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Michael wrote:

Good afternoon, guys!

  • Could someone explain to me what the doctrine of the primacy of conscience is?
  • Is this doctrine a part of the Magisterium of the Church?
  • Who has written about this?

I'm trying to find an authoritative definition, and I'm having trouble.

Thank you so much, and God bless you in this holiest of weeks,

Reading, Massachusetts

  { What is the doctrine of the primacy of conscience and is it part of the Church's Magisterium? }

Mike replied:

Hi, Michael —

I've never heard of that term before. My knee-jerk reaction was that it sounds like a lofty, theological, but heretical term for Moral Relativism.

Moral Relativism basically says there are no absolute truths, and that nothing is good or bad.
It affirms that good or bad is what the individual says is good or bad. It also means that no one has the right to make moral judgments on another's moral behavior, even if it is for their own good.

This is what secular progressives believe.

Meaning: "Ones own conscience is primary."

If our Founding Fathers had intended us to interpret the Constitution of the United States of America based on Moral Relativism, this country would be more chaotic than it is, and it's pretty chaotic now. : )


John replied:

Hi Michael,

The closest thing I can think of, is that the Church instructs us to follow our conscience. However, our conscience is to be guided by the Magisterium, and we have a duty to form our conscience in the light of Church Teaching, if we are Catholics; those who are not, must continually seek the truth.

Mike makes a point.

Many liberals, or rather heretics, have warped this teaching to a "If it feels right, do it." doctrine. This is just a less politically correct way of saying Moral Relativism.

John DiMascio

Eric replied:

Hi Michael,

My colleague John is on the right target. Primacy of conscience means that we are obliged to follow our conscience when it forbids us to do something or compels us to do something. This is true even if our conscience is objectively wrong. For example, if your conscience told you eating meat was a sin (apart from Fridays of Lent, which is a different issue), and you ate meat, that would be a sin for you, even though objectively speaking, eating meat is not a sin.

It's important, however, to distinguish our conscience from our opinion, or our reason. Primacy of conscience does not give one the right to do whatever one is convinced is OK. Conscience doesn't tell us what is permitted; that is not how we must obey our conscience. Moreover, conscience works on a case-by-case basis; it cannot speak in generalities.

For example, your conscience can't tell you that, in general, it is wrong to steal, for in some situations, e.g., when someone would starve if they did not, it is right and even necessary to steal.

Conscience cannot tell you that "abortion is OK"; it can tell you that if you are a pregnant woman with cancer of the uterus and will die without a hysterectomy, it's the right thing to do even though it will cause, indirectly, the death of the fetus.

Primacy of conscience is an important principle in Catholic moral teaching, which is nevertheless frequently abused (and twisted and misunderstood) nowadays. Often it is used by people justifying dissent from the Church's moral teachings, but as I said, this is not a legitimate or proper use of the doctrine.


Terry replied:

I tend to agree with you, Mike.

Whilst ultimately we all have to answer to God, whether we have followed our conscience, our conscience must also be informed through our obligation to study and follow the Magisterial Teaching of the Church.

Since Peter is the holder of the keys of Heaven, and since the Church is the dispenser of the Sacraments, it would be hard to present a case for primacy of conscience in conflict with the Church.

This term is mostly used by those who reject the Church's teaching, especially with regard to moral matters, and use this as an excuse. However, they should remember them, they also have a duty to have an informed conscience and teaching is not to be rejected just because one has studied it at a superficial level. Rather, if one finds oneself at variance with the Magisterium, one should study further and deeper, and in the end submit oneself to the teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

As an academic tutor at a Pontifical Institution, I have to make the following Profession of Faith:

  • Recite the Creed
    then recite:

    With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

    I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith or morals.

    Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

Hope this helps,


Richard replied:

Hi Michael,

There's a lot of misunderstanding about what conscience is and about our obligations in regard to it.

As Cardinal Pell, (he's a Church historian by training), likes to point out, the term "primacy of conscience" does not appear in Catholic teaching; he suggests we drop it because people get confused about it. Some people think that conscience is an independent "sense" of right and wrong apart from what our intellect tells us. That just isn't the case.

The Church teaches us that we have a duty to correctly inform our conscience — our understanding of moral truth — from Christian teaching and from reason; and of course, we have a duty to do good and avoid evil, to the best of our ability.

Hope this helps.

Have a blessed Holy Saturday.

— RC

Mike replied:

Hi Michael,

I just wanted to add my two cents to what my colleague Eric said:

He said, and I agree:
Conscience cannot tell you that "abortion is OK"; it can tell you that if you are a pregnant woman with cancer of the uterus and will die without a hysterectomy, it's the right thing to do even though it will cause, indirectly, the death of the fetus.

Primacy of conscience is an important principle in Catholic moral teaching, which is nevertheless frequently abused (and twisted and misunderstood) nowadays.

An argument that you will hear from some of the semi pro-abortion people on the life argument is:

"We should ban abortion, except for the life and the health of the mother."

What many people are unaware of, is that the term "health" has been defined by the United States Supreme Court. The way the current Court has defined it, allows for a pregnant woman with a migraine headache to have an abortion due to health reasons.

She may be very capable of giving a safe birth to a healthy boy or girl, but because she has a headache, by current law, she can kill her unborn baby for health reasons.


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