There is probably no clause more misinterpreted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than the conscience clause. CCC #1790 states:
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.
“There,” some will say, “The Catechism says I am always to obey my conscience, and my conscience tells me that [insert heresy here] is okay.” Of course, there is significant danger in tearing #1790 out of context from the other 19 paragraphs that surround it. These are pretty important paragraphs, as it turns out. They say things like:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (#1776).
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings (#1783).
and then the is this:
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 (#1791).
A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith (#1794).
So here’s the deal in short. We are in fact called to obey our conscience, but we are also called to make sure that our conscience is formed according to the mind of the Church. There is a spectrum between the formation of conscience and an act itself on which one can fall. The best place to be, of course is to form one’s conscience properly and then act in accordance with that conscience. One could also fail to form the conscience, and then act in accordance with the malformation. This is tragic, and certainly sinful if the choice to not inform the conscience was deliberate, but it is not the worst place in which one can be. The worst scenario is one who forms their conscience according to the mind of the Church and then deliberately acts against it. This is a grave sin indeed, and its perpetrator puts his soul in serious danger.
My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who – who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to – with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a – what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the – the congressman. I – I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that – women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what is in Joe Biden’s head – that is between him and God – but we do have his words in front of us, and we give the Vice President the benefit of the doubt that he expected this question, so he was not caught off guard. His response, therefore, is both premeditated and an accurate representation of his position.
If we can cut through the prose, the key points are two: (1) Mr. Biden accepts the teaching of the Church that life begins at conception, and (2) he refuses to implement this in his public policy. In other words, the Vice President has formed his conscience according to the Church and is actively going against it. We return at this point to CCC #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.”
The response will undoubtedly be that there is a difference between the principle and the forcing of the principle on others. For instance, while I believe that it is a mortal sin for a Catholic to miss Mass on Sunday, I would not support a law in which Catholics are yanked out of their beds on Sunday morning by the local police in order to force them to attend their local parish, (as entertaining as that may be). The implementation of the principle is something distinct from the principle itself.
The problem is that this does work on issues of life. For these issues there the implementation is the same as the principle itself. In order to see this, imagine if Joe Biden had continued to use the phrase “murder” in his response. After all, he has admitted his acceptance of the de fide teaching of the Church on when life begins. His response would look something like this:
I accept my Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, and therefore that abortion is the murder of an innocent human life. However, I refuse to impose that view on others. The decision to murder an innocent human life is a decision between a woman and her doctor.
It simply doesn’t work. In fact note that the above argument could easily replace the word “abortion” with infanticide and remain relatively unaffected. In other words, if Joe’s argument is valid for life in the womb, then why can’t it be applied in the proverbial fourth trimester:
I accept my Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, and therefore that taking a three-month-old’s life is the murder of an innocent human life. However, I refuse to impose that view on others. The decision to murder an innocent human life is a decision between a family and their doctor.
Joe is trying to play the old, “You can’t legislate morality” card. The problem is, we always legislate morality. This is why theft, murder, and fraud are illegal. Where Joe runs into real trouble, though, is when he leads off with his acceptance of the Catholic position. At least the politician who claims that life’s beginning is an unsettled question is only guilty of bad science. Mr. Biden is guilty of far more than that.
The Vice President’s final problem is that he does not actually present the Church’s teaching accurately. He states only that the Church believes life begins at conception. He misses the other important parts.
1. Life begins at conception.
2. Therefore, abortion is a grave moral evil.
3. Laws must protect life at all stages.
4. Laws that conflict with the divine law must be opposed.