Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Catholicism and Conscience

Brian Patrick Green

Catholicism and Conscience

The Catholic tradition on conscience is very extensive, while being quite unified. One may wonder, if the teaching is so unified, why there would be so much to say. The reason is because the tradition is unified on a tension. The first pole of the tension is that under no circumstances should one violate one's conscience – one must always follow even an erring conscience. The other pole of the tension is that, at the same time, a rightly formed conscience is expected to concur with Catholic teaching. These two moral requirements, that one should follow one's conscience and that one should follow Church teachings, are potentially in conflict. The requirements may not align, and if so, then a point of tension has appeared between an individual's conscience and the Church's teachings.

Here I will endeavor to provide only a brief overview of the immense literature surrounding the Catholic understanding of conscience. In the first section I will provide some background to the subject of conscience, in the second some examples of perennial issues that arise in the discussion of conscience, and in the third some current examples of conscience in the news.

Historical Background

The biblical background for the Catholic understanding of conscience is based on many explicit verses, but it is a frequent theme which appears in many oblique references as well. In the Hebrew Scriptures, conscience is typically understood as the feeling in one's heart, or of the voice of God in one's soul. These interior, reflective, and guiding aspects remain at the core of the idea of conscience.

Greek and Roman philosophy also engaged understandings of conscience, but usually in the context of a guilty one – of feelings of regret for bad actions done. This negative understanding of conscience typical of Greco-Roman philosophy became more positively construed in the New Testament with St. Paul and the fathers of the early Church. St. Paul constantly reiterates that he has a good conscience, and encourages others to act so that they will too. St. Augustine also recommends seeking a good conscience. The role played by the martyrs of the early Church should also not be underestimated. These witnesses to conscience and conscientious objection to state religious power set a firm directionality in Christian teaching that conscience should never be violated, even unto death.

The medieval theologians wrote much about conscience, and of these St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most prominent. St. Thomas agreed that even an erring conscience binds. At the same time, he supported the persecution of heretics, thus showing clearly the tension in the idea that conscience must be obeyed, yet it is also expected to concur with the Church.

The Reformation period was a trying time for conscience rights in Europe as political and religious groups vied for power. During this time, for example, St. Thomas More was executed for refusing to submit to the religious authority of English King Henry VIII, citing that he could not do so in good conscience. Yet earlier in his life St. Thomas More had himself participated in the religious persecution of others. Many other Catholics and Protestants also died in persecutions and wars at this time.

It was out of the Reformation age that the political idea of religious tolerance began to take shape. Over time the realm of religious toleration came to include an expanding circle of faiths, thus protecting the conscience rights of more and more people. One example of the codification of religious tolerance and conscience rights into law is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights, where the non-establishment and free exercise of religion are guaranteed.

More recently, the Church and its theologians have continued to promote conscience rights. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk famously remarked "I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." The Catholic Church has strongly defended the rights of Catholics to practice their religion freely, especially under totalitarian regimes such as fascism and communism. Pope Pius XI wrote several significant documents defending Catholic rights to conscience and free exercise of their religion, and the Second Vatican Council also strongly defended conscience rights in Gaudium et Spes, Lumen Gentium, and Dignitatis Humanae. The Code of Canon Law also defends conscience rights, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This strong recent emphasis on the freedom of conscience has not removed the tension on conscience from Catholic teaching however. Many documents from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI affirm the importance of forming one's conscience towards the teachings of the Church.

Despite the ongoing and consistent teaching of the Church, conscience remains very actively discussed because it is a subject of such dramatic personal importance.

Catholicism, Conscience, and…

Four areas of moral concern tend to be centers of ongoing dialogue for Catholic teaching on conscience. These four major areas include contraception, healthcare, politics, and war.

Catholicism, Conscience, and Contraception

With the promulgation of Pope Paul VI's encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in 1968, Catholic teaching on contraception became a source of great debate in the Church. The encyclical created a controversy over the use of contraception among Catholics, and many sources expressed the idea that Catholics could in good conscience come to decisions which may not agree with Church teaching. For example, the Canadian bishops issued the "Winnipeg Statement" just two months after Humanae Vitae, and affirmed the validity of the judgments of individual conscience on this issue.

However, the debate on contraception and conscience has continued in the Catholic Church, with the magisterium stressing the priority of formation of conscience towards magisterial teaching on contraception and others stressing the priority of conscience in moral decision-making. It is important to note that both sides are utilizing the same Catholic tradition, but emphasizing different parts of it, which under certain circumstances may promote the formation of different moral judgments.

