“Ask a Priest: What If My Conscience Tells Me I’m Not Sinning?”

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Q: I’m not perfect, but overall I think I’m not a bad person. Usually I do my best to be nice to others. I pray every night but rarely go to Mass. But according to the Catholic Church my soul is in state of mortal sin. Yet when I have a sexual relationship I don’t feel that I’m hurting God at all. How could I go to hell if my conscience tells me the action is not sinful. Thank you so much. – J.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: While our conscience is important, it isn’t the highest authority. If we want to know what God really wants from us, we also need to see what the Church teaches.

Our conscience doesn’t invent right and wrong. Rather, it reads the right and wrong inherent in our choices. And in order to be able to read well, our conscience needs to be formed.

Cardinal John Henry Newman famously wrote, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”

So how can we form our conscience?

In a nutshell: Begin by being open to the truth, and be willing to leave aside preconceived notions. Study Scripture and the teaching of the Church (especially the Catechism). Examine the facts and background information about choices and be careful about the sources you use. And ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in prayer.

It would help to seek advice from trusted people, such as a good confessor. And look over reputable guides as you prepare for confession. Guides are available from the U.S. bishops’ conference, the Knights of Columbus and Opus Dei, among other groups.

You mention that you rarely go to Mass. This is not good. Catholics have a serious obligation to attend Mass. This is a big part of how we give due worship to God.

The Catechism in No. 2181 says: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [emphasis mine]

Likewise, having sex outside of marriage is an objectively grave sin. Again, the Catechism:

2353 Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.

Or, in the case of sex with someone else’s spouse:

2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire. The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely. The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.

2381 Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union. [end quoted material]

A conscience that is not in line with Church teaching can quickly lead us astray.

Lest we think we can disregard Church teaching, it’s good to recall the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

For more reading you might look at the section on conscience in the Catechism. Also helpful could be Edward Sri’s Who Am I to Judge?

People who allow their conscience to be deformed will be held accountable. Perhaps some of this is worth taking to prayer.

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