Back in February, you may recall that Pope Francis made a visit to Mexico. On his return flight back to Rome, he fielded various questions from news media reporters. His off-the-cuff responses received an enormous amount of attention on a range of different issues including his thoughts on Donald Trump’s ideas on immigration, Catholic politicians voting in favor of same-sex unions, and the use of artificial contraception.
As is so often the case, the Pope’s responses have been greatly misinterpreted. Admittedly, some of them were very unclear to begin with. On the issue of politicians voting in favor of same-sex unions (… and one could insert here any other issue that the Church teaches is morally wrong), Pope Francis stated that Catholic politicians “must vote according to their well-formed consciences.” Some of the news media took this as “a break” from the teaching of the Pope’s predecessors.
There always seems to be a lot of confusion these days when “following one’s conscience” is invoked in response to various controversial moral issues – especially when it comes to who and what we vote for, and a number of issues surrounding sexuality, such as the use of artificial contraception. Following one’s conscience does not, of course, mean just going with what subjectively feels right. Pope Francis rightly indicated the importance of having a “well-formed conscience.”
So what does it mean to have a “well-formed conscience?” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lists these eight points for forming one’s conscience (see http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/parishes-and-schools/upload/Conscience-Formation-bulletin-insert.pdf):
- When examining any issue or situation, we must begin by being open to the truth and what is right.
- We must study Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church.
- We must examine the facts and background information about various choices.
- We must prayerfully reflect to discern the will of God.
- The prudent advice and good example of others support and enlighten our conscience.
- The authoritative teaching of the Church is an essential element.
- The gifts of the Holy Spirit help us develop our conscience.
- Regular examination of conscience is important as well.
What can be an obstacle to forming our conscience well? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1792) states this: “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: These can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.”
While many of the Pope’s responses to questions on the flight back from Mexico were unclear, and the media seemed to indicate that there was a shift from traditional Church teaching, we should bear in mind that nothing the Pope states in such informal contexts could be ever construed as an infallible teaching.