Questions Answered – July 2023

When Conscience Is Mistaken

Question: Much has been made of the primacy of conscience today in morals. Even some bishops have claimed that as long as a subject is following their conscience, the Church must support their decision no matter what it is. Is this true of every manifestation of conscience?

Answer: Once all the objective principles of fundamental moral theology have been identified, then it is necessary to apply them in the final problem, which is that of the conscience. The problem of conscience is the principal problem of post-Tridentine theology because of the practical need of the Church to train confessors and moral theologians.

Fr. Servais Pinckaers emphasizes in his landmark moral study that the casuistic moralists and the manualists saw conscience and its formation as the principal moral problem because of the difficulty in post-Tridentine theology of relating freedom to law. “The treatise on conscience was a creation of casuist morality, which introduced it into fundamental moral theology and hoisted it to the heights.”1 Whereas the moral tradition emanating from the Summa of St. Thomas strongly related conscience to the virtue of prudence in post-Tridentine theology conscience became “comparable to an intermediate faculty placed between law and freedom.”2 Morals was reduced to case studies to try to determine how much room there was for freedom in the face of the obligations of the law. “The principal task of moralists was to assist conscience in these functions: to inform it of the law and above all to enlighten it in its work of interpreting and applying the law to human acts.”3

This was an age when there was a turn to the subject in knowledge because of the uncertainty of authorities. Emphasizing the primacy of conscience related perfectly to that trend. In the contemporary world, this has led to the positing of two systems of ethics. Karl Rahner and the school of moderate teleology place the problem of the conscience as the most important basis for ethical determination. Since it is where the truth is applied to individual conduct, Rahner made a distinction between formal existential ethics and material essential ethics. This strange distinction which makes use of a correct understanding of the conscience seems to be at the basis for the theories of the consequentialists. Material essentialist ethics are important recommendations to take into account when the individual discerns the truth of moral conduct. But in addition to this there is another system of ethics, formal existential ethics which is where the individual confronts the Holy Spirit in his private conscience using the tools recommended in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. These tools may lead the person to discern that they would have to break the universal expression of the law in order to preserve the value the law was meant to express to be true to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Formal existential ethics is necessary because no universal statement can cover every individual instance especially in morals and because conscience is never just an application of a universal law to an individual action. The implications would be that no judgment based on the law of moral objects can ever be complete until the circumstances and intention are confronted. Also, once a judgment is made by the conscience that ipso facto guarantees that the conscience speaks with the authority of the Holy Spirit and no authority can criticize such a judgment nor should the person ever alter such a conscience because it cannot be mistaken. How can the Holy Spirit lead someone to discern that a given judgment arrived at using the proper tools can be in error? This explanation of the private conscience certainly cannot be sustained especially concerning the erroneous conscience. The why and wherefore for this fact demand an examination of conscience in general.

Conscience is judgment of reason. It is a syllogism and as such is a statement of the objective truth concerning a moral action which is to be performed or has been performed by an individual. The nature of the syllogism would be as follows: the major comes from the general relationship of the moral law to being and is called synderesis. For example, as expressed by the natural law it would be: “I must do good and avoid evil” or as expressed by the revealed law it would be: “I must obey the law of God.” The minor would be a more specific statement gleaned from something like the Decalogue. For example, “The killing of an innocent human being is evil and proscribed by the law of God.” Then this is applied in the conclusion. “Therefore I must not kill this innocent person because it is evil and proscribed by the law of God.” Note that this is a simple application of logic.

This description of conscience not only comes from the works of St. Thomas but is also taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience.4

The theoretical implications of this teaching are important. The conscience is the place where reason taught by the natural, divine, or human law is applied and so in some remote or proximate sense it speaks with the authority of God. “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 do good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.”5 However, the fact that conscience speaks with the voice of God does not mean that it is beyond criticism or even error. The present tendency to oppose freedom and law has led to “a ‘creative’ understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.”6 Conscience becomes an oracle which always proclaims the truth.

To view conscience as an application of the divine and natural law or as the place where man in his most personal aspect confronts God on the subject of moral choice, it is necessary to affirm that it is “the application of the law to a particular case […] the proximate norm of the morality of the voluntary act, ‘applying the objective law to a particular case.’ ”7 It is this fact which makes conscience the “proximate norm of personal morality.”8

Since conscience is a process of reasoning based on a syllogism, like any process of reasoning carried on by human beings it can be mistaken either in its premises or in the construction of the syllogism. As a result, “[c]onscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes.”9 Once this fact is admitted, the whole problem of how it binds arises. One must always follow the judgment of one’s conscience. But a correct consciences binds absolutely. The most difficult problem in contemporary morals is not the doubtful conscience, but, given the tendency in the subjectivism of the post-Kantian world, the status and binding force of the mistaken conscience.

