The Roman Catholic Church maintains the right of the individual to decide upon a moral action on the basis of his or her conscience.
Having said that there are many conditions, safeguards and qualifications issued on the statement.
Saint Augustine taught that “there is no soul, however perverted, in whose conscience God does not speak.”
Thomas Aquinas taught that a person must always follow his conscience even if that conscience be erroneous. For “when a reason which is in error proposes something as a command of God, then to dismiss the dictate or reason is just the same as dismissing the command of God.”
John Henry Newman in his Difficulties of Anglicans speaks of conscience (and he means right conscience) as ‘the aboriginal vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness’. In talking about the Pope and allegiance to the Pope, Newman felt that conscience was supreme and the Pope was not in opposition to the primacy of conscience, but was there to guarantee it.
In terms of history it is sometimes admitted by the Roman Church that the teaching of the church lags behind changing circumstances. This was the case over slavery. Changes to church teaching about slavery were preceded by persons of good conscience acting at variance with traditional teaching.
The Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom in 1965 teaches:
In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.
The point is that following one’s conscience is not about each person choosing for him or herself what course of action should be followed. The conscience, in order to maintain autonomy must be properly informed on the matter. It has to fully understand the issues involved and the implications of a decision which differs from that of the church. The rule seems to be educate your conscience and to that conscience be true. Each of us must ensure that we have a formed and informed conscience as we decide not only what we will believe, as that is probably the less problematic part, but also as we decide what we will do.
The matter comes to a head over birth control. After the Second Vatican Council many Catholics on the basis of their beliefs based on conscience that they could not follow the Pope’s advice about contraception.
Paul VI taught “that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”. It is not possible to know how many Catholics agreed with the Pope, but there were those who agreed with this position and supported the Pope in his stand against not only modern trends but also the advice he had been given by a Papal Commission.
The result today is an uneasy compromise.
The church maintains that it represents a considered, thoughtful and prayerful conclusion in support of Natural Law and its precepts. Some Dioceses were forthright in their support of this in every situation. Literature from Ireland in the 1970s virtually declared that freedom of conscience was subject to the good counsel of the church.
At the same time the official line of the Catholic Church is that conscience must be obeyed
In his 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II stated:
Like the natural law itself and all practical knowledge, the judgment of conscience also has an imperative character: man must act in accordance with it. If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience, the proximate norm of personal morality. Later to become Benedict XVI says, “It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience, or at least not act against it”.