In its fundamental role of judging good or evil — the rightness or wrongness of a person’s choices — conscience is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all the moral teachings of the Church.
And yet, a properly formed conscience is essential to ordering one’s life toward the service of God, whose will has been clearly revealed in the Scriptures, the authoritative teachings of His Church, and the objective moral truths knowable to human reason from natural law.
Man is a being with a physical body and a spiritual soul. In his body, man finds himself incorporated into the physical universe. Consequently, he is subject to its inherent order and laws. In his spiritual nature, man reflects the image of God himself. Man mirrors the divine personality in his ability to think and to choose. By virtue of his human reason and free will, man can truly be said to have been “made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9).
Conscience exists as a faculty of the human soul. Conscience is fed and nourished, ordered and directed by what is presented to it in the rational ability of man to know objective moral truth — that is, to grasp what is truly good and what is truly evil. It does not exist apart from man’s intellect or free will. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, conscience is not the “source” of morality, but rather is its “servant.”
Conscience is ordered to the task of holding to the most fundamental of all moral precepts: do good and avoid evil. Informed by divinely revealed moral truths or by the principles of right and wrong, which are perceptible to the human mind from the natural law, conscience renders a judgment about the goodness or evil of a particular act or choice in the specific circumstances of the moment. Conscience then evaluates the choice one has made to determine whether or not the will of God has been observed. In making its judgment, conscience is the application of the principles of morality rather than the source of those moral principles.
For conscience to function properly, it must be well-formed. Conscience must be educated and disciplined in its effort to know the objective moral principles that are available to it either from divinely revealed sources or creation itself.
How is conscience properly formed?
Every person has the moral obligation to see to it that his or her conscience is properly formed. This duty is fulfilled according to the particular circumstances of a person’s life. The Christian conscience is formed in the lifelong process of prayerfully and diligently studying the moral lessons contained in the sacred Scriptures and the authoritative teachings of the Church. Because the Christian conscience is formed by the knowledge of such objective truths, its moral judgments are both accurate and binding. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Christian person to read and study the Word of God, to engage diligently in the reading of spiritual books and articles, to listen attentively to the sermons of the Church’s sacred pastors and to embrace humbly the moral teachings of the pope and the bishops.
The well-formed Christian conscience is likewise assisted by the practice of both the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These moral habits not only discipline a person’s errant free will but direct choices toward the service of God and those things that truly are helpful for salvation.
Because all men and women suffer the effects of sin, the human intellect is fallible. As a result, it is possible for the judgment of conscience to be in error. Out of ignorance or even faulty reasoning, conscience may not be able to render a judgment that conforms to objective moral truth.
Sometimes this ignorance can be willful or vincible. In such a situation, a person would have had the means available to overcome a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of a particular moral precept, yet would have rather freely chosen to remain in ignorance. A person acting on the basis of vincible ignorance is morally responsible for the choices that are made.
On the other hand, there are times when a person’s lack of awareness or misunderstanding of a particular moral obligation is not voluntary and, therefore, beyond the ability of the person to overcome it. This is termed invincible ignorance. A person acting on the basis of such invincible ignorance is not morally responsible for his actions or choices. Yet, even though he may not be morally responsible for the evil he committed, he and others may be affected by it. Sadly, such situations often have a serious and negative impact upon one’s spiritual life, disrupting union with God and others.
A Person’s Obligation
Simply put, the most basic principle of Christian moral teaching is the strict obligation a person has to follow the judgment of a well-formed conscience.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the judgment of a properly formed conscience can never contradict the objective moral truth contained in Sacred Scripture or taught by the magisterium of the Church. The Catechism states: “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” (No. 1783).
The binding force of conscience does not depend on a person’s decision to follow it or not. Rather, a properly formed conscience is binding because it accurately reflects the mind and will of God himself. Again, the Catechism states, “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (No. 1777).
Because this is so, the Church teaches that not only must a person follow the judgment of a well-formed conscience, but his freedom to do so must always be assured and protected. “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters’” (No. 1782).
Father Joseph L. Parisi received his Master of Pastoral Theology Degree from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1974 and the Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of St. Paul in Ottawa, Canada, in 1986.
The Character and Directions of Our Lives
The moral choices we make determine the character and direction of our lives.
Our lives are inexorably oriented toward or away from God in our moral choices. If we say we choose to strengthen and nourish our relationship with God, we are pledging to respect and observe what is morally good and true. Conscience makes possible our choice to embrace God in our lives. Our obedience to the judgments of a properly formed conscience is itself a choice for God and for His life to grow within us. Yet, even in those moments of selfishness and sin, when we choose to ignore or deny what has been judged as good and true, it is the voice of our conscience which calls out to us to admit our moral failing and seek the forgiveness of God.
Perhaps the nobility and dignity of man’s conscience has been most beautifully described in the poetic words of Cardinal John Henry Newman: “Conscience is a messenger of Him who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1855).