In the Middle Ages there was a debate about whether a mistaken conscience could bind one to act. Many were of the opinion that a right conscience bound but not a mistaken conscience, because obviously the mistaken conscience does not correspond to the natural law whereas the right conscience does. St. Thomas maintains that this opinion is untenable. This is because, subjectively speaking, the person perceives what the false conscience commands as commanded by God. So in acting against such a conscience he may objectively be following the law of God; still, since he subjectively perceives this to be against the law of God, he is acting against something which God commands and so sins.

The problem is that a man with such a formed and certain but mistaken conscience cannot avoid sin. If he acts according to his conscience, he sins against the law of God objectively. If he acts against his conscience, he sins against what he subjectively perceives to be the law of God.

Moreover, it does not seem possible for a man to avoid sin if his conscience, no matter how mistaken, declares that something which is indifferent or evil is a command of God and with such a conscience he decides to do the opposite. For, as far as he can, he has by this very fact decided not to observe the law of God. Consequently, he sins mortally.10

Does this mean that a person with such a conscience cannot avoid sin? St. Thomas says no, because he can always change his conscience. The necessity of changing this conscience and the responsibility for doing so are based on the manner in which the correct and conscience binds. The correct conscience binds “absolutely because it binds without qualification and in every circumstance.”11 An erroneous conscience on the other hand binds only by an extrinsic consideration. So it binds “only in a qualified way, since it binds conditionally.”12 What is the condition? If it can be changed, there is a moral obligation to change it. So a false conscience only binds “accidentally.”13

The evaluation of responsibility for a sin which results from an erroneous conscience is based on the same principles as vincible and invincible ignorance. If one chose not to know, and for this reason cannot change his conscience, then he is responsible for the sin as he is for the ignorance.

A false conscience which is mistaken in things which are intrinsically evil commands something which is contrary to the law of God. Nevertheless, it says that what it commands is the law of God. Accordingly, one who acts against such a conscience becomes a kind of transgressor of the law of God, although one who follows such a conscience and acts according to it acts against the law of God and sins mortally. For there was sin in the error itself, since it happened because of ignorance of that which should be known.14

So if a person can know that his mistaken conscience is mistaken, then he is obliged to change it. The mistaken conscience binds as long as it remains, but it does not bind essentially. The person has a moral obligation to form a right conscience. To change a right conscience is a sin; to change an erroneous conscience is an obligation. “Hence, this does not prove that a false conscience does not bind as long as it remains, but that it does not bind absolutely and in every event.”15

Moralists following St. Thomas have generally been of the opinion that ignorance of a circumstance can excuse but not ignorance of the law. “When the error itself is not a sin, the conclusion is true, as when the error is due to ignorance of some fact. But, if it is ignorance of the law, the conclusion is wrong because the ignorance is itself a sin.”16

For example, much has been made in the last few years concerning the idea that decisions about contraception should be left to the conscience. The implication is that if a couple have consulted their conscience and they see that artificial contraception is the only way for them to avoid certain physical or material difficulties like poverty, then they are morally excused or even justified in choosing it. This opinion corresponds to the idea that conscience is a moral oracle and is almost Gnostic so that even the authority of the Church cannot criticize such a decision. Though a couple may be confused or perplexed as to whether a given act like vasectomy is contraceptive, and their perplexity may be increased by theologians who actively promote dissension from papal teaching in this matter, this does not excuse them from the obligation to inform themselves and resolve their perplexity. This would include reference to papal teaching, now easily accessible for most educated people on the Internet. Of course, if their perplexity is due to the false teaching of their professors or pastors, then these bear an even greater responsibility for error.

What would be the source of this sinful ignorance? Vatican II and the Catechism give some possible sources. “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of the autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.”17

St. Thomas also explains how to resolve moral perplexity. “One whose conscience tells him to commit fornication is not completely perplexed, because he can do something by which he can avoid sin, namely, change the false conscience. But he is perplexed to some degree, that is, as long as his false conscience remains.”18 Those who say that one must follow one’s conscience and therefore cannot be criticized are only speaking of a right and certain conscience. “The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct.” (CCC, 1794)

The fact that one is excused from moral responsibility in an invincibly erroneous conscience does not mean that the action which results from this is a good. Objective sin remains objective sin. Such an action cannot be taken up into the virtues. It remains an alien body in the moral life, neither good nor evil, but an area of the moral life which cannot be a step either toward or away from heaven. This is because the will is not present in it. Resolution of the ignorance is an important obligation on the part of others so that the person may use every means possible to express his love for God and arrive at heaven.

If this is true for invincible ignorance, it is even more true of vincible ignorance. This is often caused by sin and compounded by repeated sin, so that a person changes his value system to look on apparent good (real evil) as real good (apparent evil). This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. Such 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.”19

Receiving Communion in the Hand: A Brief History

Question: Would not returning to communion on the tongue and not in the hand increase reverence?

Answer: This question has surfaced again because this year is a year of preparation for the first Eucharistic Congress in the United States since 1976. This is coupled with a deep awareness that many Catholics are questioning or have lost faith in transubstantiation. The USCCB has designated a large number of preachers to assist in the preparation for a Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in the summer of 2024.

