Moral theologians in the Catholic Church have been debating this question for centuries, albeit mostly prior to Vatican Council II where an overwhelming number of Bishops recognized that the human conscience is subject to any number of mitigating circumstances previously not taken into consideration. Pope Francis, taking his cue from Vatican II has made the individual conscience together with  DIVINE MERCY,” or God’s unconditional love, the center piece of his apostolic outreach.

Francis answers a question from the media on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome about the LGBT   community with his iconic statement “who am I to judge.” Here he is referring to himself as the voice of religion. He puts that statement in  context in a later interview:

“…During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” (A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis Published by America Press. Kindle Edition(Locations 290-292; see section REFORM IN THE CHURCH, Church as Field Hospital)

Pope Francis again reaffirmed this perennial opinion of the Church in his now famous document on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia, cited in a learned article published in the National Catholic Reporter by two Catholic theologians of Creighton University.  In contrast to the opinion of conservative Catholics and Bishops in the U S, the current Cardinal Charles Chaput of Philadelphia for example,  Francis’ opinion rests on the added authority of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II based on modern science about man’s complex makeup and his evolutionary development. Francis expresses forcefully his opinion on the role of conscience in decision-making, “The Church is called, he writes, to form consciences, not to replace them.

The authors of the article In Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ model of conscience empowers Catholics, by Michael G. Lawler  Todd A. Salzman , Sep. 7, 2016 in the National Catholic Reporter, summarize their conclusions:

“Francis’ June 2013 statement on conscience seems to affirm our assessment: ‘So we also [like Jesus] must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the   interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the  good, the  voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern,..’.” (Amoris Laetitia, Ch.8).

Finally, Francis in an exhortation on the formation of seminarians expands on the “why” for the key role individual conscience plays in facing difficult moral decisions. He points out that religious groups create the rule book with criteria in black and white while our Creator puts people in concrete situations to face factors with different weights for his/her discernment. Francis speaking of pastoral training is exhorting his troops to teach others that one’s path to God traced out by an ever-changing created reality might not correspond to what’s in a man-made rule book fixed in time and place. 

“Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of  overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria  that are rigidly defined … and that set aside concrete situations,…”

“We need to form future priests not to general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but to [the] keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life,…”

“We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black,” said Francis. “No! The shades of grey prevail in life. We must           teach them to discern in this grey area.”(Francis asks priests to learn that life isn’t black and white, but shades of grey, Joshua J. McElwee  Aug. 25, 2016, NCR.)