Obedience vs. Conscience

Help Lapsed Catholics Return by Teaching Them to Fall in Love With Christ and His Church

By Janet Smith

What to do about all the lapsed Catholics? Those Catholics who don’t come to church because they reject the Church’s teachings on such matters as contraception, the ordination of women to the diaconate, and married priests.

Father Joseph Breen of Nashville proposed in a video posted last month on his parish website (and since removed) that these individuals are under the erroneous view that they need to accept these teachings. He says that as adults they need to be obedient to nothing but “the spirit of God”: The conscience is supreme.

Ironically, Father Breen invokes a Church teaching to defend rejecting Church teaching. He likely has in mind the principle found in the Catechism: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (No. 1790). He rejects the principle articulated in Lumen Gentium No. 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” Father Breen chooses to believe what he wants to believe and rejects the rest.

How can it be simultaneously true that Catholics must follow their consciences and that Catholics must follow Church teaching?

First, we must understand that the conscience is not equivalent to our thoughts or our opinions or our judgments. The Catechism (No. 1776) defines the conscience as an inner sanctuary in which we listen to God’s voice for guidance about our actions. So when someone is consulting his or her conscience, the question being asked is not “Do I think this action is good or bad?” but “Does God judge this action to be good or bad?” And God speaks to the consciences of Catholics through the Church.

If a Catholic is considering doing something that the Church teaches to be wrong, he can be certain that he is not listening to his conscience, but some other “voice” that has caught his attention.

Consider a question of conscience of this sort: “My wife has been in a persistent vegetative state for years. Would it be immoral for me to have relations with my lovely, lonely, unmarried secretary? We would get married if we could, but until my wife dies, I am not free to marry.”

Suppose this unfortunate, lonely husband said he thought his conscience was clear on this point — he was not really committing adultery because his wife was not available as a wife. Now, only God knows the extent of this man’s confusion and how honestly he has tried to work through the issues. But wouldn’t a Catholic priest have to say to this man, “I am sorry, but you are not properly consulting your conscience. God is clear on this point: Adultery is having sexual intercourse with someone who is not your spouse, and that is precisely what you would be doing.”

Such a man ignoring Church teaching would certainly be welcome to attend Catholic services, but would not be welcome to receive the Eucharist.

Let’s consider another question: “Should I have a baby through in vitro fertilization?” I suspect a Catholic asking the question in the proper fashion — “Would God approve of me having a baby through in vitro fertilization?” — when talking with God in her inner sanctuary, would hear God’s voice say: “You are a Catholic; I have set up the Church to guide you in such decisions; turn to the Church for guidance, and you will be hearing my voice on this matter.”

She must now do what Catholics are obliged to do: “Form” her conscience (Catechism, Nos. 1783-87). Truly forming the conscience involves reading Church documents, seeking clarification on difficult points, and praying that God will lead one to the truth. After all that, suppose she still is not convinced that IVF is moral. Is she free to utilize IVF and still remain a Catholic in good standing?

Only God can know the source of her confusion, but any Catholic priest should tell her she is violating God’s law and would not be free to receive the Eucharist, though she is certainly welcome at church.

Would Father Breen maintain that the above individuals are doing what is right when they follow their “consciences”? Would Father Breen hold that there are any teachings of the Church from which a Catholic is not free to dissent on the basis of conscience? Teachings on racism, greed etc.?

He may respond that different kinds of teaching require different levels of obedience. It is correct that the Church itself teaches that different teachings require different levels of adherence, but all of those listed by Father Breen as nonbinding the Church teaches require “religious assent.”

What should we do to bring lapsed Catholics back to the Church? Father Breen recommends that we turn the Church into a more inviting place, and he believes the Church would be more welcoming were it to become more like Protestant churches which accept contraception, women ministers and married priests.

What will Father Breen provide that these churches don’t? Some even have plush seating and Starbucks coffee. What can compete with that? The sacraments?

