What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making?
The Modern Misunderstanding of Conscience
The Catholic Church teaches that the conscience is a natural facility of our reason that directs us to do good and avoid evil; that makes judgments about the good and evil of particular acts; and that bears witness after the fact to the good or evil that we have done, such as what we call “having a guilty conscience.”1
A fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the human conscience lies at the root of many of the problems in the Catholic Church today. Very few Catholics even know what that role actually is. When pressed, many will say something along the lines of “If my conscience tells me that a particular action is all right, I can do it.”
This is just another way of saying “If it feels good, do it.” If an improperly-formed conscience leads a person to accept something as right and good based simply on his or her uninformed opinions and feelings, that person will fall into grave errors for which there is no good excuse before God:
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. (Romans 2:14-15)
Many Catholics erroneously believe that the conscience is a teacher, not a pupil; that it is the source of morality. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. According to the Church, the conscience is a witness to the moral law authored by God. Each Catholic is required to obey that moral law in all things. The conscience, if properly formed, calls him to obey that moral law and helps him to understand how to apply it in particular cases.
This is why the cultivation of the cardinal virtue of prudence is essential. As the Catechism teaches, “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” (¶1788).
Result: A Deformed Belief System
The belief that the conscience is a moral authority in its own right has resulted in Catholics supporting and promoting many intrinsic evils, including contraception, sterilization, abortion, homosexual activity, pornography and euthanasia.
Many organizations vigorously promote this false understanding of the human conscience in order to gain more support from Catholic laity. One of these groups is “Catholics” for Choice (CFC), whose mission consists of attempting to convince people that they can be pro-abortion and still be “good Catholics.” In its quarterly magazine, ironically entitled Conscience, CFC attempts to legitimize the obvious paradox that “Church law affirms both the right and the responsibility of a Catholic to follow his or her conscience, even when it conflicts with church teaching”2 (emphasis added).
CFC also alleges:
The Catholic Church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme. If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you are not committing a sin. Therefore, you are not excommunicated. Nor need you tell it in confession, since, in your case, abortion is not a sin.3
It is easy to demonstrate that CFC does not really believe this principle itself. For example, would it concede that it was legitimate for someone to “carefully examine their conscience” and then decide that torching an abortion clinic in the middle of the night was “the most moral act they could do at this time?”
This is a fundamental error, and are many examples of how it naturally carries over into other moral issues. Teresa Kelly, a member of Toronto’s Catholic school board, recently said that being part of a gay-straight alliance whose purpose is to disseminate homophile propaganda in the schools is “the embodiment of a perfectly-formed Catholic conscience.” She dismissed her critics, who quoted actual Church teachings on homosexuality, as “archaic.”4
Personal Judgement vs. Objective Standards
How does conscience relate to morality?
In order for a person’s conscience to be conditioned to accept evil, it must first decisively turn away from God’s teachings and decide that it can determine for itself what is right and wrong, ignoring all external and objective standards if necessary in order to reach the desired conclusion.
This means that dissenters must justify their claims by assuming that there is no fixed morality that is binding on all persons. The only source of morality is the conscience of each individual. One phrase that is coming into common usage among the self-appointed elite is “This is my truth.”
However, the intrinsic flaw with that understanding is the fact that every human being is naturally attuned to their own subjective view of the world. This subjective view exists in order to promote the highest good of the individual. However, if that view is not held to an objective standard, it is easy for the individual to consider not what is morally good (i.e., virtuous) but rather what is personally good (i.e., convenient).
This type of thinking leads many to justify actions that no moral law would permit.
Catholics and Church Teaching
It is one thing for a person to say “I disagree with the Church’s teaching on abortion.” It is another thing entirely to say “The Church teaches that abortion is permissible, so long as my conscience allows it.” This statement is false, and can only be uttered by one who is grossly ignorant of Church teaching or who deliberately lies about such teaching.
Ignorance is certainly no excuse for committing sin because every Catholic has the duty to know what is evil and what is not, and, further, they should know why certain activities are evil. Secular courts enforce the general rule that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and everyone accepts this principle; why should it be any different for the eternal law?
A person is culpable for the evil he commits when he “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.”5
The Formation of the Conscience
The conscience is a precious gift and it must be cared for by forming it with prayer and education for the duration of our lives.
The Catechism states, “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” (¶1783).
A dead giveaway that a person’s conscience is improperly formed is when he or she says something like “I respect the teachings of the Church, but I follow my own conscience in matters of sexual morality.” Nancy Pelosi gave us a typical example of this deception when she claimed that she was a “practicing and respectful Catholic” but, regarding the Church’s teachings on abortion, “My faith isn’t about what their position is.”6
This means that the person’s conscience has become disconnected from the truth. This has several root causes (Catechism, ¶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.”
By contrast, a properly‑formed Catholic conscience has been rigorously educated, is fully aware of the intrinsically evil nature of abortion and other evils, and is led by this knowledge to vigorously oppose them.
Failure to act is not a viable option.
