The Importance of Conscience Formation
© Copyright 2023, T. Stanfill Benns (All emphasis within quotes added by the author)
In order to develop an informed conscience as moral theologians insist we must do, Catholics are obliged to study the truths of faith and the binding nature of Canon Law. In previous times, a comprehensive study such as this was not as necessary, since many in those days were more knowledgeable concerning their faith and could easily consult spiritual directors and other experts concerning the details of doctrinal matters and the course of action to be taken where the laws of the Church were concerned. It is important when any study is undertaken to begin at the beginning, and that beginning is found in the principles governing law, the doctrinal norms that must be observed and the circumstances surrounding the decisions to be made.
Rev. Peter C. Yorke tells us concerning conscience: “Between God and a man’s conscience, neither Pope, nor priest nor king can come…God gave us our reason to tell us, to interpret to us His divine laws, both natural and revealed. And if at any time that reason, that conscience, tells us that some command given to us is wrong and should not be done, it does not matter who gives the command, we should not do it. And if our conscience tells us that a certain line of action is the right one, and that it is incumbent upon us to carry it out, even though that line carries us straight from the Pope, if we do not do it we shall suffer damnation…The Catholic theory of conscience is that a man has a right before God to preserve that conscience inviolate, and, though he be torn limb from limb, and though like the martyrs he suffer all the agonies of a thousand deaths, it is not lawful for him to basely surrender his reason or to betray the conscience which God gave him into his charge,” Catholic Cabinet of Information,” 1899, by various authors).
Therefore, as we shall learn in greater detail below, a well-formed conscience is the duty of every Catholic. It binds even when it is false, but only as long as it is false and no longer. It obliges under natural and Divine Law, as is stated by the moral theologians
Revs. McHugh and Callan, Rev. Dominic Prummer, also others below:
1) Man is bound to be guided by conscience, both negatively and positively;…He must neither disobey when it forbids or refuse to obey when it commands.
2) Conscience obliges us under the natural law and by Divine command:
• “I serve the Father and my God, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets…Having hope in God, that there shall be a resurrection of the just…And herein do I endeavor to have always a conscience without an offence towards God and towards men,” (Acts 24: 14-16).
• “For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law are a law to themselves; Who shew the work of the law, written in their hearts, their consciences bearing witness to them…” (Rom. 2:14-15).
• “All that is not from conscience is sin,” (Rom. 14:23).
• “Why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?,” (1 Cor. 10:29).
• “But we renounce the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor adulterating the word of God; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience…” (2 Cor. 4: 2).
• “Now the Spirit manifestly saith, that in the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy and having their conscience seared…” (2 Tim. 4: 1-2).
• Let us draw near with a true heart, in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with clean water,” (Heb. 10:22).
• “Now the end of the commandment is charity, from a pure heart, and a good conscience and unfeigned faith,” (1 Tim. 1: 5).
• “Timothy,…according to the prophecies going before on thee,…war in them a good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some rejecting have made shipwreck of the faith,” (1 Tim. 1: 18-19. There are other quotes from Scripture on the importance of conscience, but here we list those, especially, that mention conscience and faith in the same breath. For without a clean conscience, it is impossible to please God.)
3) Apart from revelation, there is no other way of learning what God wishes us to do here and now. (The signified will of God is His law and the laws of His Church, Rev. Tanquerey tells us in his “The Spritual Life.”)
4) The function of conscience is not to establish law or pass judgment on it, but to apply the law as expounded by the Church to a present case…Conscience must aim to be true — that is, to agree with and express the objective law.
5) Conscience is a judgment formed by evidence and firm conviction, not by our sentiments, emotions or one’s wishes. (Sentiment and emotions may long for the Sacraments, but Divine, natural and ecclesiastical laws must be observed.) Pope St. Pius X commented, concerning sentiment: “All these fantasies on religious sentiment will never be able to destroy common sense, and common sense tells us that emotion and everything that holds the heart captive proves a hindrance instead of a help to the discovery of the truth,” (“Pascendi Dominici Gregis”).
6) Conscience is a judgment to which intellect yields an unhesitating assent.
7) A conscience that is in invincible error must be followed when it forbids or commands, but he who follows an erroneous conscience is guilty if his ignorance is vincible, (i.e., is the result of a lack of due diligence or dishonesty with one’s self, — Ed.).
8) No one is allowed to perform an act while in a state of positive practical doubt, (Rev. Prummer). Positive means there are serious reasons for such doubt, while negative means the reasons are slight; practical means the thing being considered is to be performed here and now. In a practical doubt, one may not act until the practical doubt is resolved either directly or reflexly, (Summary of Scholastic Principles, Rev. Bernard Wuellner, S. J.) “In a remaining doubt of conscience, (after attempted direct solution), when the doubt concerns the certain right of another or an end necessarily to be attained, the safer course must be chosen…No unnecessary risk of harming oneself or others may be taken,” (Ibid).
