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Abuse of Conscience in the Catholic Church
In a letter he wrote after news broke of former Cardinal McCarrick’s abuse of children and adults, Pope Francis repeatedly condemned the “abuse of conscience.” This is a particularly insidious form of spiritual abuse that can go undetected by both victim and abuser while causing severe harm to people at their very psychological and spiritual core.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1997), compiling the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, defines the conscience this way:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (CCC 1776).
Fr. Samuel Fernández, in his 2021 academic article titled, Towards a Definition of Abuse of Conscience in the Catholic Setting,expounds on this teaching and says that there are two dimensions of the conscience taught by the post-Conciliar Church. The first is a moral dimension, that is, the conscience is the place where an individual comes to recognize the objective moral law and know how to respond to it in their particular circumstances. The second is a relational dimension, specifically, an individual’s capacity to meet with and hear God. In other words, the conscience is both “the seat of freedom of judgment” and “the place of encounter with God and self” (Fernández, 2021, p. 560).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1997) goes on to teach that an individual must form their conscience by being attentive to Scripture, guided by the Church’s teaching, and helped by the advice and example of others. Fernández (2021) explains that an individual forms their conscience by seeking the will of God and listening to the word of God mediated through the People of God, the Church. However, because God’s revelation is mediated through human experience and language, there are always limitations in an individual’s ability to express and understand God’s will. In order to allow one’s self to be formed by God’s will, which is mediated through the Church, an individual must make their conscience open to being changed; that is, they must make themselves vulnerable. This creates an interplay between the ecclesiastical mediation of God’s revelation and an individual’s conscience, their ability to understand and respond to that revelation.
Fernández (2021) outlines temptations and responsibilities concerning personal consciences. At the individual level, there exists the temptation to avoid the vulnerability required to form one’s conscience, but that will only lead to the conscience growing stagnant and malformed. There is also the temptation to renounce the responsibility that comes with freedom, to give up self-determination and let someone else make all the decisions. At the ecclesiastical level, there is the temptation—which can be well-intentioned, though just as damaging—to think that the revelation being mediated is the will of God itself, thereby replacing, instead of forming, the consciences of others.
It is in this interplay between the individual conscience and the will of God mediated through the Church that the abuse of conscience can happen. Fernández (2021) says:
“Abuse of conscience occurs when the ecclesial mediation transgresses its limits, so that it gains control of and replaces it. For instance, it is perpetrated when representatives of the Church impose the will of God on the followers who have opened their conscience to them. In fact, when ecclesiastical mediation becomes absolute, it transgresses its limits and contradicts its aim and meaning. The leader no longer represents God, but supplants Him, and makes wrongful use of the name of the Lord (Ex 20:7). Thus, conscience loses its freedom to judge and the follower can no longer be alone with God in his or her conscience” (p. 563).
By invading the sacred place where an individual hears God and freely responds, the abuser presumes to speak on behalf of God and assumes the individual’s freedom for themselves (Fernández, 2021). Therefore, the abuse of conscience, unlike other forms of abuse, actually undermines the individual’s capacity to hear God and make judgments, and it can even prevent them from recognizing the abuse they are experiencing. This abuse causes the victim to confuse the voice of God with the voice of their abuser. This provokes in the sufferer a “struggle between what their own conscience dictates and what is dictated by the representative of the Church who has invaded their conscience” which in turn causes “severe personal dissociation” (Fernández, 2021, p. 566).
An example of this internal dissociation, this confusion between the voice of God and the voice of an abuser, can be seen in the story of a young manwho was trying to know if he ought to be a priest or if he ought to get married. Throughout his entire life, he had heard from his family, his parish, his pastors, the stories of saints, and even his religious education textbooks that if he really wanted to be holy, he had to become a priest. The priesthood was held up as the best vocation. However, this young man experienced years of existential distress because if God’s objective will was for him to be a priest, but he did not actually desire to be a priest, then he felt he could not trust his own desires. In fact, he felt he should be suspicious of his desires. Now, the damage done to his conscience was not from one individual, but from the Catholic culture he grew up in, but harm was done nonetheless.
To be clear, while abuse of conscience can be perpetuated with malicious intent, it can also happen whenever someone with ecclesial authority presumes to speak on behalf of God in such a way that they supplant God’s word instead of mediating it (Fernández, 2021). Some specific examples of abuse of conscience can include ignoring the difference between the internal and external forum, or between subjective conscience and culpability and the objective moral law, when giving someone spiritual guidance. It can also include telling someone that God is asking them to do something, telling them that a particular action will damn them to hell, or stating that the Church teaches a particular thing when there is not an actual written teaching on that matter. Abuse of conscience can also be supported by theological ideas such as the belief that human persons are so corrupted by sin that they cannot trust their own consciences, which causes human freedom to be viewed with suspicion and discourages anything less than blind obedience to authority (Fernández, 2021).
One more example of abuse of conscience is from a married woman. She had been Catholic her entire life and strived to follow all of the Church’s teachings, in particular the Church’s moral teachings about sexuality. For years, the priests, apologists, and theologians who helped form her conscience taught a sexual moral code that went well beyond what was actually written in the Catechism or other papal texts. However, these stringent moral rules were presented to her as if it were the Church’s teaching. Even beyond that, she was taught that any violation of these rules was mortally sinful, that one infraction would cut her off from God, prevent her from receiving Communion, and that not confessing this very personal matter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation would damn her.
Like in the other example, the abuse here came from a Catholic culture as much as it did from a particular abuser. But again, the damage was still severe. The internal dissonance caused by not being able to trust her own conscience, alongside the threat of hell if she did not follow the overly stringent moral code, provoked psychological distress and depression symptoms. The threat of separation from God prevented her from being able to break out of her cognitive dissonance. This experience was described as feeling like she was imprisoned by her own beliefs, beliefs she did not want and was not even sure were true.
This is an adapted excerpt from my article, “The Place Where You Stand is Holy Ground: Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church.”
Fernández, S. (2021). Towards a Definition of Abuse of Conscience in the Catholic Setting. Gregorianum, 102(3): 557–74.
The examples given in this article come from personal experiences or the experiences of others who have shared their stories with me. Some details have been changed to protect privacy.