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THE BISHOP'S VOICE: The true meaning of conscience

03/17/2018 | Comments

Much is being written these days about the importance — even the primacy — of conscience in our moral decisions.  Not all that we read is helpful, or even correct, when it comes to understanding what conscience is and what its limits are.  For this reason it is critical that this very important topic be clearly understood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines the moral conscience in this way:  “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” (CCC, No. 1777).

There are several points to be noted about this authoritative definition. First, the moral conscience judges particular choices that we make.  Conscience is a judgment of reason that is based on the natural moral law and the norms of moral action that have been revealed in Sacred Scripture and the received Tradition of the Church.  Conscience is invoked when we are contemplating a particular action, or when we are in the process of performing the action, or in evaluating the moral quality of an action already completed. 

Second, because of the role that conscience plays in our moral lives, it is essential that every Christian have a well-formed conscience. Turning again to the catechism, we find the elements of a well-formed conscience. “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” (CCC, No. 1783) [emphasis added]. We must be always in the process of educating our conscience by taking to heart the objective moral law, as this is found in Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, we seek to form our conscience in accord with the moral truth taught by Christ and his Church.

The formation of conscience also involves the practice of virtue, reliance on prayer and familiarity with the Word of God. The one who lives in habitual sin cannot expect to have a well-formed conscience.

Third, in all of this we find that conscience judges according to the principles of the objective moral law. Conscience is not the source of the moral law. It is precisely at this point that we find the most confusion and erroneous teaching. Oftentimes when someone says that he is “following his conscience,” it means that the person is appealing to conscience as if it were the source of the moral law. Conscience is the faculty by which we come to recognize the moral law — not create it.  For this reason, the authentic and well-formed conscience will never judge to be good that which is evil, as this has been revealed by Christ through his Church.  “One may never do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC, No. 1789).

It is a fundamental principle of Catholic teaching that one must follow his conscience.  But there is more to be said in this regard.  Aside from the situation of invincible ignorance, only a well-formed conscience is to be followed. A well-formed conscience will not confuse the objective moral law with personal preference or feelings.  Conscience is not a substitute for the teachings of Christ and his Church.

And finally, it must also be noted that conscience can be erroneous. Any human being is capable of making a wrong judgment. “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” (CCC, No. 1792).

Here is a rule of thumb for anyone who is serious about making correct moral judgments: Only those judgments which are in accord with Divine Revelation, as that is received and taught by the Church in her constant Tradition, are right judgments of an authentic conscience.


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