9) Those who act when the mind is in doubt, suspicion or uncertain opinion are guilty of the species and gravity of sin, which they fear may be in their act. A doubtful conscience may not be followed if the doubt is such that one is not reasonably sure that the act is lawful.
10) Only a lax conscience judges the unlawful to be lawful. (Lukewarmness is personally condemned by Our Lord.)
11) One cannot act where there is any doubt concerning the validity of the Sacraments (i.e., particularly of Penance.), the certain means to salvation or the rights of a third party. “In doubt about the validity of an act that has been performed, the act is presumed to be valid until there is proof of its invalidity. In some acts certainty is required, as in acts necessary by a necessity of means, such as baptism, and in acts needed to safeguard others rights. Here the doubt must be resolved by conditional repetition of the required act,” (Summary of Scholastic Principles, Rev. Bernard Wuellner, S. J. See also the commentary by Revs. Woywod-Smith on Can. 15). Many Trad leaders stress the validity issue, without explaining the second half of the equation.. If there is even a DOUBT in anyone’s mind concerning the validity of the Sacraments, that person must not and cannot receive them. And the invalidity of those acts posited by clerics without certain jurisdiction cannot be questioned.
12) No. 11 above also applies to the case of those who follow a false pope because subjection to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for eternal salvation. This is true, however, only if such a Pontiff is certainly legitimate. Many Catholics today have a perplexed conscience concerning the legitimacy of the antipopes. While McHugh and Callan are more lenient in their allowance of the use of reflex principles in other cases, they advise the following for a perplexed conscience, taken from the works of St. Alphonsus:
a) If without serious inconvenience the decision can be delayed, reliable advice should be obtained from the confessor, (but a priest offering one the Sacrament of Penance invalidly is not reliable!)
b) If a decision cannot be delayed, choose the lesser of two evils. And it is less evil to sin against a law of the Church than a law directly from God.
c) If the decision cannot be delayed and one does not know what is the lesser of two evils, one can choose either one.
13) One acts prudently in following a decision that is solidly probable and unopposed by any contrary serious probability. Probable certitude is very different from probable opinion, for if one is not able to remove one or more important objections against his judgment, his opinion has not become moral certitude, and cannot be followed as a safe guide.
14) Pope Innocent XI condemned lax probabilism, which teaches that one can prudently follow a probable opinion even when it is slightly or doubtfully probable, (DZ 1153).
15) Probability can be obtained extrinsically when it is based on the authority of learned men. An opinion is considered extrinsically probable when there are five or six noteworthy authorities in its favor or at least one outstanding doctor, very learned men such as St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Alphonsus, (Rev. Prummer; see also Can. 20).
16) Negative and invincible doubts about the law can be settled as follows:
a) If no serious reasons can be found to prove or disprove the existence of a law, its gravity or application to a present case, use the principle that “Invincible ignorance of the law excuses from sin.”
b) If no serious reasons can be found to prove or disprove that a law bears a certain meaning, recourse may be had to the reflex principle that: “A law obliges only insofar as it is knowable.” (This however cannot be applied to the validity of the sacraments, the matter of eternal salvation or the rights of a third party.)
c) “If no serious reasons can be found to prove or directly disprove that a certain law has ceased or been abrogated, the principle to be followed is: “In doubt, decide for that which has the presumption.” In this case the presumption is for the continuance of the law, since it was certainly made, and there is no probability for its non-continuance.” (This principle is taught by St. Alphonsus, and is far from the attitude of many today.)
d) “In doubt about the validity of a positive law, the law is presumed to be valid for the sake of the common good and to preserve the certain right of authority,” (Summary of Scholastic Principles, Rev. Bernard Wuellner, S. J.) “Positive law is true law only when it is an act of legitimate authority, is just, is physically and morally possible of observance and is properly promulgated. The lawgiver and law enforcer must have jurisdiction over the subjects and over the matter and content of the law, and no higher law may be contravened. Necessity knows no law. A positive law is not binding in particular instances where its observance entails difficulties disproportionate to the importance and purpose of the law,” (Ibid. Here we must note that all the decisions of the Holy Office concerning schismatics decree that those sacraments necessary to salvation may be received from heretics and schismatics only in danger of death. This applies even in times of persecution.)
17) Rev. Prummer teaches that all other reflex principles rest on the principle of presumption: “When in doubt one must stand by presumption.’ This seems the most useful of all the principles and…when rightly used it seems sufficient for solving all practical doubt.”
18) Negative doubt must be settled in the favor of obligation when it persists and no reflex principle suitable to the case is found, especially when the doubt is about a matter that does not permit the taking of risks.
