A Cal Catholic reader emailed us on October 24 about the October luncheon talk given by Father Chris Heath to the Thomas More Society in Orange County. Father Heath is parish priest at St. Edward in Dana Point. Following are excerpts from the talk. (Father Heath’s talk on religious liberty appeared here in April.)

Recently a study was published entitled “What Catholic Women Think about Faith, Conscience, and Contraception.” 824 women gave answers that offer new data about the views of Church-going Catholic women towards contraception and related Church teachings… The data confirms that most Catholic women do not fully support the Church‘s teachings on contraception and natural family planning. No surprise there.

Statistics improved with the level of attendance at Mass and Sacraments, with those who agree with Church teaching being those women who attend daily Mass. Again, no surprise there. What was interesting was one of the conclusions of the authors‘ study: The data underscores the formidable challenge the Church faces in the area of conscience formation, particularly about sexual matters.

My talk is not about contraception as such, but I want to use this study to illustrate my main thesis: how does one form a conscience, and what constitutes a fully informed Catholic conscience? According to the study, almost one-third of Church-going Catholic women…incorrectly believe that the Church teaches that couples have the right to decide the moral acceptability of contraception regardless of Church teaching.

Confusion over the morality of contraception reflects women‘s deeper confusion about how – or even whether – Church teaching ought to shape individual conscience in matters of sexual morality. While 63% of Church-going Catholic women say the Church‘s teachings on sex and reproduction influence them, only 21% of this influenced group fully accept the Church‘s teaching on contraception. Moreover, 85% of Church-going Catholic women believe that they can be good Catholics‘ even if they do not accept some of the Church‘s teachings on sex and reproduction.

[They] give many reasons why they reject Church teaching on contraception. Their top reasons highlight issues of conscience formation: 53% of these women say that couples have the moral right to decide which methods of family planning to use – a position that disregards the Church‘s judgment on whether particular methods are morally licit in the first place.

Church-going Catholic women want to do what‘s right. The women surveyed reflect a sincere commitment to faith in their daily lives. But they belong to a generation steeped in moral relativism – a generation…which generally equates conscience with their own moral permission slip, and which judges right and wrong by depth of feeling rather than consonance with objective truth.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the issue: whether we‘re talking about a specific moral teaching like contraception, or speaking generally about Catholic lifestyle, culture, or decision making in other areas like voting, the formation of a specifically Catholic conscience is a huge problem in our time. The study identifies some of the causes of a poorly-formed Catholic conscience: Catholic clergy and lay leaders have ceded the conscience formation of Catholic women to dissenting theologians, contraceptive-promoting medical professionals, and the sexualized popular culture.            By remaining silent we‘ve given people the mistaken idea that people can decide for themselves what to do in a variety of areas of personal and public life as a Catholic….

Our new bishop, Kevin Vann, wrote this in a letter to his flock in Fort Worth in 2008: “We cannot make more clear the seriousness of the overriding issue of abortion – while not the ‘only issue‘ – it is the defining moral issue, not only today, but of the last [now 39] years. Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, more than [now 55.5 million] innocent lives have been lost….

Bishop Vann wrote: “As Catholics, we are faced with a number of issues that are of concern and should be addressed, such as immigration reform, health care, the economy, the poor, and terrorism… There are many possible solutions to these issues and there can be reasonable debate among Catholics on how to best approach and solve them. These are matters of ‘prudential judgment.‘ But let us be clear: issues of prudential judgment are not morally equivalent to issues involving intrinsic evils. No matter how right a given candidate is on any of these issues, it does not outweigh a candidate‘s unacceptable position in favor of an intrinsic evil such as abortion or the protection of ‘abortion rights.‘”

Faithful Citizenship, as I have illustrated, tries so hard to give all sides to a moral issue that it leaves many Catholics confused, and gives others a rationale to do whatever they were already planning to do. Conscience formation, it should be clear, is a matter of knowing Church teaching and being converted by it, as well as applying it to concrete situations and actions. Americans don‘t like being told what to do, but conversion never happens without confrontation, without the tweaking of the conscience that these principles are supposed to do. If ultimately our conscience is only the exercise of ego and selfish desires, we are not being converted by the truth….

To read the entire text or listen to the talk, click here.