The Church is quite clear on the teaching regarding conscience. There are several types of conscience.
Sadly, some teachers in Catholic institutions do not teach this fact, from the CCC.
1793 If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
Invincible ignorance is an evil, a disorder. It is not a "pass-go" into heaven. How this idea became corrupted, I do not know, but those who teach that invincible ignorance exonerates someone entirely from pursuing the truth is not Catholic teaching.
Natural law is given to all by the fact that we are human. Therefore, those who suppress natural law within their consciences are guilty of sin.
As the CCC
notes, "one must work to correct the errors of moral conscience".
Here is a reminder of the primacy of natural law as against the false laws of men. From Dignitatis Humanae:
1. A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man,(1) and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.
This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.
Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.
2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.
3. Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.
Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.
Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.
On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.(3) The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.
The types of conscience follow, beginning with the faulty ones:
A dubious or doubtful conscience
suspends judgement, and is faulty. Many of the relativists have not developed their consciences and live in this area of doubt or agnosticism. They are absolutely responsible for not developing their consciences. Many who followed the philosophy of Existentialism fell into this trap of non-judgement. But, the false tolerance of today is connected with the doubtful conscience
A false or erroneous conscience
is one which confuses right with wrong. If we are culpable for such, our consciences would be culpably erroneous
. Only those in true invincible ignorance could fall under this title.
of inculpably erroneous.
Perhaps people in isolated areas of the world, or those who are under strict communist or Islamic tyrannies may have not heard the truth of the Gospel.
If we are responsible, and most people in the West would fall under this sanction, then we have a culpable erroneous conscience.
A certain conscience
is one which we must follow even if there may be errors. For if we are certain of something and do it against our conscience, we fall into sin.
An example would be if a Catholic did not realize that the bishops of his conference did not declare Friday fasts as obligatory, but thought eating fish on Friday was a mortal sin, and did eat fish on Friday, that certain conscience would be violated and there would be sin. Protestants who believe something in the Catholic Church is seriously wrong and avoid the Church because they believe that thing is sinful, such as devotion to Mary, are less culpable but still in error. They must try and find out their errors, but if they are following a certain conscience
, they are less culpable. Error is in not growing in truth.
The true conscience
is one formed according to Revelation and the Teachings of the Catholic Church.
That this teaching on the formation of consciences has been overlooked is a serious matter for Catholic teachers.
If you want to read more, go to Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 79, a. 13 and http://www.mercifulredeemer.org/Apologetics/catholic_morality.htm#_Toc250715
as well as Fr. Laux' Catholic Morality.
to be continued....