Today I want to talk about conscience. We need to start with the Church’s understanding of the result of the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. To be sure, we have all inherited original sin but we Catholics see the fall as being only partial. There is always the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil. In spite of that, we believe that all people, even un-baptized non-Christians, are able to make good, moral choices simply because they are human beings created in the image of God. (Moral Natural Law.) So for example in Romans 2: 15 we hear St. Paul saying that the Gentiles 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.
To be sure, we Catholic Christians have a decided advantage in the formation of conscience, but others are still endowed with the hope and instruction that a good conscience provides.
The Greek word for “conscience” is synoida which means to “think together.” By the way, this is the basis of our word “synod” which is the gathering of bishops and other holy people to collectively discern the will of God.
The conscience, synoida, implies that one is thinking and reflecting inwardly with God in order to come up with that which God deems is the good and the right thing to do.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote: If…we feel responsibility, are frightened at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed and whose claims upon us we fear.
Conscience is more than just opinion. I rather like the statement in the Youcat, the Church’s revised Catechism for young people. In it we are told that Conscience is the inner voice in [us] that moves [us] to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the ability to distinguish…[between good and evil.] In the conscience God speaks to [us.] (#295)
God’s directives are discerned in that inner voice in which he makes himself known to us. So if anyone of us says with true conviction, “I can’t do this, before the one who causes me to fear and tremble,” then this is God speaking through the conscience. A whole lot of folks have gone to jail or have been martyred because they were true to their consciences.
As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, Anything that is done against conscience is a sin.
After World War II, the Church started doing some very serious reflection on the place and role of the conscience. Finally, when Vatican II came around, Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner wrote that the conscience is the proximate source of moral obligation, and so must be followed even if mistaken; but that we must form our conscience rightly and avoid confusing it with subjective inclination or personal preference. A Catholic must be prepared to accept moral instruction from the Church and never appeal to conscience to make an exception for him (or her)self. If we realize that we may very well have to sacrifice everything or lose our soul, then we would not look for exceptions to be made for us from God’s law and our confessors would not use evasions like “well, follow your conscience” when some hard if sensitive teaching were needed. If in our sinful world God’s law seems unrealistic, the trouble is not with God’s law but with the world—and therefore with us.
Rahner wrote on the verge of a new age in which Christian ethics faced challenges from many quarters, not least from within the Church herself. Vatican II sought to restate and update Catholic moral teaching. Though aware of growing individualism and relativism, the Council seemed optimistic to the point of naïveté about how their words would be received. Many people took up the Council’s views on the dignity and liberty of conscience with greater enthusiasm than they did for its teaching on the duty to inform conscience and exercise that liberty in accord with moral absolutes known to right reason and proclaimed by the Magisterium.
In the heady days right after Vatican II, the conscience often became confused with opinion. The watershed was Pope Paul VI encyclical Humanae Vitae, which in part affirmed the Church’s stance against artificial birth control. A whole lot of people have ignored this teaching. They have rationalized their choice and claimed it was and is a matter of conscience. This was and is linked with a lax attitude toward abortion and other grave moral issues.
St. John Paul II took the opportunity of the 25th anniversary of “Humanæ vitæ” to publish his groundbreaking encyclical “Veritatis splendor.” Here he reasserted the teaching of Vatican II that Christ and the Church instruct definitively in moral matters, and that a well-formed Christian conscience will be informed by such authoritative teaching. St. John Paul taught us, the faithful, to proceed with obedience of faith, submitting our experiences, insights and wishes to the judgment of the teaching Magisterium. We constantly need to reform ourselves according to the mind of Christ which is authentically transmitted by the Church.
A well-tutored conscience is indispensible for the formation of Godly morality. The magisterium serves the Christian conscience by highlighting and clarifying those truths which a well-formed conscience ought already to possess. Again the Youcat tells us that No one may be compelled to act against his [or her] conscience, provided that he [or she] acts within the limits of the common good. (#296) So for example, someone may feel as if an abortion or an act of violent discrimination may be prompted by conscience, but that is simply not true.
And yet, anyone who disregards the conscience of a person, either by ignoring it or by using coercion, violates that person’s dignity. Practically nothing makes a human being more human than the gift of being personally able to distinguish good from evil and to choose between them. This is true even if the decision seems to be wrong. And if anyone is sincere in following the conscience, then God will not hold that person accountable, but he or she had jolly well better be right. The consequences for being wrong could be eternal.
Unless the conscience has been incorrectly and improperly formed, the inner voice speaks in agreement with what the Church deems reasonable, just and good in the sight of God.
In the Epistle lesson today from I Thessalonians, St. Paul tells us that we are enlightened with power and…[the] Holy Spirit and with much conviction. We are given the promise of help and clarity and specific direction, especially if our goal is to be truly faithful.
In her teaching Dignitas Humanae, Vatican II proclaimed that In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend the sacred and certain doctrines of the Church. For church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth.
It must be said that the first school of conscience is self-criticism. We all have the tendency to judge things to our own advantage. The second school of conscience is orientation to the good actions of others. The correct formation of conscience leads us to that freedom to what has been correctly identified as the “good.” With the help of the Holy Spirit and Scripture, the Church over her long history has accumulated a vast knowledge about right action; it is part of her mission to instruct people and to give them direction.
For me, all this means is that I darn well better be humble. As a consequence, I embrace the teaching of the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman when he said, “I believe what the Catholic Church believes.” and “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” This is the basis of conscience; this is the basis of faith.