It is lamentable that these measures are necessary, but many can testify that since the 1960s there has been a progressive erosion in faith in the Eucharist. One of the contributing factors to this was the permission to take communion standing and in the hand, which did not take place in the United States until the late 70s.

Historically there is little justification for this practice, though there were isolated places in the past where communion was received in the hand. In the Eastern Church this is impossible, since most Eastern rites communicate with bread dipped already in the consecrated wine and administered with a spoon directly into the mouth. Though Protestant denominations have long allowed communion standing, the recipient normally did not take the bread in their hands but it was administered to them.

In the Latin Church, because the Eucharist is really Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, only the priest was permitted to touch the host because of the very holiness of the Body of Christ. This practice began to change in Northern Europe during the Council, although it was in no sense initiated by the Council and was actually born in disobedience, mostly at more private Masses such as those at universities and convents. Finally the Holy See, bowing to the pressure that what is actually done should determine what should be done, permitted this as exceptional to the more common practice. I can personally remember the dismantling of the communion rails, the demand of the clergy that the laity ought to receive communion in the hand, the denial of kneeling as a suitable posture for the reception of Our Lord. It was a study in group manipulation so that what would have been unthinkable in 1966 became the norm around 1977.

Even so, the Pope merely permitted this and allowed each bishop to decide in 1969. I can also remember in Rome in the 1980s, the Vatican did not permit communion in the hand by command of the Pope and those priests who distributed communion at papal masses were instructed not to give it. This is because the weight of papal discipline was 1500 years old and fraught with dangers which might threaten faith in the Real Presence. The Pope wrote in the 1969 document: “A change in a matter of such importance, which rests on a very ancient and venerable tradition, besides touching upon discipline can also include dangers. These may be feared from a new manner of administering Holy Communion: they are 1) a lessening of reverence toward the noble Sacrament of the altar, 2) its profanation, or 3) the adulteration of correct doctrine.”

He goes on to say, “From the responses received it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibilities and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful.”

All this being said, the discipline has been generally changed now. A Catholic is free to decide for either option, tongue or hand, and not to be pressured or forbidden one way or another. One can see, though, that even when this was debated the general weight of the discipline of the Church was that communion on the tongue was more conducive to reverence. Perhaps in this year of the Eucharist a renewed discussion needs to take place on this subject.

  1. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1995), 271.
  2. Pinckaers, Sources, 272.
  3. Pinckaers, Sources, 272.
  4. CCC, 1780.
  5. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 16.
  6. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 55.
  7. John Paul II, VS, 59 quoting the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, Instruction on “Situation Ethics” Contra Doctrinam (February 2, 1956): AAS, 48 (1956), 144.
  8. John Paul II, VS, 60.
  9. John Paul II, VS, 62.
  10. “Non videtur autem possibile quod aliquis peccatum evadat, si conscientia, quantumcumque errans, dictet aliquid esse praeceptum Dei sive sit indifferens sive etiam per se malum; si contrarium, tali conscientia manente, agere disponat. Quantum enim in se est, ex hoc ipso habet voluntatem legem Dei non observandi; unde mortaliter peccat.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  11. “Rectam ligare simpliciter, quia ligat absolute et in omnem eventum.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  12. “Non ligat nisi secundum quid quia sub conditione.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  13. “Per accidens, secundum quid.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  14. “Conscientia erronea errans in his quae sunt per se mala, dictat contraria legi Dei; sed tamen illa quae dictat, dicit esse legem Dei. Et ideo transgressor illius conscientiae efficitur quasi transgressor legis Dei; quamvis etiam conscientiam sequens, et eam opere implens, contra legem Dei faciens mortaliter peccet: quia in ipso errore peccatum erat, cum contingeret per ignorantiam eius quod scire debebat.” Aquinas, DV, 17, 4, ad 3.
  15. “Unde per hoc non probatur quod conscientia erronea non liget dum manet, sed solum quod non ligat simpliciter et in omnem eventum.” Aquinas, DV, 17, 4, ad 4.
  16. “Concludit autem verum, quando ipse error non est peccatum: utpote cum contingit ex ignorantia facti. Si autem ex ignorantia iuris, sic non concludit, quia ipsa ignorantia peccatum est.” Aquinas, DV, 17, 4, ad 5.
  17. CCC, 1792, quoting Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 16.
  18. “Quod ille qui habet conscientiam faciendi fornicationem, non est simpliciter perplexus, quia potest aliquid facere quo facto non incidet in peccatum, scilicet conscientiam erroneam deponere; sed est perplexus secundum quid, scilicet conscientia erronea manente” Aquinas, DV, 17, 4, ad 8.
  19. CCC, 1791.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar Bernadette Shonka says:

    The indult to receive Holy Communion in the hand was NOT given to everyone in 1969. It was not given to the United States until 17 June 1977. And it was a “slight of hand” maneuver. Three of the criteria were falsely answered to Rome. It should never have been given to the USA because we did NOT honestly meet the criteria for it.