In the mind of God there is a principle that governs all things in the universe. This principle is called the eternal law. All other kinds of law have a part in the eternal law, and among these is natural law. “Natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” (ST I-II, Q. 91, A.2, Resp.)
All men are born with reason, so all men are called to participate in the natural law. “The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin.” (CCC 1954)
God does not change, and the fact that eternal law does not change follows from that. Since natural law wholly participates in the eternal law, it is immutable as well. Therefore, natural law, being permanent and immutable, is an objective reality which can decide the morality of an action.
All men have the recognition of the natural law, which is called synderesis. Men may choose to obey the voice of their synderesis, but since man has freewill, he can also act against it. Then how does this apply to people who have their own morals, and what does this have to do with the moral teachings of the Church?
The moral teachings of the Church are based on the Divine Revelation of the moral (or natural) law. “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.” (CCC 2032) These moral teachings are fundamentally unchangeable, for they come from the basis of the natural law.
The moral teachings of the Catholic Church cannot be wrong, for the Church’s infallibility “extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained or observed” (CCC 2035). Those who are being taught by the Catholic Church must follow these elements of doctrine. They are the means by which Catholics will receive the truth.
There can only be one truth, which Christ testified to, and being that these moral teachings partake of this one truth, only these moral teachings are the correct ones.
Catholics who pick and choose what moral teachings they will follow are not justified in doing so, for, as Catholics, we believe in certain moral teachings laid down by Christ through the Church. If we do not follow these teachings, we stray from the path of heaven.
Yet even those who are partially ignorant of the Church’s teachings may not be held blameless in their actions. It is possible that they could have taken the time to find out more about the Church.
Since the moral teachings of the Church follow from the natural law, all men are taken into consideration. “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men.” (CCC 1956)
This does not mean that all men are responsible to know the teachings of the Church, for not all know of the Church, but they are responsible for leading a moral life in accordance with the natural law.
It is through the Church, though, that we learn natural law in its correct form. “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation, sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.” (CCC 1960)
Therefore, all Catholics are obliged to find out the moral teachings of the Church at the times when they are not sure. They cannot just follow their own standards. It therefore depends a lot on what they know, and what they judge through their conscience.
One of the most difficult things to obtain in the spiritual life is a conscience fully developed in right judgment. When one eventually accomplishes this task, it is much easier to proceed in the moral life. “A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” (CCC 1794)
For those who have not acquired a right conscience, and instead have an erroneous conscience, they will have a mistaken idea of what is right or wrong on many moral issues.
For example, a person with a right conscience knows that he must obey his superiors in all things as far as their authority reaches. On the other hand, a person with an erroneous conscience may not see a reason for a particular order, and so not obey it.
Most of the time, an erroneous conscience is the effect of selfishness, pride, or some other serious habitual sin. It leads one into a state of the soul that is difficult to overcome. So, keeping in mind these different states of conscience people can have, are Catholics who pick and choose which moral teachings they will follow in good conscience?
Before giving an answer on whether these Catholics are in good conscience or not, it would be good to elaborate on what is meant by “good conscience”.
Being in good conscience does not necessarily imply a right conscience; it simply means that one follows what his conscience tells him.
One must follow his conscience if he does not wish to sin, but this does not mean that his action is always morally good. It is possible for the action to be objectively wrong.
For example, if a father may give food to the poor, but his children go hungry, is he justified in giving away this food? No, but he may have thought that since the poor are hungrier than his children, he was right in doing so.
The fact that he is a father means that he must support his family, and this should be a higher priority to him than feeding the poor, even though this act of charity is still good theoretically.
The point, though, is that Catholics must be on their guard and be able to judge between what is right and wrong in a given situation. So, “good conscience being defined, it must be decided whether a Catholic who chooses his own moral standards is in good conscience or not.
A person judges by what they know, and Catholics are obliged to know their faith. A Catholic who picks and chooses which moral teachings he will follow is either going against his conscience by deliberately ignoring the fact that he must know his faith, or simply does not know that he must know his faith.
A man is able to make some judgments on moral issues by looking at natural law. A Catholic who follows his own moral standards goes against natural law, so he must know deep down in his heart that there is something wrong in the way he is practicing his faith.
Since he is “Catholic”, he must at some time in his life been introduced to some of the moral teachings of the Church. The ones who are least culpable are those who were taught so little about the faith that nothing morally concrete was ever formed in their minds.
Most Catholics, though, are informed enough to get this idea. Therefore, depending on their knowledge, the vast majority of those Catholics who do choose their own moral teachings to follow are not in good conscience.
“Life is too short to spend it doing things that don’t get you where you want to go. For instance, if it’s important to you to read aloud to your kids, but you find yourself rarely doing that, you’ll feel the disconnect and it will discourage you. You’ll feel off track and out of sorts, but might not be able to put your finger on why.
Spend some time thinking about what you DO want in your life. Then make those choices each day. When you live intentionally and with purpose, it will make a tremendous difference in your life and the lives of those you love.” – Charlotte Siems
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