Conscience and Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic Social Teaching has been described as the intersection between the Christian conscience and the real world. This is an interesting way of speaking: it points out the truth that conscience is not determined wholly by worldly conditions, but at the same time that it ought to be connected to these conditions in some fashion. This connection, which forms the conscience with respect to real life conditions, is represented by CST. We are therefore justified in pausing to elaborate on the proper notion of the conscience, although this may appear at first to be an unnecessary digression.
a. What is a “good conscience”?
It has been a constant teaching of the Catholic Church that individuals are bound to obey the judgment of their conscience, and that to disobey this guide is to condemn oneself. Such a stance, however, is easily misconstrued, for it must be understood within the context of the entire Catholic truth about the conscience, its formation, and its exercise.
The degree to which the teaching has in fact been misconstrued is evident by the common phrase: “in good conscience.” When a person says this, they usually mean to imply that they acted in accordance with their conscience when they made the decision. Unfortunately, putting things this way is really to skip a step. Just because a person may act according to his or her conscience does not mean that the conscience was “good.” It simply means that they obeyed it. It is possible to have a “bad” conscience and to obey that.
What this means is that we have two things to consider when it comes to the conscience. First we must ensure that our conscience is healthy. That is to say we must take great care to have formed a “good conscience.” This will not just happen automatically. Second, and only after we have accomplished the first task, we must follow the judgement of the conscience. This is a very important point to emphasize, because it is conceivable that a situation could arise in which it is unwise to trust too easily one’s own conscience. A man given to drug addiction or habituated to pornography may very well engage in these activities “in good conscience,” meaning that his conscience is not disturbed by participating in them. Such is a case of a de-formed conscience, and such a man would do better to trust an upright neighbor. Too often, and no doubt under the influence of a certain humanistic naivety which assumes that the conscience is always good, we neglect the first step—the duty to “train” one’s conscience—and think only of the second. We end by obeying an ill-formed conscience, and in such cases where the deformation is due to our own laxity or negligence, we will rightly be held responsible for the error.
b. Conscience is not infallible
The error mentioned above, which causes us to follow the dictates of our conscience without also taking steps to ensure that our conscience is properly formed, is a recipe for disaster. It treats as infallible the inner light which, although naturally disposed toward the good, is not invincibly oriented toward it, and which can become atrophied, darkened, or distorted through personal neglect.
c. The problem with ‘primacy of conscience’
With the phrase “primacy of conscience,” we encounter the same problem we did when discussing prudence, and we have thought it wise to dwell on it for the same reason: because it is an error so common that it has become almost a popular slogan.
We must consider an imaginary case, which is found far too often in actual experience. Let’s say a man’s conscience nudges him in a certain direction on the issue of abortion. If this is honestly the case, is it valid for him to go against the Church’s constant teaching on the matter, claiming “primacy of conscience?” It depends: is his conscience well-formed? Has he taken the trouble to educate himself and to hear the arguments which underlie the Church’s position? If he has not, then it is possible he is not exercising his conscience at all, but is merely exercising his preference. Or, to say the same thing another way: one’s conscience is never formed in a vacuum, and because of this, and due to individual negligence, it may well be “misinformed,” or formed in the image of our own arbitrary desires.
The point is not to invalidate the concept of “primacy of conscience,” which is one of the most noble teachings of the Catholic Tradition. But we must always keep in mind that the claim to “primacy of conscience” presupposes a constant effort to form one’s conscience, in the same way that the claim to “prudential judgment” presupposes the constant development of prudence. In both cases, laying claim to the right requires a great deal of practice and discipline. Without this discipline, both “primacy of conscience” or “prudential judgement” are simply not possible, and to claim them amounts to nothing more than escapism.
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 73.