Well, the validity of the sacraments is dependent upon a certain structure of the Church that is rooted in the validity of the papacy. But Father Breen is questioning the papacy, and he encourages his flock to do the same. A huge flaw in his proposal is that Protestant churches are rapidly declining in membership, not growing. I suspect their flocks will decline further as those lapsed Catholics who have found their way there eventually cease worshipping altogether.

Let me offer a proposal for winning back lapsed Catholics: something worth coming back to.

Priests should evince a tremendous love for Christ and his Church and the papacy. They should do everything they can to help their congregation fall in love with Christ and his Church; they should encourage them to read Scripture and receive the sacraments; they should find a myriad of ways to help them understand and accept Church teaching on difficult issues and inspire them to live lives of radical Christian service.

These Catholics will then go out into the world as powerhouses of grace and as knowledgeable witnesses to their faith. I suspect both lapsed Catholics and those who are entirely “unchurched” might find the Catholic Church has something to offer them found nowhere else in the world.


2 Responses to Obedience vs. Conscience

  1. Chiara says:

    Thank you again for such a wonderful piece of work which open to debate and discussion.

    John 14:4-6 “And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
    “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.” –1 Peter 2:9

    With these words, the Apostle Peter describes all Christians as a “priesthood” — and indeed, that is exactly what Christians are, as the Catholic Church teaches (for the full official teaching on this see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially paragraphs 1533-1600).

    The Common Priesthood of Believers

    When one is Baptised in the Catholic Church, one is also “christened” with oil, and so anointed as a Priest, a Prophet, and a King. Why? Because, in Baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:14-17); and, in this, we share in the very same Sonship which Christ Himself enjoys with the Father. Becoming members of His Body, we must act as Christ to the world. We are anointed as a King because we share in His royalty (His Messiahship); we are anointed as a Prophet because we are to speak His words and carry His Gospel to all; and we are anointed a Priest because we are to share in Christ’s own High Priesthood. In this, we are to intercede for the world.

    And this is exactly the definition of a priest: “Someone who is an intermediary and who offers a sacrifice on behalf of another.” And, as priests, all Christians do this for the world. As Christians (redeemed by the Blood of Christ), we offer Christ’s Sacrifice for the sake of the world. As Christians, we are able to pray:

    “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” (see 1 Tim 2:1-6; 1 John 2:1-2).

    And, in the Catholic understanding, this prayer is especially appropriate and powerful just after we have received Jesus in Holy Communion (the Eucharist).

    So, as Christians we are priests; and, as priests, we are intercessors between Christ and the world (Christ being the one Mediator between us and the Father — 1 Tim 2:5). And this is what the Catholic Church refers to as the “common priesthood of the laity.”

    However, aside from this common priesthood — a priesthood which ministers directly to the world, there is also a priesthood which ministers to the Church itself.

    Romans 15:15-16 –“But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the PRIESTLY service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

    This is the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church — a priesthood which does not minister directly to the world, but which ministers to those within the Church itself, which builds up the Church and aids the “little ones” through a ministry of unity, leadership, teaching authority, and the Sacraments. A ministry which succeeds to that of the Apostles themselves.

    Acts 14:23 –“They (Paul and Barnabas) appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in Whom they put their faith.”

    The Word Presbyter/Priest

    Now, the Greek word “presbyter” has an interesting position in the English language. While it’s usually translated as “elder,” the Greek meaning is actually more adjectival — being closer in meaning to “senior” — as in a “senior citizen” or a “father” of the community (i.e. a “patriarch”).

    However, what’s most interesting for the Christian usage in English is that “presbyter” already has an equivalent word — an English word which draws its root from the Christian usage of “presbyter” in the Greek language; and that English word is “priest.”

    This becomes most clear when one stops reading Scripture from the English (i.e. culturally-Protestant) perspective, and one realizes that the words “presbuteros” (in Greek) and “presbyterus” (in Latin) were used to designate the role of a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest for the first five to ten hundred years of Christianity. Indeed, if one travels to Greece today, one will notice that the Greek word for “priest” is still “presbuteros.”

