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by John O'Connell
© 1996 Inter Mirifica
It was Christianity that first exulted the nobility and authority of the human conscience, upholding the supreme right of the conscience against the rule and demands of the State, the City, and the tribe which previously in human history had been paramount. The Church has taught us that the conscience is inviolable and must always be obeyed. For Christianity affirms the dignity of the individual person and also acknowledges the intransigent claims of the moral law which comes from God, the Divine Lawgiver.
It is no little irony then, that many portray the Roman Catholic Church as the enemy of conscience: numerous individuals employ the claims of conscience against the Church and her teachings. Have we not often read or heard or seen a news story about a dissenting Catholic who, in disputing the Church's teaching on abortion, etc., concludes that in the end he must either follow his conscience or official church policy. Naturally, we know what he will do: he will follow his putative conscience.
An appeal to one's conscience has become a ready excuse for every sort of immoral, aberrant behavior. It is especially useful for those who seek to justify actions that are in harmony with the Zeitgeist of our secular society. Conscience has become for many the oracle of moral subjectivism.
This spurious appeal to the conscience stems from an ignorance or a rejection of the proper nature and office of the conscience. Conscience is not an emotional sensation about a particular ethical situation. Nor is conscience how we subjectively feel about a certain ethical issue. Conscience does not create its values, but rather it apprehends the truth of the moral order and applies these moral norms to concrete situations. Conscience is often spoken of as a light or voice that informs a person about what is right and good and morally correct. In the broadest sense of the word, conscience is the mind apprehending the truth, especially in the moral order. But more specifically, conscience is a judgment of the practical intellect, derived from objective moral principles, about the good or evil of a concrete situation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
Conscience is a judgement 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 judgement of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law (no. 1778).
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, conscience is the mind of man passing moral judgements. For the Catholic, conscience is a mental conclusion about a specific act derived from the objective, immutable moral norms of the Natural Law and the revealed Word of God. For example, you know that the Decalogue forbids stealing. You go into a restaurant where someone has left a large amount of money on the table. If you are inclined to pocket the money, your conscience informs you that it would be immoral to do so.
The proper exercise of conscience presupposes an objective moral order that can be known by the human mind. To form one's conscience means to learn the truth of the universal moral law. Everyone has the obligation to discover as best he can the foundational norms of morality. The Catholic has the great grace of knowing the fullness of God's Revelation, including the moral law, from the teachings of the Church.
However, numerous theologians today maintain that the Church's doctrine in the moral sphere is not infallible and as a corollary, at least they imply, it is quite open to error. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the fundamentals of the Christian moral life have been infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church. The Church, for example, has taught that abortion, contraception, fornication, euthanasia and suicide are immoral by her ordinary and universal magisterium. The conscience is always subject to the teaching of the Church.
To be secure in following our conscience, we require a properly informed conscience, i.e., one that is in possession of the truth. And it is the teaching of the Church that guarantees that we possess the truth revealed by God. We form our conscience with the truth of the moral realm, so that we might conform our actions to those of Christ.
A properly formed conscience will enable us to make the correct moral decision when confronted with a particular situation that requires a moral judgement. A correct conscience is when the judgement of the intellect correctly concludes from true moral principles that a particular act or inaction is either good or sinful.
When we are subjectively sure of what our conscience has decided about a specific instance, we have a certain conscience. We must obey our certain conscience. It is true, however, that a certain conscience can objectively be in error.
If a person is inadequately informed of the Church's teaching, especially in the moral order, then his conscience could readily err in making a moral decision. That is why we have a grave responsibility to properly form our conscience by educating ourselves about the moral teaching of the Church. For the Church teaches what Christ has revealed to her. When one is culpable for one's ignorance then it is called vincible ignorance.
If one is not culpable for one's ignorance of the moral law then it is termed invincible ignorance. For example, if someone has always heard and read, even from religion teachers, that the Catholic Church teaches contraception is not sinful, then he would not be culpable in following his certain but erroneous conscience, until he is confronted in a serious and profound way with the truth.
There our times when we may be unsure of what to do morally in a certain situation. There may be a gap in our knowledge of the moral law, or the situation confronting us may be highly morally complex. In the case of a doubtful conscience, the Christian should pray to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment and seek advice from a sound spiritual advisor before acting. One may never act on a doubtful conscience.
When one progresses in the spiritual life, the conscience becomes more sensitive, more precise in its moral judgements. Saints possess a sensitive conscience, that is a conscience finely tuned to know the Will of God. Saints are sensitive to avoid not only sins of commission but of omission as well. Saints strive earnestly to avoid not only mortal sins and venial sins, but they seek to do what is most pleasing to God. Saints have been blessed by the Holy Spirit with a profound Fear of the Lord, a fear of offending so good and holy a God. This is a salutary fear, unlike the paralyzing fear of the scrupulous person.
We are all bound to strive to cultivate a sensitive conscience. We do this not only or even primarily by growing in our knowledge of the Divine Law, but in our greater fidelity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to follow our conscience and the Will of God even in the smallest matters. A prudent person is one who with a sensitive conscience correctly decides what is right to do (or not do) in a particular circumstance, and then cooperates with the grace of God and does what is right.
Do not confuse a sensitive conscience with a scrupulous one. A scrupulous conscience is fearful and tends to decide erroneously that something licit is sinful, or that which is venial is a grave matter. Scrupulosity is an affliction. It takes obedience to a wise confessor and absolute trust in the Mercy of God to overcome scrupulosity.
There are those, too frequently today, who have lax or hardened consciences. These individuals do not recognize that what objectively is wrong is sinful, or they consider that which is grave matter to be slight. We can gradually deaden our conscience by refusing to heed its call or by not diligently searching for the moral truth.
Possessing a conscience is a great gift and correlative with our dignity as children of God. It is our Christian duty through study and especially prayer to discern the truth so as to properly form our conscience. If we sincerely seek the truth, then the Spirit of Truth will enlighten our conscience by His grace.
The world proclaims that each one is the arbitrator of his moral values. But what is truly moral corresponds to the good and exists independently of our subjectivity. Or our secular society would have us believe that morality resides in the human genes. Rather morality rests in the human heart, that mysterious region of our humanity where the intellect and the will meet. For finally, it is in the depths of the human heart that one determines whether to respond to the call of the Divine Heart to live a life worthy of a follower of Christ.
John O'Connell is the Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.