“They are grateful to the Roman Pontiff, who so courageously is fulfilling his arduous mission for their spiritual welfare. Throughout the world, contradictory voices may resound. The faithful do not allow themselves to be deceived. They know the Shepherd's voice and they follow it, for he alone has the words of eternal life and guides them to the fullness of the Christian life and to the joy of heaven.”[i]
Last week, in The Southern Cross, there was an article titled “Our Conscience Reigns Supreme”.[ii] The writer explained therein that ultimately we are judged according to our own conscience and that our conscience is therefore to be supreme in determining our actions. In the article, the writer uses an example of a family whose conscience leads them to choose to use contraception, rather than natural family planning. The writer concludes that, providing the family has acted in accordance with their conscience, their choice of using contraception, though contrary to the teaching of the Church, is not subjectively sinful.
In the editorial, of the same newspaper edition, the editor writes about conscience too. He also chooses to bring up the subject of contraception by mentioning, though sadly very, very briefly, the Obama Healthcare Bill, which forces US Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives. He concludes his editorial by stating that: “Catholics are right to object to it, but when we do, we must also respect the freedom of conscience of those who don’t accept what our conscience dictates.”[iii]
There is no doubt, as The Southern Cross article “Our Conscience Reigns Supreme” rightly says, that we will ultimately answer to God in accordance with our own conscience. So when we make decisions on how to act, it is vital that we do so because we believe it to be right and not simply because we have been told to behave in that way.
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”[iv]
The article also rightly points out, that we should never ever forget one very important caveat about obeying our own conscience. That is that we must keep our conscience properly informed. If we fail to keep our conscience properly informed and our conscience judges an action right due to our failure to properly study the matter, it would be equally as grave a matter as having simply acted contrary to our own conscience.
Sadly and crucially, what both the article and the editorial fails to mention, is the critical fact that our conscience must always remain subject to the Magisterium of the Church. Even in this weeks edition of The Southern Cross, Fr Anthony Egan's article titled, "The Reaffirmation Of The Conscience", fails to touch on this truth.
Here are the words, taken directly from the General Catechetical Directory #63, as approved by Pope Paul VI, on this matter of our conscience being subjected to the Magisterium:
“The conscience of the faithful, even when informed by the virtue of prudence, must be subject to the Magisterium of the Church, whose duty it is to explain the whole moral law authoritatively, in order that it may rightly and correctly express the objective moral order.
Further, the conscience itself of Christians must be taught that there are norms which are absolute, that is, which bind in every case and on all people. That is why the saints confessed Christ through the practice of heroic virtues; indeed, the martyrs suffered even torture and death rather than deny Christ.”
I believe therefore, that if you happen to be one of those whose conscience has, as in the example given in The Southern Cross, judged that it is acceptable to use contraception, it would be wise for you to immediately take some time, to again reconsider your position by studying this matter further!
In seeking to study the matter again, it is extremely important to note that, it would probably NOT be wise to simply return to the same person who previously assisted you on the subject of contraception. Doing so would probably be more accurately described as seeking affirmation, rather than seeking to honestly re-examine the matter to properly inform your conscience.
It may be a very good idea to seek out a priest who does in fact believe that Humanae Vitae is binding on Catholics, as it clearly is! Then at least you would thereafter be in a position to compare two separate sets of opinions, for and against, before making a judgement about how to proceed on the matter of contraception. I do not doubt that a proper examination of this matter will however lead you to accept, as I do, that your conscience should be subject to the teaching contained in Humanae Vitae!
As for what to do in the mean time, while re-examining the matter of using contraception. Well, since we are considering an act that could affect the we way spend eternity, it would seem wise to be cautious and abide by the teaching of the Church, until you are again in a position to make an informed decision on how to proceed regarding contraception. So, this would mean no contraception, just ‘Natural Family Planning’.
In closing, I thought I would assist with gathering information to help re-examine this issue. The following document may be of some help in understanding why it is that Humanae Vitae is considered to be binding on all Catholics, despite the fact that some people, including some priests and theologians, have erroneously taught otherwise: The Authority Of The Encyclical Humanae Vitae
It may of course also be a good idea to actually read Humanae Vitae. It is not a long document; not even a book length and it could easily be read in an hour. Here is a link to the English version: Humanae Vitae - On The Regulation Of Birth