In the comments section below yesterday's post, a reader took me to task for my second suggestion, "Thou shalt not represent thyself as a "Catholic" if thou disagreest with the Church on the following: artificial birth control, female ordination, sexual morality/gay marriage, and so forth." The commenter says she can be Catholic and believe in gay marriage, and that to insist that Catholics "...must agree with all of Rome’s pronouncements to be authentically “Catholic” smacks of religious hubris." She used the word "conscience" twice.
I feel a bit like the movie character who said, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. ..."
I don't want to discuss a specific commenter too much; that's not the point, here. But I have encountered many Catholics who seem to have an honest misunderstanding about what the conscience is, what its role is, and what it has to do with our duty to obey the Church's teachings on faith and morals as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Church's understanding of the word "conscience" may be found here. In particular, the Church stresses that we must make choices according to our consciences and may not be forced to act contrary to them; that we have a duty to form our consciences correctly according to reason, authoritative teachings, and the Word of God, that it is possible to form our consciences incorrectly and to make erroneous judgments which we may or may not be responsible for making; however, we are clearly at fault if we have not taken the trouble to learn what is right, or if, having learned it, we reject it by pride or some mistaken notion that our consciences are autonomous.
In particular, I wish to quote CCC 1799, which summarizes this latter concept as follows: "Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them."
In other words, it is possible for our consciences to be wrong; and inasmuch as we ever decide that we can't accept some clear, well-known teaching of the Church our conscience is certainly in the wrong, though our level of culpability will depend on the usual factors and also on whether we have been led astray by those we should be able to trust.
At this time in history, any literate and reasonably intelligent Catholic can discover what the Church teaches on any major issue involving faith and morals, so few people can claim to be ignorant of what the Church teaches. Yet many Catholics still claim that they can be Catholic in good conscience while rejecting Church teaching, based, I believe, on an erroneous and false notion of the conscience. This false notion claims that either the Church is wrong about huge matters of faith or morals, or that there is no actual, unchanging standard of right and wrong in those areas. Thus, argues the dissident Catholic, it is possible to reject Church teachings on, say, sexual morality while still considering oneself to be a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church.
But each of these ideas involves very un-Catholic ideas.
The first, that it is possible for Catholics to reject any part of Church teaching they don't particularly like, is opposed to the concept of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Catholics are required to give the full assent of faith to all infallible teachings, and religious assent of the intellect and will to teachings which have not been infallibly defined. Religious assent doesn't mean dissent, no matter how hard one tries to make it so; moreover, it could be argued that those teachings about the intrinsic evil of certain sins against the Sixth Commandment are actually part of the ordinary universal Magisterium and thus infallible; while I lack the knowledge necessary to make a good case for this, I'm aware that it has been addressed before.
The second claim, that there simply is no standard of right or wrong when discussing sexual morality, that all ideas about the rightness or wrongness of certain acts stem from cultural or other notions, and that the Church merely reflects these outdated cultural views in Her teachings, seems to be part of the taint of relativism which our current pope, Benedict XVI, has deplored. Laying aside that even if this were ever the case about any Church teaching the religious assent of the intellect and will would still be required of every Catholic in good standing, there is the additional fact that the concepts of morality we are talking about have persevered from Biblical times until the equivalent, historically speaking, of twenty minutes ago. That marriage involved a man and a woman; that relations outside of marriage were not morally sound; that sexual immorality was a barrier to a believer's ability to approach the Altar of the Lord--all of these notions were clearly set out in the New Testament, and have been adhered to by Christians throughout most of Christian history. Granted, many Christians did, and still do, sin in these areas, just as Christians sin against all the Commandments; but no serious Catholic I know of is arguing that the concept of theft is an outdated cultural relic, or that telling lies is really a moral good.
The fact of the matter is that we don't get to define for ourselves what "Catholic" means. As a friend of mine put it, to be a Catholic means that you can hold up the Catechism of the Catholic Church and simply say, "I accept this. All of it." If there's a big section of the Catechism you can't accept, the problem is likely not with the Catechism.
Our consciences are our souls' voices, expressing to us the moral truths behind our judgments and actions. If we have taken care to form them rightly and to listen to them we will have a sure guide in determining what is right and what is wrong. But if we have dulled and blunted the voice of the conscience by turning away from the Church's teachings, or stunted our consciences' growths by never trying to read or understand those teachings in the first place, then our ability to know right and wrong will suffer accordingly--as will we.