Catholicism, Conscience, and Healthcare

The Catholic Church is historically deeply involved with healthcare, with its members running many hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare establishments. Within these settings, Catholic moral teachings are generally followed. For example, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" pamphlet, providing contraceptives, abortions, sterilizations, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other such procedures would not be consistent with Catholic moral teachings. The members of such institutions should not in good conscience provide any of these procedures. Furthermore, the bishops have recently argued that the institutions themselves have a sort of right to conscientious objection to the participation in morally objectionable acts; this is an underlying idea in their objections to the United States Department of Health and Human Services mandate that all health insurance providers cover contraceptives.

Similarly, Catholic teaching recognizes that healthcare workers should also have their conscience rights protected outside of Catholic healthcare institutions. For example, nurses should not be required to participate in abortions if they find such operations objectionable, and pharmacists should not be required to prescribe contraceptives or abortifacient drugs.

Catholicism, Conscience, and Politics

Conscience is an important concept among Catholic politicians across the political spectrum (along with the idea of "prudential judgment"). Often Catholic politicians may hold political positions at variance with magisterial teaching. When asked to explain how they can hold beliefs at variance with the teachings of their Church, politicians will often say that they can do so in good conscience based on the Catholic teaching on conscience.

As a candidate for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy clearly stated that he would not allow the teachings of the Church to interfere with his protection of the interests of the nation, but stated that if somehow the two did conflict, he would resign rather than violate his oath of office or his conscience. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, New York governor Mario Cuomo discussed his understanding of the relationship between the religious and the political realms. Both Kennedy and Cuomo appealed to conscience in their speeches. In 2002, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement which emphasized that Catholics should come to political life as Catholics, should not ignore their faith, and should not only be concerned with current events but should "seek the city which is to come." The USCCB has also published the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship which discusses the role of conscience in American political life.

Catholicism, Conscience, and War

Service in war is a grave matter not only for the individuals involved in it, who may kill others and be killed themselves, but also for the nations involved. Because conscience rights and the right of conscientious objection in war touch on such serious matters as life and death of individuals and groups, they have been of great importance to Christians for centuries. Historically, Catholicism has tended to approach war from pacifist, just war, or crusader standpoints, but currently advocates the use of just war theory. In other words, Catholics may be soldiers, but Catholic soldiers should only fight in wars that are just. So what should a Catholic soldier do if a war is not just?

Conscientious objection to military service can be on principle, as for pacifists who totally reject war, or selective, as when a soldier believes that a particular war is morally objectionable. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement typify the pacifist position and object to any sort of participation in war. In Nazi Germany/Austria Franz Jagerstatter refused to participate in the Nazi military, and for this he was beheaded. During the Vietnam War, US Army soldier Louis Negre petitioned for conscientious objector status, stating that because of his Catholic faith and conscience he could not participate in the Vietnam War, which he considered to be unjust. Negre lost his case in the US Supreme Court (Negre v. Larsen); however the decision was not unanimous, with Justice William O. Douglas dissenting.

Current Flashpoints in Catholicism and Conscience

Two current flashpoints that involve Catholicism and conscience (in addition to the ongoing topics above) are the US federal government's Health and Human Services Mandate ("HHS mandate") on the provision of insurance coverage for contraception and other services which the church finds objectionable, and the use by Catholic bishops of "loyalty oaths," "affirmations of faith," and "oaths of fidelity" for diocesan employees.

The USCCB has stated that the HHS mandate as it was previously written and as it currently stands remains incompatible with Catholic teaching for several reasons. First the mandate allows the government to define what a religious institution is, and then defines it very narrowly. Second the mandate requires employers who do not fit within the state-defined religious exemption to provide insurance services which Catholic teaching finds morally objectionable. Third, the clause contains no conscience exemptions for individuals. Lawsuits are currently pending.

While the first current issue involves the bishops opposing the government in favor of conscience rights, the second issue involves bishops requiring diocesan employees to sign oaths or affirmations which the employees may not, in good conscience, agree that they can sign. One current example of this practice involves the Diocese of Santa Rosa and Bishop Robert Vasa, who added an affirmation of faith to his diocesan school employee's contracts this year. These oaths typically require employees to affirm Catholic faith and morals, and if the employee is non-Catholic or a Catholic who cannot in good conscience agree with the Church on certain issues, then they may not in good conscience be able to sign the oath and may lose their job. As of March 2013 Bishop Vasa has temporarily withdrawn his requirement.

Brian Patrick Green is the assistant director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Davis, H. Francis, Aidan Williams, OSB, Ivo Thomas, OP, Joseph Crehan, SJ, eds. A Dictionary of Catholic Theology, Volume Two. London: Thomas Nelson, 1967.

Griffin, Leslie C. Law and Religion: Cases and Materials. New York: Foundation Press, 2007.

Griffin, Michael. "A Soldier's Decision." America. January 29, 2007.

Hogan, Linda. Confronting the Truth: Conscience in the Catholic Tradition. New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2000.

Mahoney, John. The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

O'Brien, David J., and Thomas A. Shannon. Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004.

This page is under construction and the content will be updated.

May 1, 2013