Without the Right of Conscience, There Is No Common Good

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich recently mandated that all priests and employees of his diocese receive vaccinations against COVID-19. While medical exemptions to his mandate will be granted, religious exemptions will be refused. 

You read that correctly. 

With a broad appeal to the “common good,” the cardinal is refusing to recognize individual objections of conscience. Perhaps someone who has the cardinal’s ear can ask him what he means by a “common good” wherein freedom of conscience does not exist?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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He won’t find such a definition in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. See, for example, Guadium et Spes, which defines the “common good” as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” The crucial point here is that if individual persons do not have “ready access to their own fulfillment,” then the common good cannot be achieved. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines conscience asa judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

In Church teaching, the relationship between common good and conscience becomes clear. Man’s “access to his own fulfillment” requires his ability to follow his conscience. Society’s good is achieved through the individual person’s good, and his or her ability to access that good. If you remove man’s individual liberty to do “what he knows to be just and right,” you make impossible the true common good.

The right of conscience does not merely exist alongside common good; conscience is a component of common good. 

The denial of this principle inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that one must follow a certain conscience, or at least not act against it.” History illustrates that the penultimate policy of totalitarianism is to disallow the following of conscience; the ultimate policy of totalitarianism is to force people to act against their own consciences

The attack on conscience is devastating to the common good. As Cardinal Ratzinger phrased it, “the silencing of conscience leads to the dehumanization of the world.”

Perhaps Cardinal Cupich can name a society—any society in history—in which the rights of conscience were trampled but common good prevailed. 

Of course, as recent days have illustrated, it is not only governments that infringe on conscience rights but also employers that attempt to force people to violate their own consciences. These employees—most notably health care workers—may not suffer imprisonment, but they will suffer shame, ridicule, and a loss of income for themselves and their families. Perhaps it is people such as these that Cardinal Ratzinger envisioned when he wrote, “A man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion at the expense of truth.”

In the land of the free, the coercion of conscience has become commonplace.  

Apparently, some believe the Church should get in on the act. Cardinal Cupich has stated that “Religious exemptions to vaccination cannot be supported by Catholic teaching.” Considering the various available inoculations worldwide, that is an incredibly broad statement. And incredibly incorrect. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specifically stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation.” Though the CDF does allow the reception of serums that were produced “with cell lines from aborted fetuses,” it specifically recognizes “reasons of conscience” for those who refuse vaccines on that basis. 

In other words, there is no teaching that says that because the Catholic Church allows such vaccines a person must receive the vaccine. Indeed, to claim as much requires not just ignorance of Church teaching, but faulty logic. Simply because a person is morally permitted something does not mean, therefore, that he is required to do that thing—or even that he ought to do that thing. 

Broadly speaking, though the Church might allow remote cooperation in an evil action, the Church certainly upholds a conscientious objection to that cooperation.    

That we’re even discussing such a contrary demand from a cardinal is a sign of a church in crisis. Regardless of what a bishop or cardinal’s position is on the reception of vaccines, he should be demanding that vaccines—and all medicines, for that matter—are produced ethically. 

Last year, there was hope this might happen, however briefly.

Back in April of 2020, a group of high-ranking bishops and archbishops wrote a letter to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Among the signers was Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades (Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine). The letter expressed three key points. 

First, the bishops made it clear that they “strongly support efforts to develop an effective, safe, and widely available vaccine as quickly as possible.” Second, “cell lines…that do not involve cells from abortions are available” to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, so using a tainted cell line is not necessary. Third, the letter expressed: “It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience.” 

Excellent points, all three.

One year later, however, Bishop Rhoades issued a video on behalf of the USCCB in which he stated, “There is no moral need to turn down a vaccine—including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is morally acceptable to use.” Bishop Rhoades continued, “Most important is that people get vaccinated. It can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”  

Whatever happened to “no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience”? 

Here we are, seventeen months after that initial letter. And those Catholics who agree with the initial argument from the bishops find themselves outcasts—literally—from their own churches. 

It is vital to note here that man possesses not only a right of conscience, but a duty to properly form his conscience. Cardinal Ratzinger writes that such formation includes an obedience to the Commandments, an adherence to the official Magisterium, a study of Scripture, the “wisdom of tradition,” and the lives and writings of the saints. 

Is that the position of those such as Cardinal Cupich: that the reason some Catholics personally object to these serums is because they have improperly formed consciences? Is it their position that such Catholics have read the Fifth Commandment wrong, official statements from the CDF wrong, encyclicals like Evangelium Vitae wrong, the Didache wrong, Tertullian wrong, St. Jerome wrong, Church teaching on cooperation with evil wrong, and the life and heroic death of St. Gianna Beretta Molla wrong? These are the types of things that have shaped and nourished the consciences of many of those who now object.

And it’s a scandal that this position of conscience is not championed by every prelate in the Catholic Church. Instead, we get nebulous bromides about the “common good,” a term which some prelates seem extremely careful not to define.

Years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger observed that Marxist societies had denied the political rights of conscience so profoundly that it had led to a “blunting of the moral sense.” That same “blunting” is now occurring at an ecclesiastical level. When prelates are prescribing medicines and providing no avenue for conscientious objection to them, we seem to have gone right past the blunting of the moral sense all the way to outright denial. 

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “conscience is the highest norm that man is to follow, even in opposition to authority.” It is time we embrace and proclaim Ratzinger’s concept. For that matter, it is high time that we openly question whether mandating pharmaceuticals falls beyond the scope of episcopal authority in the first place. When Catholics—both priests and laity—are alienated from their own churches for reasons of conscience, we might call that many things. But “common good” is not one of them.  

[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibez/CNA]


  • John Clark

    John Clark is an online-homeschool course developer, a speechwriter, and the author of two books. He has written hundreds of articles for places such as The National Catholic Register, Magis Center, and Seton Magazine. John and his wife Lisa have nine children and live in Florida.

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