The Primacy of Conscience

Friday, May 02, 2003



In a debate with a conservative Catholic, I was advised that conscience cannot be trusted, which strikes me as unreasonable, and perhaps even heretical.

Rather than quote a single passage, I decided that I would provide the entire section of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part III, Section I, Chapter One, Article 6 found at the following Vatican website (this will take you offsite):

The Catechism on Conscience at the Vatican Site

With each paragraph, I will provide how I am reading it in italics so that you can judge for yourselves whether I am misinterpreting Church teaching, which I have asserted elsewhere that I am quite confident I am not:

1776 "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."

Note that in the very first sentence, the Church affirms that individual subjective conscience must be obeyed. The reason it must be obeyed is explicated in the following sentences: the one who speaks to conscience is the very source of all truth – God!
It is precisely because the point of encounter with God is in the depths of subjective conscience that we can never judge the heart of another person. Even when a person does what objectively appears to be a grave evil, they may have been obedient to the voice of conscience within.

The perfect Scriptural example of this is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. To any objective observer, such an act would be murder! Can you imagine Sarah’s reaction if God had permitted the sacrifice to occur? Put yourself in Abraham’s place. How was Abraham certain that it was God, rather than the devil, who demanded the sacrifice of Isaac?

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

Conscience is available to every single person, and the one and only true God speaks to the conscience of all people. This is not to say that all people listen to their own conscience, or hear God with equal clarity. However, we can never deny that a person has a conscience where god is truly speaking. Even the psychopath has a conscience, though it may be mal-formed.

Scripturally, this is rooted in passages such as Rom 2: 14-16 quoted by the CCC in this passage, which says the following:

For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus.

Furthermore, Paul was alluding to the prophecy of Jeremiah 31: 33, which says:

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Indeed, the Church’s teachings on baptism by desire, salvation of the Old testament prophets, and even the possibility of salvation outside of the institutional Church depend on the notion that conscience is at least potentially available and reliable for everyone, even if people do need the help of grace in forming their conscience.

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:

Note that the Church ties conscience to the gift of human reason. This is consistent with Thomas Aquinas’ notion of a “natural law” that is discernable through the laws of empiricism and logical deduction. This was also confirmed at Vatican I in the Decree on faith and reason. This is why progressives insist that an appeal to Church authority also be demonstrated to be reasonable. Of course, some matters of faith go beyond reason. However, no doctrine of the Church can ever contradict reason.
The Catechism continues the above paragraph with the following explanation:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet (Christians) would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . (Conscience) is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.

WOW! Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ! Think about what that is saying! This is a clear reference that conscience has authority even over the Pope! If you do not see that, it can only be because you don’t understand what the words “aboriginal vicar of Christ” mean in theological discourse.

1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.

The Church is now telling us something that I fully accept, but is contradictory to the “wisdom of the world”. Think back to grade school or any standardized test. Weren’t you often advised that the first answer that pops in your head is probably right?

Well, the Church is saying not to follow the very first thing that pops in your head – at least not always. This passage confirms somewhat the conservative suspicion of subjective relativism, and even more progressive or liberal Catholics can accept this. We know form experience as we mature that our feelings change, and that making decisions “in the heat of passion” is generally not a good idea. Mere passing feelings and whims are not the voice of God in conscience.

The Church is saying, “Slow down. The dictates of conscience are sometimes hard to hear. Go to your closet and pray in secret. Live a reflective life, rather than the unexamined life.”

The voice of God in conscience is heard through the hard work of reasoning and praying and reflecting in quiet interiority until a moral certainty is reached that you have heard the very voice of God.

1780 The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment.

This passage really contains two separate points, and combines them to set the stage for later clarification. The first point is that the concept of human dignity (revealed in the incarnation) is rooted in our existence as beings of conscience. It is in our freedom that we are the image of God.

Yet, the second point being made is that precisely from our freedom flows the possibility that we can choose rightly and wrongly. We can choose not to listen to the voice of God in conscience!

1781 Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God:

The point made here is extremely important. Only if we are judged by our obedience to conscience can we be held morally accountable. A person who denies the primacy of conscience thereby removes the possibility of moral responsibility!
The paragraph adds this short quotation:

We shall . . . reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

God, who dwells everywhere, including in the human heart and mind, knows every single moment that you have violated your own personal conscience. He knows every single second you chose not to listen to it. He knows what he said to you in conscience, and he knows whether you acted upon it. As Christ says in the Gospel, “The standard by which you judge is the standard by which you will be judged”. It is not God who will condemn the damned at the last judgment. Your own subjective conscience will be held up to you and you will recognize immediately your own choices.

1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."

