A Primer on the ‘Primacy of Conscience’

A state senator in North Dakota is taking a page from Nancy Pelosi’s playbook and enthroning himself as a Doctor of the Church and learned theologian. He is obviously neither – and – if I were a constituent, I would contemplate his suitability for office. His understanding of the First Amendment is chilling for any person who would seek to speak his mind.  The letter he issued can be found here. Today, the Citizen will dust off his recollection of logic and try to explain the myriad flaws in Mr. Mathern’s epistle.

The primacy of conscience has become a darling of those who embrace the ‘balancing scales’ Christianity inherent in liberation theology and ‘progressive’ Christian thought. In 1968, Father Ratzinger, then the Chair of Dogmatic Theology at Tübingen wrote:

Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.

In 1991, Cardinal Ratzinger presented a compelling lecture at a conference for Bishops in Dallas.  He spoke at length of the ‘erroneous conscience’, arguing that

…it will not do to identify man’s conscience with the self-consciousness of the I, with it subjective certainty about itself and its moral behavior. On the one hand, this consciousness may be a mere reflection of the social surroundings and the opinions in vogue.

Are these contradictory statements? Not at all. The first argued that a person needs to understand the Magisterium of the Church and be willing to stand up to defend those doctrines, teachings, and traditions against the actions of men who may be in positions of authority. I can think of more than one instance where I have encountered a priest who was wrong – including one who incorrectly argued that abortion and contraception was less of a sin than permitting poverty to exist. In such a case, Father Ratzinger, argued, it was not only right but a necessity for a good Catholic to take a page from Saint Thomas Moore and stand up against unjust authority in the person of that priest.

The second passage quoted explained that is essential for an individual’s conscience to be more than a reflection of what is popular, expedient, or championed by many. Our conscience – in order to be a tool we can rely upon – must be carefully nurtured and formed by the cultivation of moral virtue in the form of the Catechism. Furthermore, conscience needs to be informed by the Magisterium and our traditions in order to make choices that are truly right and just.

This is the major failing of Mr. Mathern. He has taken a concept that is trotted out by those who seek to dilute the authority of the Magisterium and replace it with intellectually and morally flexible progressivism that fails to assert any moral or intellectual standards of thought or behavior.  Mathern quotes Richard Rohr, a Franciscan with a particularly strong bent towards liberation theology, as justification. According to Rohr, a good Catholic will listen to his priest or Bishop. If their words  march with their own perspective – on any level – than that is acceptable. If the message from the pulpit is contrary to that of the listener, than it is perfectly acceptable to march to your own drum. There is a name for Catholics who follow this practice.


The Citizen is not arguing that as Catholics we must blindly obey the pronouncements from the pulpit as if they were the very words of our Lord and Savior. That is patently absurd. The Citizen has written a number of essays disagreeing with priests and prelates speaking from positions of authority. The difference between my actions and that of those who would agree with men like Mathern is that my conscience is guided by the Magisterium and not by my political or personal leanings.

This is the essence of the ‘primacy of conscience’. It is action guided by doctrine and principles, not by the men preaching from the pulpit. In the instance of Bishop Kagan’s letter, there is no conflict between the well-formed conscience and the arguments articulated by the Bishop.

There are other elements of this letter that may need addressing, but I am not convinced I need to give Mr. Mathern any more ink on this matter.


May God bless you all.

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