When we think about the word “conscience,” we often think about having “gut feelings,” “following your heart,” or “listening to your inner voice.” In the Catholic world, the issue of conscience took center stage in the Western developed nations during the time immediately following the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in the late 1960s. Although present in the ensuing decades, frequent discussion seemed to die out among Catholic lay and Church leaders. The issue of conscience, however, has made a comeback in the past few months, primarily with regards to the discussion of the divorced and remarried that has emerged with the family synod and the recently released papal document, Amoris Laeticia, “The Joy of Love”. In Amoris Laeitica, Pope Francis references conscience many times, perhaps most popularly when he states that the Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37).
In responding to Pope Francis’ emphasis on respecting the conscience of the individual, someCatholic thinkers are expressing concern that this will lead everyday Catholics to believe that decision-making should be subjective—that choices of right and wrong should be left totally to the individual. A 2014 Pew poll seems to indicate that the majority of U.S. Catholics see moral decision-making in this fairly individualistic way, which lends weight to the concerns expressed in the Catholic blogosphere about what exactly is understood by Amoris Laetitia’s references to conscience.
It is true that Catholic teaching about conscience can be quite complex, and perhaps for this reason it hasn’t been a popular area of discussion or catechesis in the past fifty years. But I think the tide is turning, and regardless of what one thinks about Pope Francis’ comments on conscience, I think they will spark a fruitful discussion.
My first thought in the days immediately following the release of Amoris Laetitia was that we continue to mature as a Church—laity included—precisely because of this discussion of what the Church means by ‘informed conscience’ (even if the numbers who engage this level of Catholic discernment are small…which they are, regrettably). In coming years. I expect to see more formal teaching and documents on conscience from the Institutional Church, and I also anticipate that the Church as Herald—or the Church in its capacity for evangelizing and forming Christians—will undertake its mission to form consciences much more seriously.
From a practical standpoint, what does this mean for those involved in faith formation? It means that though you have always been a crucial part of the body of Christ, you should have a renewed sense of urgency and mission! You will have the responsibility of taking a deeply personal approach towards the people you minister to. You are charged with the task of recognizing each person’s freedom as a decision-maker, while at the same time explaining that such decision-making assumes it is being done with the mind of Christ. This apostolic and catechetical work of those of us in ministry surely require us to find innovative and effectives ways to share with the laity how that decision-making will be most fruitful and bring abundant joy if it is rooted in the teachings of Christ and his Church. That is no easy task, especially when engaging a large uncatechized, relativistic, and even jaded laity (and clergy, at times). As well, this task doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of Church professionals—it’s the calling of parents, educators, priests, religious, and indeed, all baptized Catholics.