19) Cutting through all the confusing choices for conscience formation, the authors advise the following:
a) One must counsel the better and more perfect vs. the merely good and lawful, yet not impose it on the unwilling as a precept.
b) One must resolve doubts or slight probabilities into direct or indirect certitude. If a doubt remains, one must follow the safer course.
c) As between the safer and the less safe, one must follow the safer course where validity and supreme rights are concerned.
d) In the case of the more likely and the less likely, the preponderance of evidence must be followed.
e) Tutiorism and laxism, as systems, cannot be followed.
f) Probable opinions for liberty may be followed either when no contrary opinion or convincing arguments are presented, or the opinion proposed is less, equally or more probable, according to one’s conviction.
g) If a penitent has formed his conscience according to one moral system, the confessor has no right to impose on him his own system, for the Church allows liberty.
The signified will of God is His law and the laws of His Church, St. Francis de Sales teaches, and Rev. Tanquerey tells us in his “The Spiritual Life.” And yet how many Catholics are aware of the fact that there is more to God’s will than His will of good pleasure? Those who tell others to disregard the law of conscience and other laws, do they also tell them that in doing so they are acting against God’s will? The function of conscience is not to establish law or pass judgment on it, but to apply the law as expounded by the Church to a present case…Conscience must aim to be true — that is, to agree with and express the objective law. These laws may not be reinterpreted according to “the times” (a Modernist concept) or ignored as inapplicable.
Conscience is a judgment formed by evidence and firm conviction, not by our sentiments, emotions or one’s wishes. In the case of the more likely and the less likely, the preponderance of evidence must be followed. And yet even when this preponderance of evidence exists, many today ignore it and refuse to reconsider their position. A case in point is the Church’s teaching on the necessity of Apostolicity and jurisdiction for the confection of valid Sacraments. No matter how many truths from Divine faith are advanced to prove that those lacking jurisdiction absolutely cannot operate without either of these prerequisites laid down by Christ, they insist that they can and will despite all indications to the contrary.
Conscience is a judgment to which intellect yields an unhesitating assent. If one is not able to remove one or more important objections against this judgment, his opinion has not become moral certitude, and cannot be followed as a safe guide. Yet in reviewing posts on various discussion forums it is abundantly clear that many Traditionalists still have lingering doubts about the future of the movement and even their present stand on different issues. This is conscience speaking.
If no serious reasons can be found to prove or directly disprove that a certain law has ceased or been abrogated, the principle to be followed is: “In doubt, decide for that which has the presumption.” In this case the presumption is for the continuance of the law, since it was certainly made, and there is no probability for its non-continuance.
This is the principle most abused by those who blithely dismiss Canon Law on mere whim. They mouth sensus Catholicus and then ignore the very essence of what they pretend to hold. One of the laws they have maligned most consistently is Pope Paul IV’s “Cum ex Apostolatus Officio.” Recent findings on this infallible papal bull clearly show that there was a remedy to the crisis in the Church at hand, but all failed to apply it, (see site section on Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio under Canon Law: Heresy.)
One must resolve doubts or slight probabilities into direct or indirect certitude. If a doubt remains, one must follow the safer course. Pope Pius XI, in his Ad Catholici Sacerdoti teaches the application of this concept where ordination is concerned. “Superiors …should, without any regard for human considerations, order those who are unsuitable or unworthy to leave the seminary. In these cases, the safer view should always be followed.” The safer course prescribed above is not the one referred to that demands one avoid those things involving the validity of the Sacraments, and whatever threatens one’s eternal salvation. This safer course applies even to those things which violate the laws of God — illicit things — since illicit means something contrary to law. An unfit man would be ordained validly, if the ordinand was unaware of his lack of fitness. But his Orders would be illicit and he would likely be required not to exercise them. One can never place oneself in a position that could possibly involve even venial sin. Superiors in the seminary could allow those they considered unsuitable or unworthy to remain, in the hopes that they would improve. Pius XI says that they may not do so, even though ordaining the unworthy is only illicit and not invalid, (Can. 974).
As already observed above, Traditionalists still have doubts about many things, and nearly all these doubts can be resolved by simply following the safer course. As the Popes also have taught, no greater aids can be found than in those documents from the extraordinary and ordinary magisterium. For these documents present not only the truths of Divine faith itself, but other truths necessarily connected to them. One of those things proximate to faith which Sedevacantists toss around is whether or not “Good Pope John” 23 committed manifest heresy and can be counted officially among those usurping the papal see. That until now very little has really been understood concerning the actual damage done by Roncalli and his truly diabolical perversity is further addressed in the articles found under the free downloads on this site. These articles on Roncalli provide a prime example of using grave doubts to make decisions where doctrinal matters are concerned. But this will all be part of going back to correct the mistakes made when leaving the Novus Ordo or other non-Catholic sects. Now that we know the rules for conscience formation, we can better view what is presented here through the eyes of faith.