Pope Francis on Conscientious Objection

The Pope was asked about government workers refusing to give gay marriage licenses: Govt. workers have right to refuse gay marriage licenses: pope. He stated:

“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right.”

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right.”

“And if someone does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

I agree completely. Any person should be permitted by law to refuse to commit an act that is gravely contrary to their conscience.

However, this right to conscientious objection does not imply that every judgment of conscience is correct. As I’ve written previously, a Catholic baker who bakes a cake for a gay wedding does not sin; it is objectively moral because it is remote material cooperation. The same is true for the photographer, the wedding band, the caterers, etc. But on the other hand, neither law nor custom should force these persons to participate in a gay wedding, against their sincere conscience.

In my view, the county clerk who issues a gay marriage license does not sin; it is objectively moral because the clerk has no authority to define marriage, nor to stop a same-sex marriage. The license only indicates that the marriage is a legal union, which it is. You can argue that it is not legal under the eternal moral law; true. But it is factually a legal marriage under the laws of this nation. And that is all that the paperwork indicates.

On the other hand, conscientious objection does not extend to forcing others to act against their conscience, nor to preventing others from doing what their consciences indicate, incorrectly, to be moral. For example, a citizen who believes a war is unjust should not be compelled to participate by being a soldier. But neither is it acceptable for that citizen to become a soldier, and then use his position to try to stop the war. And the same apples to the county clerk who is issuing gay marriage licenses. She can refuse to issue the licenses herself, but it is not reasonable or moral for her to prevent others from doing so.

I know this is not a popular stance to take. Catholics are engaged in a battle in politics, society, and culture to try to keep the laws and customs from becoming ever more immoral. Therefore, they want the county clerk to obstruct gay marriage licenses. But we cannot force others to act according to our consciences. We cannot force them to live as if they were Catholic, when they are not. The right of conscientious objection does not extend to forcing others to violate their conscience, nor to preventing them from doing what is legal and generally viewed as moral in society, even when that view is wrong.

God gave us the gift of reason and free will. Every person has the right to exercise those gifts. God permits persons to sin, even gravely. Similarly, we must not use our judgment that another person’s act is gravely immoral as the basis for denying them the right to follow a sincere but mistaken conscience.

The right to conscientious objection applies whether your conscience is right or wrong. Otherwise, it would not be conscientious objection. By definition, the objection is based on the conscience, not on the objective morality of the situation. Can you compel someone to become Catholic against their will, because it is best for them? No, you cannot. Even if you understand conversion to Catholicism to be the will of God for that person, you cannot violate their sincere but mistaken conscience.

There are limits to conscientious objection. We cannot use our consciences to deny others the right to follow their consciences. We cannot refuse to pay taxes, even though we object to the way that some of the tax money is spent. Jesus instructed his disciples to pay the tax to Caesar, even though the Roman army had invaded and was occupying Israel, even though Roman society permitted slavery and infanticide. It is not our role, as disciples of Christ, to force society to comply with our understanding of faith and morals.

Conscientious objection even applies within Catholicism, so that a Catholic who has a conscientious objection to a rule or regulation (not to the eternal moral law) can disobey or refuse to comply. Some portions of Canon Law are a direct expression of faith or morals. These elements of Canon Law are not subject to conscientious objection, except for the limited right of licit theological dissent from non-infallible teachings. As for the rules and regulations that are per se solely of Canon Law, and not also of doctrine, the faithful possess a limited right of conscientious objection.

{2:23} And again, while the Lord was walking through the ripe grain on the Sabbath, his disciples, as they advanced, began to separate the ears of grains.
{2:24} But the Pharisees said to him, “Behold, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbaths?”
{2:25} And he said to them: “Have you never read what David did, when he had need and was hungry, both he and those who were with him?
{2:26} How he went into the house of God, under the high priest Abiathar, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and how he gave it to those who were with him?”
{2:27} And he said to them: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
{2:28} And so, the Son of man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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