What the Catholic Church Really Teaches about Birth Control and Conscience.

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6:10 PM 2/06/2012 — When Vatican I defined the personal infallibility of the Pope in October, 1820, it was understood by the Fathers of that Council that the teaching was incomplete: the council fathers knew that, at some time in the future, the teaching would have to be completed to address the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium as well. That task was left to Vatican II.
     One of the forgotten teachings of Vatican II was its definition of the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium: namely, that the Pope doesn't have to declare something ex cathedra in order for it to be considered infallible; that the Church's ordinary teaching authority can define matters of faith and morals even without such a declaration by a Pope so long as the criterion for infallible teaching elucidated by St. Vincent of Larens are fulfilled. In the words of Lumen Gentium, such teaching requires of all Catholics “submission of both mind and will.”
     Bill O'Reiley, Sean Hannity and Nancy Pelosi are wrong; the Church's teaching on contraceptive intercourse is not simply a man-made “rule”; it fulfills all the criterion of Vatican II for infallible teaching, and therefore must be regarded by all Catholics as the teaching of Christ himself.
     Moreover, there is no exception to the teaching on the grounds of conscience, in spite of the vast misinformation that is now considered the norm, both in the advice given to Catholics in the internal forum as well as the plethora of Catholic marriage preparation manuals.
     The Catholic Church defines the conscience as a faculty of the intellect that alerts us as to whether our actions are in conformity with the truth. Whether the conscience can do this is determined by whether it really knows the truth. A conscience which has been misinformed, or is ignorant of the truth, cannot perform it's function and is therefore useless. For example, if a Catholic priest, for whatever reason, tells someone that they may steal money from work and that this is not wrong, the person does not sin in doing it, because their conscience has been misinformed. But that does not make the act right, nor make the conscience infallible. As soon as that person becomes aware of the truth, the excuse of conscience is no longer valid, since the conscience now has a new standard by which to judge. How one feels personally about the issue at hand has absolutely nothing to do with how the conscience operates.
     This “common stock” misunderstanding of conscience is most acute when it comes to matters dealing with more personal and intimate moral questions, such as artificial contraception. People who interpret conscience as "how I feel about it personally" will say that conscience excuses deviating from Catholic moral teaching because of the person's own personal conclusions. But this is not conscience. Conscience can only excuse such a deviation if the conscience is either ignorant of the law of God, or if it has been misinformed by "Father Friendly." In such a case, the conscience is wrong through no fault of it's own; and we are obliged to follow even an erroneous conscience provided that we don't know it's erroneous (and this is what is commonly mislabeled as “primacy of conscience”). But once the conscience has been informed as to the reality of what the Church teaches, then the excuse no longer exists, and one must now act in accord with the new standard the conscience has received.
     Moral theologians refer to this as “Invincible Ignorance”, that is, a conscience which is in error about the truth. It is only through Invincible Ignorance that a person's conscience can excuse from guilt in deviating from the moral order. A conscience that knows what the Church teaches can never be used as an excuse to do what the Church teaches is objectively evil.
     Nor is it necessary for a Catholic to know all the nuances of Catholic teaching on contraception or conscience in order to be free from Invincible Ignorance; it is only required that he be aware that Christ, through his Church, has taught definitively on this issue. It is impossible for any lay Catholic in the United States to claim that they are not aware of this.
     Therefore, can a married Catholic couple engage in contraceptive intercourse without committing a mortal sin requiring them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion? The unqualified answer is "No"; and any priest who tells you differently has been poorly formed in moral theology through no fault of his own. Because the widespread misinformation about the nature of conscience in Catholic moral teaching has been so long in force, it is impossible to assign culpability to the error at this point. What remains is to try, as best we can, to diseminate the truth as frequently and to as many as possible.