For some of us, our first encounter with conscience may have been the movie Pinocchio, where the wise Jiminy Cricket exhorts our hero to "let conscience be [his] guide." For others, it may have been an elementary catechism class, where we learned that conscience is a "little voice" inside us helping us to sort out right from wrong. Whatever the source, animated by Disney or supernatural grace—or likely a combination of the two—we learned early on that it is a very good and even necessary thing to follow our conscience.
As we develop a more mature understanding of Christian morality, we still recognize our fundamental obligation to follow our conscience. The Church teaches that conscience is that privileged place within us where God speaks to us. Conscience gives us the framework for making good, loving choices and shunning evil impulses and temptations. Even on a natural level we encounter the workings of conscience, as pagans and Christians alike have experienced a sense "deep down" that something just is—or is not—the right thing to do.
For Christians, of course, conscience goes beyond those elements of the natural law that are accessible to every human heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15): The more our conscience is formed by the teachings of Christ and his Church, the more our conscience becomes finely attuned to all that is true, good, and beautiful.
And conscience is not merely a window to the natural law, but a place where we actually encounter the living God. The Gospel warns us against professing belief in the Lord while failing to do what he says (Luke 6:46). What good would it be, for example, for our conscience to tell us it is wrong to defraud our creditors if we have no intention to act upon such guidance? It would be like driving at night without using our headlights. Such a culpably reckless approach would inevitably lead to disaster.
Therefore, it is clear that we have a serious duty to do what we believe is right in God’s eyes, and this entails heeding our conscience. As the Church teaches, our dignity and even our eternal destiny lie in our obedience to God’s voice within us (see Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 16).
Where Did I Go Wrong?
All this is well and good in theory, but the whole idea of what it means to "follow one’s conscience" has been widely misunderstood and even distorted in recent decades. Rather than serve as the light of divine truth for modem man, "conscience" is now frequently advanced as a justification for the practical rejection of such truth. This contemporary phenomenon cuts us off from the fountain of mercy that the Lord offers us through the Church. After all, if we don’t understand that we’re sick, we won’t seek the appropriate spiritual medicine.
Whenever we pray the Act of Contrition, we bank on God’s help, but we also tell the Lord that we are absolutely serious about avoiding sin in the future. In other words, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to help reverse the cycle of sin in our life, to wipe out our spiritual illness at the source.
Prudentially, then, it would be extremely helpful to have some understanding of the underlying causes of our sins. We all ask ourselves, "Where did I go wrong?" Surely we’re all prone to sin because of our fallen nature, and it’s also true that sin isn’t all that innovative or trendy. Our sins are not that original. Ask any confessor! It’s actually quite possible to trace most of our sins to some very basic moral errors, several of which are intimately linked to our understanding of moral conscience.
In this regard, I find paragraph 1792 to be one of the most enlightening entries in the Catechism. It lists some of the main reasons why we go astray. Here’s what it says:
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.
Several of these items jump off the page to me. Doctrinal dissent has consequences in the moral life. My bad example (known as "scandal") can lead others to sin. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to the Gospel.
But let’s focus more specifically on those "errors of judgment in moral conduct" that are more directly limited to an inadequate understanding of conscience.
Who’s Calling the Shots?
One of the big problems today is that "conscience" is confused with our feelings and passions. Many people invoke the mantra "if it feels good, do it." Of course, if that were really a moral imperative, then God’s law in essence would be, "Thou shall do whatever feels good to thee." That’s a very wide road indeed! (see Matt. 7:13-14). Sadly for the hedonist, that verse is not in the Bible.
A well-formed conscience is about doing what God wants, not what I want. There are many voices—internal (e.g., our own preferences, memories, motivations, disordered desires) and external (e.g., family, friends, media)—competing for our attention. We need a certain interiority to be able to hear the Shepherd’s voice, to discern God’s law that is already on our hearts. Otherwise, we do whatever is expedient, agreeable, or enjoyable, and then we carelessly assume that we’re just following our conscience.
That’s why the Catechism mentions "enslavement to one’s passions" as a source of moral errors. Even when we’re fairly well attuned to our interior life, our passions are constantly pushing the envelope and distracting us from listening to the Holy Spirit, looking for a chink in our armor. If our intellects and wills are not firmly grounded in the moral law, our passions will assume the role of conscience.
We see this especially in the area of sexuality. Our society bombards us with stimuli to arouse the passions. Meanwhile, two generations of Catholics have endured pastors, theologians, teachers, and parents who have doubted the Church’s teachings and have not presented them in a compelling fashion. They also have not fostered virtues like chastity and modesty that will support upright behavior. This inevitably creates a huge opening for the passions to call the shots, not the Lord and his holy law.
Interiority presupposes a certain amount of calm and silence, but the passions are very loud and demanding. Conscience sheds the light of Christ on the situation, but when we fall into the vice of letting the passions guide our decision making, our conscience becomes blinded through the habit of sin (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 16). We need the virtue of prudence to help us sort out the competing "voices" in our lives so as to make godly choices.
