Why Pope Francis was right about conscience and “same-sex unions”

Or, why Catholics of all people should know a bit about moral theology and the "Catechism of the Catholic Church".

I am facing a pressing deadline and have little time at the moment, but I want to defend Pope Francis on one particular point made in his most recent and now viral interview, given while returning to Rome from Mexico. (I say viral because I’ve already had several calls, e-mails, and messages about it, far more than I normally receive after Big Papal News). Readers who think—wrongly—that I do little but belittle the Holy Father may have to recalibrate for a few moments. Anyhow, this morning, scanning through Twitter and looking at headlines, I saw this:

“Uh oh,” I thought, “here we go again.” And then there was an avalanche of tweets and headlines about Francis’ remarks about Trump, The Wall, the border, contraception and the Zika virus.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Rocca, a veteran Catholic reporter, but he has misrepresented—perhaps unwittingly; I don’t know—what the Pope actually said. Granted, as I’ve noted more than once, Francis can be confusing and ambiguous, to put it nicely. But, for the life of me, I don’t see how the following can be taken as meaning Catholic politicians are free to vote for same-sex unions if they follow their “conscience”:

Franca Giansoldati, Il Messaggero (Italy): Holiness, good evening. I return back to the topic of the law that is being voted on in the Italian parliament. It is a law that in some ways is about other countries, because other countries have laws about unions among people of the same sex. There is a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith from 2003 that dedicates a lot of attention to this, and even more, dedicates a chapter to the position of Catholic parliamentarians in parliament before this question. It says expressly that Catholic parliamentarians must not vote for these laws. Considering that there is much confusion on this, I wanted to ask, first of all, is this document of 2003 still in effect? And what is the position a Catholic parliamentarian must take? And then another thing, after Moscow, Cairo. Is there another thawing out on the horizon? I’m referring to the audience that you wish for with the Pope and the Sunnis, let’s call them that way, the Imam of Al Azhar.

Pope Francis: For this, Msgr. Ayuso went to Cairo last week to meet the second to the Imam and to greet the Imam. Msgr. Ayuso, secretary to Cardinal Tauran of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. I want to meet him. I know that he would like it. We are looking for the way, always through Cardinal Tauran because it is the path, but we will achieve it.

About the other, I do not remember that 2003 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith well but every Catholic parliamentarian must vote according their well-formed conscience. I would say just this. I believe it is sufficient because – I say well-formed because it is not the conscience of what seems to me. I remember when matrimony for persons of the same sex was voted on in Buenos Aires and the votes were tied. And at the end, one said to advise the other: ‘But is it clear to you? No, me neither, but we’re going to lose like this. But if we don’t go there won’t be a quorum.’ The other said: ‘If we have a quorum we will give the vote to Kirchner.’ And, the other said: ‘I prefer to give it to Kirchner and not Bergoglio.’ And they went ahead. This is not a well formed conscience.

On people of the same sex, I repeat what I said on the trip to Rio di Janeiro. It’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Catechism, in case you were wondering, says: “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (1783; emphasis added).

A person with a well-formed conscience cannot and will not vote for “same-sex unions” because such a conscience is in accord with truth and Church teaching. Period. (As Francis said: “This is not a well formed conscience.”) Could Francis have said it more clearly and directly? Sure. But shouldn’t Catholics be able to understand the language of the Tradition? As well as the historical context Francis provided, which was his open opposition to same-sex “marriage” in Argentina? Here is some of that story, via a July 2010 article by Edward Pentin:

A Jesuit cardinal has become the latest Church leader to speak out forcefully against a government’s push towards same-sex marriage, and has called on his nation’s contemplatives to pray fervently to prevent such laws.

According to an article in tomorrow’s L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina, has said that if a proposed bill giving same-sex couples the opportunity to marry and adopt children should be approved, it will “seriously damage the family.”

He made the statement in a letter addressed to each of the four monasteries in Argentina, asking the contemplatives to pray “fervently” that legislators be strengthened to do the right thing.

He wrote: “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Cardinal Bergoglio continued: “Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

A friend e-mailed me earlier to tell me that Rush Limbaugh was going on and on about how the Pope said American Catholic lawmakers are free to vote for same-sex marriage and civil unions. Which means that millions of folks who listen to Limbaugh now think that such is the case. But it’s not. Sure, Limbaugh—who is not Catholic—is just going by the headlines and news stories, so it’s par for the course. But Catholics should know better; they should know the language of the Church; they should know that “well-formed conscience” cannot and will not ever mean “do whatever the heck you want”.

As for the Holy Father’s comments about Trump, etc., I recommend you see Dr. Edward Peter’s comments here on the CWR site.

(Note: My friend corrected me regarding what Limbaugh was saying; that correction has been made in the second to last paragraph above.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1232 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.