To hear Dr. Meaney’s recent short talk on conscience with HLI staff and leadership, click here.
Conscience and Its Formation
The judgment of conscience is both completely marvelous and incredibly serious. Our Lord inspired millions of martyrs whose consciences were formed in the Catholic Faith to tell their persecutors: You can kill me, but you cannot make me violate my conscientious beliefs.
In this first part of our series on freedom of conscience, we will talk about how the word “conscience” was originally understood and how it is understood, or misunderstood, today. We will also take a brief look at our moral obligations and why the formation of conscience is so important.
What “Conscience” Means
Conscience, or moral conscience, is a philosophical and theological term that comes from the Latin conscientia, “with knowledge.” The Latin in turn came from the Greek syneidesis. These earlier forms of the word have a double meaning of sharing knowledge and awareness that is still present today in Latin languages, but in English it is broken up into the two words “conscience” and “consciousness.”
Sadly, the sublime reality of conscience is frequently caricatured and even used as the justification for almost any personal belief today. Saying that my conscience compels or forbids me to do something can be a clever way to end all discussion or moral judgment. But who really believes this? Try telling a judge or police officer “my conscience allowed me to take that person’s car” and see how the law responds.
Conscience has a rational foundation and its judgments can be explained to others. In order for us to let conscience be our guide, we must know what exactly it is and what it is not.
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: (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1778)
The Church places an extremely high value on conscience since she insists that one has a moral obligation to follow the judgment of his conscience.
We are explicitly warned, however, that conscience is not infallible. In fact, errors are so frequent that throughout her existence the Church has insisted forcefully that the formation of conscience, our moral education, is of paramount importance.
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. 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. 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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1783-1785)
We should have an equally deep appreciation for the fragility of conscience. It is the height of arrogance to assert that one knows what is right and wrong in all cases. Self-interest and sin can easily cloud or obscure our consciences, so everyone should humbly and respectfully seek guidance in moral matters from the Magisterium of the Church and authorities we trust as holy and wise persons.
The Stakes Are High
What is at stake is nothing less than our eternal destiny. If our conscience leads us to “go with the flow” and accept something as right and good simply because it is popular or “politically correct” we can fall into grave errors for which there is no good excuse before God. This principle is illustrated with great clarity in the second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (v. 14-15)
The obligation to follow one’s conscience is strictly linked to the obligation to instruct one’s conscience well. The lame justifications—Everyone is doing it! or If it feels good, do it!—can never become the motto of well-formed and spiritually healthy persons.
It is also true there are many grey area situations where it is genuinely unclear where right and wrong lie. That is why the Church has expended so much time and effort in moral theology and bioethics over the centuries in order to assist those who are presented with true moral quandaries.
Conscience is not about knowing moral evil only in the abstract, but recognizing it concretely in a given situation. The result of a good moral decision can be positive, leading to a “clear conscience,” or negative, leading to a “guilty conscience.” It works like an inner voice, speaking with clarity and authority. Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, put it poetically: “Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (n. 16).
One can try to push conscience to the side, attempt to drown it out, belittle the significance of what one is about to do, excuse oneself from any responsibility (I was ordered to do it, The consequences of doing the right thing were too burdensome, etc.); but conscience remains as a personal moral compass. As most of us know too well, one can even make himself deaf to his conscience, so that he eventually stops hearing it; though even then, in certain moments of crisis, he can have an awakening and hear again the voice of conscience.
This is one of the most valuable aspects of conscience. It can nag and gnaw on us until we repent our sins and come back to the Truth.
Conscience: Feeling or Action?
People may joke about “Catholic Guilt,” but this feeling of sinfulness is incredibly beneficial in driving us back to the merciful arms of God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and amendment of life. It is similar to when pain alerts us to a physical problem and drives us to get the medical help we need.
St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica (vol. I, Q. 79, A. 13) refers to the judgment of conscience as an act. “For conscience, according to the very nature of the word, implies the relation of knowledge to something: for conscience may be resolved into cum alio scientia, i.e. knowledge applied to an individual case.” Though it is a faculty strongly related to the mind, it relates not just to my intelligence, but also to my heart and will, appealing to the best in me. It calls me from above, but fully respects my freedom in doing so. Temptation, on the other hand, appeals to my baser instincts and weaknesses, trying to induce me to do something that violates what I know is right. Conscience helps me act freely and avoid subjugation to ideological demands while unchecked temptation enslaves me to desires, idols, or fashions.
All of us recognize the horror of persons without a conscience and the kind of acts they commit. Sociopathic or psychopathic behavior is particularly terrible because cold, cruel cunning has replaced conscience. People with distorted or malformed consciences can be almost as hideous.
From these darkest corners of humanity, however, we can gain a greater appreciation for the sacredness and beauty of an upright conscience. We should strive to achieve this kind of conscience and reject with contempt the many counterfeit consciences proposed in our world today.
Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship n. 17)
Hopefully, this short introduction to the important subject of conscience will inspire readers to form, educate, and protect their consciences. Further entries in this series will address conscience rights and other important conscience-related topics.
Portions of this text are adapted from the doctoral dissertation of Joseph Meaney: Conscience and Health Care: A Bioethical Analysis.
Resources used in this article which we recommend for further study:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially n. 1776-1802
Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: especially n. 16, 19, 26, 50, 87
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, USCCB, especially n. 17-34