I don’t know how the Church could possibly be more clear that individual conscience is inviolable, even in religious matters. Conscience cannot be coerced through appeals to blind obedience or through threats. Conscience must be “Formed” through reflection, prayer, reason, persuasion and careful attention to the deepest promptings of the heart.

The Church plays a role in this formation of conscience – it is helpful to all of us to seek the morally certain dictates of conscience of our ancestors in faith, and the breadth and depth of the theological academy. Certainly authority should be given some weight and proper respect in this discernment process, but in the final analysis, the person stands alone before God in their own conscience!

The Church recognizes that the individual must ultimately face God alone – in solitude. Though the Church hopes to offer sure guidance to the very precipe where we leap across the chasm of loneliness into the arms of a loving God, each of us must ultimately make that leap by ourselves!

The point balance between trusting the guidance of the Church and recognizing our individual responsibility is made clear in the next paragraph.

1783 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.

We are the image of God created in freedom and possessing an incomparable dignity by virtue of our very nature. Every person is born with a conscience, and conscience is the place where the one true God is encountered face-to-face. We are inherently capable of good.

Yet, we are also effected universally by original sin. We are born in situations of social sin. Furthermore, an effect of original sin that persists even after baptism is concupiscence – an inclination to sin. Thus, grace is necessary to salvation, and we cannot be saved without it.

Yet, grace builds on nature. Grace touches us precisely in that place the devil could not reach even after the Fall of humanity. Grace is infused in the soul in the conscience!

To speak of infused grace as though it is merely a supernatural jolt from God is to misunderstand grace. Grace is God’s very life within us infusing faith, hope, and love. However, the way grace operates is mediated through nature. Nowhere is this more clear than in the very notion of sacraments – earthly signs and symbols that cause, actualize and make grace present!

In a like manner, since sin and concupiscence separate us form our true selves, grace operates through the worldly reality of the Church to help shape and form our conscience so that the voice of God within is heard more clearly. The communion of saints – the people of God – provides us 4,000 years worth of guidance. At the center of this tradition is the incarnate God who founded the Church for the purpose of offering succor and help in the formation of a good conscience.

The Church acts as a physician, or even better, a mother, to nurture us and care for us until we are able to stand on our own two feet sanctified by the Holy Spirit and ready and able to choose good and avoid evil.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

The first two sentences in bold are extremely important. Let’s start with the second – a child is born with the gift of conscience. Even a baby must follow conscience, even though that conscience has not yet been perfectly formed.

Which clarifies the first sentence. As long as any one of us is alive on earth, God is not finished with us yet. We are in process.

Just as a child learns to walk by falling down, so too, we learn the path of virtue largely by trial and error. Good education and formation of conscience will prevent the worst fallings, and encourage the highest virtues – but is inevitable that we all – to the very last person – will make mistakes.

The teachings of the Church are not intended to control people, nor to prevent people from falling. The teachings of the church are intended to help us pick ourselves back up and learn from our mistakes.

As we mature in holiness, good deeds become a habit – the literal meaning of “virtue”. Avoiding “vice” (bad habits) also becomes a habit. Yet, mistakes will be made and you will not ever be done forming your conscience while you are on this earth!

This raises another point that is clearer in other Church teachings (such as Dei Verbum no. 8). Many Church teachings are not directly rooted in the sayings of Christ, or his actions. These teachings are defined with varying levels of authority. The Church recognizes in DV 8 that there is a development of understanding revelation that is taking place, and will not be complete until the second coming.

Just as we each individually are in the process of forming our conscience until death, the Church as a whole is in the process of developing her collective conscience until the second coming.

For this reason, we must be very leery of and careful with judging another’s conscience. A person who says or does something contrary to Church teaching may be in sin or error. However, they may also be the prophetic voice through which the Holy Spirit is speaking to the collective conscience of the Church. Great care must be taken to weight things carefully in light of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, reason, experience, and the dictates of your own individual conscience.

In the practice of love, we must be humble – willing to listen to one another – especially those who have been grafted to the Body of Christ through baptism. It is true that the Pope’s opinion is more authoritative than any other member of the Body of Christ. It is true that in very select cases, he even speaks with a charismatic gift of the Spirit called infallibility (freedom form error).

However, the gift of infallibility is actually exercised very cautiously in the Church – and conscience – the direct encounter with God in prayerful reflection - remains our primary guide.

1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

We see here the summary of all that I have said. God himself is speaking with certainty to the individual in conscience. We hear his voice through careful prayerful reflection. The authoritative teachings of the Church are aimed at assisting us in this task. Those teachings do not supercede the morally certain dictates of conscience. Conscience is always the “aboriginal vicar of Christ”.

