Questions Answered – August 2023

Question: Does an erroneous conscience bind a person to act since it does not correspond to reality? 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.

Answer: This problem was treated in the column last month but it is so important a further summary is in order. 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 though 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 he believes God commands and so sins.

The problem is that a man with such a formed and certain 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.1

Does this mean that a person with such a person 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 erroneous conscience bind. The correct conscience binds “absolutely because it binds without qualification and in every circumstance.”2 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.”3 What is the condition? If it can be changed, there is a moral obligation to change it. So a false conscience only binds “accidentally.”4

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 can 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.5

So if a person can know that his mistaken conscience is mistaken, then he is obliged to change it. The conscience binds as long as it remains, but it does not bind essentially. One should recall that conscience is a syllogism and like all logical statements can be erroneous in its premises or the manner the syllogism is constructed. 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.”6

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.”7

For example, much has been made in the last few years concerning the fact 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, for most educated people now easily accessible 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.”8

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.”9 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.”10

Yoga and Catholic Teaching

Question: Is there a Catholic position on the morality of yoga?

Answer: There is a thriving literary culture today on both the occult and the insertion of Eastern religions into the Christian West. A recent, particularly useful book in this attempt to analyze the problems with Eastern mysticism is The Trouble with Magic by Fr. Cliff Ermatinger (Padre Pio Press). Included in the topics examined in this book is an insightful analysis of the problems with yoga.

Yoga has become a widespread practice introduced into schools and businesses as a therapy for stress reduction. The problem is that it is quite a bit more than that. Since it permeates the culture so much, it is important to guide Catholic practice in its regard. According to Ermatinger, the word yoga means “union.” The purpose of it is to unite the changing self (Jiva) with the infinite Brahman (the Hindu word for God). Brahman is not a personal God but an impersonal force much like the Force in Star Wars.

The Hindu Scriptures talk about uniting life with life, only the life is within the human person. The light dwelling in the individual self is “immutable, eternal, numberless, indestructible, and of a higher ‘spiritual’ nature.” (Magic, 100) Yoga is not just a system of physical exercise but developed to bodily postures to set free the soul and lead it to spiritual union with the one impersonal force. As a result it is by nature a spiritual exercise also. In this advanced state, God and the soul become one without any difference.

Christ is sometimes seen as a yoga master who is a guru who leads all to spiritual enlightenment in which all become one. In Hindu ideas good and evil are illusions and so there is no real difference between the two. Again one thinks of Star Wars, a not-so-subtle attempt to introduce Eastern mysticism completely incompatible with Christianity into the West. Catholic yoga, Heike and all such techniques are actually forms of spiritual practice which are at best pagan and at worst representatives of the occult.

Christianity professes a Creator who is completely other than his creation. Jesus is not just a supreme guru but the Redeemer. This is fixed in the crucifixion and the resurrection from the dead. The path to this is a personal union, a spiritual marriage of grace which is all receptive of divine light on the part of man and certainly do not change us into God.

Pope Benedict pointed out some of the difficulties with these Eastern meditation techniques in Footnote 12 of the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation:

“Pope John Paul II has pointed out to the whole Church the example and doctrine of St. Teresa of Avila who in her life had to reject the temptation of certain methods which proposed a leaving aside of the humanity of Christ in favor of a vague self-immersion in the abyss of divinity. In a homily given on November 1, 1982, he said that the call of St. Teresa of Jesus advocating a prayer completely centered on Christ ‘is valid even in our day, against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the Gospel and which in practice tends to set aside Christ in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity. Any method of prayer is valid insofar as it is inspired by Christ and leads to Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ (cfr. John 14:6)

The Roman exorcist Fr. Amorth is clear: “Yoga, Zen, and Transcendental Meditation are unacceptable to Christians. Often these apparently innocent practices can bring about hallucinations and schizophrenic conditions.”

  1. “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.
  2. “. . . rectam ligare simpliciter, quia ligat absolute et in omnem eventum.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  3. “. . . non ligat nisi secundum quid quia sub conditione.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  4. “. . . per accidens, secundum quid.” Aquinas, De Veritate, 14, 4, ad corp.
  5. “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.
  6. “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.
  7. “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.
  8. CCC, 1792, quoting Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 16.
  9. “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.
  10. CCC, 1791; quoting Gaudium et Spes 16.
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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  1. When Catholics write about yoga, it is important that they have a working knowledge of the subject. If they present the very broad discipline incorrectly they tend to invalidate their own voice.

    People who read erroneous or incomplete descriptions, which do not match their own experiences, tend to dismiss such critical voices as uneducated and uninformed. The effort backfires and only makes Catholicism seem backwards.

    One of the sixteen documents of Vatican II, Nostro Aetate, offers insight into how the dialogue might be better structured. While Nostro Aetate contains some errors, especially with regard to Islam, it does offer some helpful insights into how to enter into dialogue on the subject of ancient and non-Christian religions.

    Hope this is helpful.


  3. There are so many puzzle pieces involved with the introduction of yoga into the Christian West but this article is good. I’m a researcher and recently discovered that communist Mikhail Gorbachev plotted against the Church by introducing Eastern religions. He worked with the Esalen Institute! I’m old enough to remember the Beatles and when they befriended guru Maharishi. The New Age is code for the occult religions. “New Age Diplomacy: the Role of the Esalen Institute in Ending the Cold War.” Gorbachev’s Foundation, New Age, San Francisco:
    Catholic author Lee Penn’s book has more on the occult religions, secret societies “False Dawn.”