Another source of error of judgment in moral conduct is the "assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience." It is true that one should not be forced to act against one’s conscience. But it’s quite another to assert that a Catholic with a well-formed conscience may put the Church’s teachings in the areas of faith and morals through his or her own "approval process."
Some Catholic commentators assert that a well-formed conscience and official Catholic teaching may come to opposite conclusions in moral matters. This opinion directly contradicts the Catechism, paragraph 2039: "Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church." A Catholic simply cannot claim to have a well-formed and well-informed conscience if he is ignorant of, misunderstands, or rejects outright God’s law and thus commits acts that the Church considers gravely disordered.
It is also true that one must follow the dictates of a "certain judgment of his conscience" (CCC 1790). Let’s look at this a little more closely in practice, though. Imagine a Catholic who reads the following excerpt from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Evangelium Vitae 62, original emphasis)
Could such a Catholic, upon reading this excerpt, be certain that he or she is right and the Church is wrong on this issue? Doesn’t such a Catholic who persists in supporting abortion "rights" thereby become his own pope?
The fact is, if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord and that he speaks authoritatively through his Church, we don’t merely consult with him, we follow him! When I tell my children what I want them to do (because I desire good things for them), I expect obedience. I don’t consider it obedience when they merely take what I say as a "suggestion" and do something else instead.
Surely following God’s law is a matter of obedience, but even more it is about love. As our Lord says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). I know that one of the greatest acts of love my children show me is doing what I ask them to do. When it comes to following God’s law, a simple act of loving obedience is surely more pleasing to him than mere lip service and "conscientious objection." As he says in the Gospel, "Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
My Own Personal Jesus
Another source of error, closely related to the first two, is the "rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching." What all this comes down to is a crisis of objective truth, a lack of confidence in objective moral norms, and ultimately a widespread rejection of God and his action in our life, which is known as "secularism." As Pope John Paul II eloquently noted in The Gospel of Life, when we lose the sense of God we lose the sense of the dignity of mankind, and serious, systematic transgressions of the moral law are sure to follow (cf. CCC 2087).
But even for Catholics who have not fully succumbed to secularism and strive to follow Christ on some level, the Church still presents a real stumbling block. At best this manifests itself as a crypto-Protestantism, and at worst it can mark the early stages of a complete loss of faith. When the Church’s God-given authority is undercut, a significant vacuum is created. Where is truth? Some are content with a democratic or utilitarian approach: Give the people what they want. Rather than entrust Church teachings to a bunch of unenlightened old men (i.e., the successors of the apostles), they’d rather put these things to a vote. If most people use artificial contraception or favor "gay marriage," for example, the Church should lighten up. After all, the only mortal sin is intolerance.
Others find truth in a radically privatized faith that is about "me and Jesus" without the complexities and demands of the Church. And it’s amazingly convenient how everyone’s subjective "Jesus" approves of his or her moral deviations. Why strive to be more like Christ if we can create our own replica of Christ that is more like us?
In his February 24, 2007 address to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Benedict XVI forcefully reminds us that the formation of a conscience that is both true (i.e., founded on the truth) and upright (i.e., without contradictions, betrayal, or compromise) is absolutely indispensable to Christian living.
With a well-formed conscience as our guide, may we lead lives "worthy of the Gospel" (Phil. 1:27), making good choices in keeping with our dignity as Christians. Somehow, I like to think that Jiminy Cricket would approve.
Have You Examined Your Conscience Lately?
Paragraph 1792 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives all of us a firm basis for examining our consciences. It leads us to ask these and similar questions of ourselves:
Am I ignorant of Christ and his Gospel? Do I seek the Lord’s guidance through regular, humble prayer? Do I assiduously study and internalize the Bible as well as other reliable sources of Catholic teaching and spiritual wisdom?
Do I associate with people who aren’t good for me? Do I too readily follow others rather than act as my own person? Am I too concerned about what others think? Is a shared belief in Jesus Christ and his Church the most important factor in choosing my friends and associates?
Am I a slave to my passions? Am I mired in habitual sin? Do I overindulge or pamper myself?
Do I try to justify conduct that our Lord considers sinful? Is there a part of my life that I haven’t turned over to God? Are there Church teachings I refuse to accept? Do I strive to form my conscience based on the firm foundation of Catholic truth, or do I look for teachers who will "tickle my ears" (2 Tim. 4:3)?
Do I strive to see Christ in those around me, especially the poor and the annoying? Do I really take to heart the fact that all men and women have God-given dignity and value? Do I treat others with basic kindness, patience, and respect? Do I serve only myself?
Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth by Richard John Neuhaus (Basic)
How to Form Your Catholic Conscience by Robert Fastiggi (Our Sunday Visitor)
Living the Good Life: What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Moral Issues by Mark Lowery (Servant)
Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions by Peter Kreeft (Servant)
The Prodigal World by Fulton J. Sheen (Alba House)
What Does God Want? A Practical Guide to Making Decisions by Michael Scanlan with James Manney (Our Sunday Visitor)
What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide by J. Budziszewski (Spence Publishing)