    The change is only apparent in English because we (as English speakers) are viewing things from an inverted perspective. When we hear of Jewish or pagan “priests,” we assume the English word “priest” pre-dates the Christian usage, when in fact the word “priest” comes from the Christian usage of “presbuteros.”

    Here’s how it works:

    “Presbuteros” (Greek) –> “Presbyterus” (Latin) –> “Prete” (Italian) –> “Pretre” (French) –> “Proest” (Old / Middle English) –> “Priest” (Modern English).

    So, the “presbyters” we see in Scripture are the “priests” of the Catholic Church. That is, they are those who preside as “fathers” at the new Passover Meal (the Eucharist / Holy Communion). For, in the Jewish Tradition, it was always the father who presided over the Passover Feast; and this Tradition has been elevated to the status of a far greater Passover Feast (the Eucharist), where the faithful are able to partake of the ONE Sacrifice of Calvary –made present in their midst.

    In light of the above I say that the priest in the Catholic church has a different role from the pastor, vicar or minister in the Protestant and Pentecostal churches.

    Therefore firstly it is important for the lapsed Catholic to go through a conversion experience and personal encounter with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Then ask the Holy spirit to lead them to the church He chooses for them. They might find that they move through the denominations and end up in the Catholic Church where they will be led to find the whole TRUTH.

    We are all on a faith journey. Through my journey I prayed and worshiped with other Charismatic Christians. The Holy Spirit led to be in the Catholic church in the present moment. Let us hope the Holy Spirit will open doors within for me to preach, teach, and minister healing and deliverance. So far I read and am a lay minister Eucharist. In the Healing Retreat Centre in Kerala, Potta, India many lay preach and teach and minister healing and deliverance. A small number do in the U.K. but sadly many Catholics work at Protestant Healing Retreat Centres but keep their Catholic doctrine to themselves.

    I hope this helps.


  2. Barbara de Souza says:

    She must now do what Catholics are obliged to do: “Form” her conscience (Catechism, Nos. 1783-87). Truly forming the conscience involves reading Church documents, seeking clarification on difficult points, and praying that God will lead one to the truth. After all that, suppose she still is not convinced that IVF is moral. Is she free to utilize IVF and still remain a Catholic in good standing?

    There are varying shades of Catholic and a whole assortment according to background,levels of commitment, spirituality, education and race.

    Other Christians who are carnal or in the flesh would go along with IVF. I know a couple of very committed carnal Christians who are in the midst of treatment. But they are not Catholic so for them they are going according to their conscience which unlike Catholic conscience is informed by the teaching of the Catholic church.

    Those Christians who are born again through the power of the Holy Spirit are used to miracles. So they would attend counselling in the ministry of healing and deliverance. There are many miracle babies and children are born to post-menopausal women as well as all women with fertility problems.

    In the Catholic church many Catholic women have had babies through prayer requests. I have seen at least 10 babies born this way. Once I worked with a Malaysian lady who could not have children because her fallopian tubes were blocked. So I gave her a prayer card to St. Dominic Savio patron of children and she had a miracle baby. Since then she had two more. The children are all under 40 now and all in a profession. One of them works in London but I have not had the opportunity to meet her. The other two live in Sabah. Their parents live there too and are now retired.

    For Prayer Cards write to

    Fr. Edwin D’Souza
    Don Bosco’s Madonna,
    Matunga, Mumbai


    Salesian College
    Sharples Park
    Bolton BL1 6PQ
    01204 301 351

    Fruits of the womb are a blessing from God. Barreness, infertility etc are results of a curse. Do not fear as Jesus is victorious over satan and can turn a curse into a blessing.

    For help please get in touch with

    Damian Stayne
    Cor et Lumen Christi Community
    Highfield House
    St John’s Way
    Surrey KT16 8BZ

    T: 01932 565747 F: 01932 567945 E: info@cor-



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