The teachings of the Church do one thing, and one thing only – help us hear the voice within. If a temporal framing of a doctrine still under development fails to help people hear the voice of conscience, God raises up prophets and slowly guides the papacy to push the development forward. However, Church teaching, as an aid to hearing conscience, never has authority OVER conscience.

1786 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.

This repeats what has already been said. The condition for the possibility of freedom is that we have a conscience capable of making morally certain judgments, and then we are free to choose to obey or disobey those dictates of conscience.

1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.

This paragraph expresses an important subjective truth that every honest person already knows. Most of us are not morally certain of very much at all!

When we retreat into interiority to hear the voice of God within, most of us hear static! Conscience itself seems to tell us one thing clearly – “I am fallible and uncertain of myself.”

The Church reminds us that despite this uncertainty, we must make choices. Indeed, the decision to do nothing is a decision itself. Despite our uncertainty and the static within, we must move forward and do something.

The gist of humility, which flows form the virtue of love, is precisely the honest self-assessment that recognizes degrees of certitude, levels of assent, finite capabilities, the certainty of death, the necessity of choice, and the lack of clarity in choice.

Yet, we reach out in faith, despite our uncertainty, knowing as the paragraph suggests that there is a right answer, that good and evil can eventually be discerned, and we will ultimately come to moral certitude in the depth of conscience, even if we feel uncertain today!

1788 To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.

This paragraph flows naturally from what we have already said, and emphasizes that in the final analysis, our striving for moral certitude that seems so elusive will be given to us directly by the Holy Spirit – certainly through the mediation of the Church – but not exclusively through the Church. Rather, we discern the promptings of the Spirit through God’s providential action in the whole of our lives: as we “interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times” and grow in the virtue of prudence and seek the advice of others!

1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble."

Note that the very first line of paragraph 1789 states that some rules always and everywhere apply. These are rules that I appeal to in every point where I withhold assent form a particular Vatican position. The ends do not justify the means. The golden rule must always be at the root of the right decision. Charity and respect for the conscience of another. This final point is why I am so upset at my conservative Catholic opponent suggesting conscience cannot be trusted is that she is suggesting that obedience to Church teachings supercedes obedience to conscience. This cannot be the case – and even in obedience to the Church, the Church is telling us to respect the conscience of another.

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

Again, it is very clear in the first two sentences here that obedience to conscience is always and everywhere required. To act in disobedience to conscience is to disobey God, since it is God, Himself, who speaks in the depths of conscience. If a person acts against conscience, that person condemns himself or herself!

There seem to be a number of people in cyberland Catholicism who want to place the emphasis on the second half of the paragraph, which reminds us that we can make erroneous judgments in conscience. However, the paragraph says nothing that indicates that we should disobey conscience when it is in error. Rather, the reminder that we might be in error is solely intended to slow us down from reaching moral certitude too quickly – with too little reflection.

In effect, the paragraph is saying, “When in doubt, follow Church teachings. When you find yourself having trouble agreeing with the Church, make absolutely sure you are right before you act.”

Phrased this way, I have not problem with saying we should be humble before Church teachings. However, I get the impression that some people think that the actual interpretation should be that if your conscience disagrees with the Church, you must obey the Church. This is not stated in the paragraph, and from what is clearly stated in the first two sentences, it cannot be true that the Church would teach such a thing!

To tell another person that they must obey the Church even if the morally certain dictates of conscience is tell them otherwise is to tell that person to commit a mortal sin. You may as well be telling the person to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. You can never, ever, under any circumstances tell another person to violate their conscience.

You may appropriately ask questions, such as “Have you truly reached moral certitude? Did you consider Church teaching as part of the process of reaching moral certitude? Are you certain that you understood Church teaching correctly in this process of reaching moral certitude? How does your morally certain opinion flow from the golden rule? How is your morally certain opinion supported by reason? How do you reconcile your morally certain opinion with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition? Why do you chose to remain in the Catholic Church when your morally certain opinion differs from the current official teaching?”

All such questions are appropriate – but the one thing you cannot advise someone is that conscience can be disobeyed. Conscience must always and everywhere be obeyed!

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

The Church is reminding us once again of not jumping to hasty conclusions based on passing feelings and whims. Conscience is heard in deep reflection – not the first thing that pops in our head. There is such a thing as “vincible ignorance” – the person who simply refuses to take the time to consider Church teaching or the dictates of reason or anything else. For such a person, God may be speaking loud and clear in their heart, and the individual is not even taking a moment to listen to God. Such a person will be held accountable for this.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

This paragraph explains something we haven’t really touched on yet, and something that goes deeper than “vincible ignorance”. This is the refusal to follow conscience that is rooted in vice – habitual sin. Due to the effects of original sin, if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we sometimes cut off our own nose to spite our face. We resist personal change out of laziness, go along with a crowd to do what our hearts condemn, or rebel against authority even when we know authority makes a good point. This is sinful.