It is true that Catholics must follow their consciences, but their consciences must be formed by the Word of God, which is authentically interpreted and taught by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, to which Christ entrusted His authority to teach in His Name. The conscience must be continuously schooled to recognize, not to determine, what is and is not moral activity.
As the Catechism teaches, “Objective rules of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.… It is by the judgment of conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” (¶1751, 1778).
Conscience and Vatican II
Some appeal to an ill‑defined “Spirit of Vatican II” to support their concept of the human conscience. They use vague terms such as “renewal,” “reinvigoration” and “rejuvenation” of the Church, while consciously misrepresenting what the documents of the Council actually say. They often quote the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”) in support of their contention that people should be able to do anything their uneducated consciences do not object to.7
However, this is obviously not what the Fathers of Vatican II taught. They instead laid out very clearly the multiple dangers inherent in this line of thinking. In Gaudium et Spes, they wrote, “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin” (¶16‑17). Furthermore, the document notes that “not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience.”8
The document continues by confirming an essential principle: That the conscience must submit itself to the authority of the Church:
In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself. (¶14)
Conscience does have a very particular and necessary role given by God. As defined in Romans 2:12‑16 and Jeremiah 31:33, God imprints the natural law on the heart and soul of man, and this leads him to know whether or not an act is moral or evil.9 This means that the “natural law” is man’s instinctual knowledge of what is right and what is wrong ― his “conscience.” However, the conscience must work with the teachings of the Church, never against it.
The Church, as demonstrated in a particularly vivid manner by Her martyrs, has always held that a person’s properly-formed conscience may never be violated. Countless men, women and even children have courageously stated, “You may kill me, but you will never force me to violate my conscience.”
This principle has more recently been recognized by secular authorities. The United Nations, in both its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
When society fails to acknowledge conscience as a human right and does not provide protections for individuals to follow their own consciences, grave conflicts inevitably result. Either people will heroically obey their consciences whatever the cost, or they will lose their moral integrity with all the devastating effects that flow from this on society at large.
There are thousands of incidents on record where conscientious objectors are severely punished, particularly in the health care profession. Many have been fined, dismissed from their jobs, and even in some cases jailed for refusing to participate in such intrinsic evils such as dispensing contraceptives and abortifacients and refusing to participate in such fundamental violations of human dignity as abortion, euthanasia, and so-called “sex-changed” surgeries.
Tragically, many Catholics possess a fatally flawed concept of conscience, denying the need for formation in the truth, and treating mere desire as an absolute. Conscience is indeed a decision-maker, but it must be freely submitted to the law of God, to which it is a witness, not an arbiter.
The error lies not in affirming the freedom of conscience to decide, but in misinterpreting the nature of such freedom. Freedom of conscience must be at the service of moral truth but can never be its determinant.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1776; “Moral Conscience: Catholic Teaching for a Strong Faith” at http://beginningcatholic.com/conscience.
 Steve Askin. “Challenging the Right.” Conscience [newsletter of “Catholics” for Choice], Spring 1994, pages 65 and 66; “Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little‑Known History.” Conscience, Autumn 1996, pages 2 to 5.
 “Catholics” for Choice. “You Are Not Alone: Information for Catholic Women about the Abortion Decision” [Washington, D.C.: CFC], 2000 reprint.
 Patrick B. Craine. “Toronto Catholic Teacher: Joining Gay Club is ‘Embodiment of a Perfectly-Formed Catholic Conscience.’” LifeSite Daily News, May 27, 2013.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1791; Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes [“On the Church in the Modern World”], ¶16.
 John Jalsevac. “Pelosi Laughs Off Priest’s Letter Challenging Abortion Views, Says He Was ‘Acting Hysterically.’” LifeSite Daily News, June 25, 2013.
 As one example, Frances Kissling says, “In its approach to the [abortion] issue, the organization [“Catholics” for Choice] relied on the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of the separation of church and state, pluralism, and the primacy of conscience” [Frances Kissling, in “CFFC Notebook: A Mouse that Roars Turns 20.” Conscience, Spring/Summer 1993, page 54].
 Dignitatis Humanae, ¶8. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of this document, anticipated this kind of dishonesty. He stated in a footnote to the Abbott‑Gallagher edition of the Council texts:
The Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on “freedom of conscience.” Nowhere does this phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is a perilous theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism ― the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not the objective truth, which determines what is right and wrong, true or false.
Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, quoted in Russell Shaw. “Answers.” National Catholic Register, September 13, 1992, page 4.
 The Bible contains many references to the human conscience. It describes the fate of someone who does not guard or “keep” his conscience (Hebrews 9:14 and 1 Peter 3:16), and who allows his conscience to become “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). The Bible also speaks of a “weak conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:7), a “wounded conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:12), a “good” and “perfect” conscience (Hebrews 9:9 and 13:18; 1 Peter 3:21; and 1 Timothy 1:5,19); a “clear” or blameless conscience (Acts 24:16 and 1 Timothy 3:9), and a conscience that is “evil” or defiled (Titus 1:15).
Did you find this useful?
Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.