not some “consensus of the faithful”, even if they be highly educated.

    On a more personal note: I like to reason with “flesh and blood” empirical examples in the reserve, and use them to test my thinking. Perhaps thinking purely theoretically, without a good dose of reality every now and then, can sometimes lead to overly conceptualizing an issue.

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