Imprisoned by her own beliefs
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.1
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.2
One 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.
The abuse here came from a Catholic culture more than from one abuser. But 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.
An 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.