I get the impression that those who label themselves “conservative” have a tendency to assume that anyone who questions a particular Church teaching is doing precisely this.

However, we will see in the paragraph below that there are other reasons that a person will question Church teaching, or even seem to reject the authority of the church.

There is a world of difference between a person who childishly acts against their own conscience just to spite authority, or just to go along with the crowd, and the person who questions authority precisely because they think authority may have made a mistake!
Furthermore, it is not unimaginable that the authority of the Church can make a mistake. We know she has made mistakes on issues such as slavery, the crusades, the inquisitions, usury, Galileo, and so forth.

We’ll explore this more in the next paragraph.

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.

I have been asked several times by conservatives where the Church teaches that conscience must be obeyed even when it is wrong. It seems to me that paragraph 1793 clearly says this in the context of all that has been said.

A person can make an error in conscience through what is called “invincible ignorance”, and even though the act of such a person may be evil, there is no guilt imputed to the person.

On the surface, some people may argue that invincible ignorance refers to the fact that you have not heard Church teaching, and could not have had the opportunity to hear the Church teaching. For example, a Muslim who never heard the gospel may not be responsible for sin if he failed to follow a particular command of Christ.

This is a fine example, but the issue goes deeper. What if a person heard the Church’s teaching, and even gives the Church the benefit of the doubt due to upbringing in the faith, but winds up reaching a moral certitude opposed to a current non-infallible teaching.

The conservatives seem to want to jump to the conclusion that this individual is rebelling against authority, as described in paragraph 1792. The problem is that sometimes, it is the individual who has spent time in prayer and reflection. It is one who can justify their opinion with reason and show consistency with Scripture and Tradition. It is one who has prayed on the subject and can demonstrate how their opinion flows form the two great commandments and the golden rule.

In such a situation, an appeal to blind obedience to authority does nothing but leave the individual in invincible ignorance. Furthermore, as we have already seen, it would be wrong to say to such a person that where conscience and authority conflict, authority must be obeyed. Conscience must be obeyed at all times.

An appeal to obedience under no other argument than authority alone is misplaced. In such a case, Church teaching actually may conflict with a person’s conscience rather than with a person’s pride!

It has been suggested to me once that such a person may “withhold assent” from Church teaching, but they may not “dissent”.

Those who outright claim to dissent and still call themselves Catholic would argue as follows: If I withhold agreement from you, I am disagreeing by definition. If I withhold respect from you, I am disrespecting you by definition. There really is no difference between “withholding assent” and “dissenting”.

Why would such a person remain Catholic? Why would such a person continue to seek the guidance of the Church in the formation of their conscience?

Being such a person, I can offer three reasons:

1) Subjectively, I know that I am not infallible. While I believe that my questions and arguments need to be considered by the supporters of Church teaching, there may yet be an answer I have not considered. Even in the act of pressing hard questions, I am doing my part to help doctrine develop. Again, knowing my own conscience is in the process of formation, I remain open to the possibility that I will be corrected.

2) The matter over which one may withhold assent may not be a matter that has been clearly defined with infallible authority. Doctrine is in the process of progressive development, just as the individual conscience is constantly being formed. The teaching may change. Even if a doctrine is already defined infallibly, that does not mean that further clarity cannot be given to the doctrine. The understanding of the Trinity that the Church possesses today developed and sharpened through close to 1,000 years of discussion and debate. Thus, there is no reason in conscience to leave the Church even if Christ came in glory to say I was right!

3) So long as the matter is not one of infallible teaching, and I find no infallible doctrine to which I cannot give assent, why in the world would I cease to seek the Church’s guidance? There is so much beauty and goodness in the Church. Why leave over a disagreement on a non-infallible doctrine?

The CCC closes this section with a call to charity in all things:

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith."

The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.

Are we being charitable when we are too much in a rush to accuse each other of formal heresy - to wish each other excommunicated to hastily?

I'll let the CCC's brief summary stand on its own now.


1795 "Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (GS 16).

1796 Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.

1797 For the man who has committed evil, the verdict of his conscience remains a pledge of conversion and of hope.

1798 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. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.

1799 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.

1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.

1801 Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.

1802 The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.

It should seem clear from all that is said that it would wrong to advise a person to disobey their conscience, even if obedience to conscience means disobedience to the Church.

If this topic is of interest to you, please see the following links:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
What is Infallibility?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
Is the Church Like a Political Party?
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!


Readers may contact me at

posted by Jcecil3 3:02 PM

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