To make sense of what the Catholic Church teaches about the importance of conscience, it’s important to know what “conscience” really is, because the term is often used in popular culture in inaccurate and misleading ways.
One way we misunderstand conscience is by thinking of it as a set of emotions, reducing it to “feeling good about doing the right thing” or (especially) “feeling bad about doing the wrong thing.” For instance, it’s become commonplace to say that psychopaths are “without conscience,” but this is untrue. They may lack empathy or emotion or remorse for their actions, but what they don’t lack is conscience, properly understood. Conscience may cause you to regret something, but “conscience” and “regret” aren’t the same thing.
What does this get wrong? As the Catechism explains, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (1778). The Catechism continues with a quotation from St. John Henry Newman, who describes conscience as “a law of the mind.” That is, conscience isn’t primarily a matter of feelings; rather, it’s about forming proper judgments about the morality (or immortality) of a particular course of action.
Conscience has a trifold role. It “includes the perception of the principles of morality,” “their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods,” and finally “judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed” (CCC 1780). So conscience tells you (1) that you shouldn’t steal; (2) that taking your neighbor’s lawnmower is stealing, and therefore wrong; and (3) that you should feel guilty for having taken your neighbor’s lawnmower.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drawing upon philosophers from Plato to Aquinas, describes this first level of conscience as “something like an original memory of the good and true,” saying that we find a “tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others.” Professor J. Budziszewski calls these the “truths that we can’t not know.” It’s why a non-Christian, and even a non-believer, can’t escape the realization that things like theft and murder are evils . . . even if they can’t explain why they know these things. C.S. Lewis calls these “basic moral intuitions” and says, “If there can be a difference of opinion which does not reveal one of the parties as a moral idiot, then it is not an intuition.” These are the most basic building blocks of morality. They are not arguable because there are no more basic principles than these to point back to.
The second level of conscience applies these general principles. Budziszewski explains,
At a certain stage of mental development, when the teacher says, “Johnnie, two plus two is four,” Johnnie can see for himself that two plus two is four; otherwise the words would be meaningless to him. At a certain stage of development, when Mother says, “Johnnie! Stop pulling your sister’s hair! How would you like it if someone pulled your hair?” Johnnie can see for himself that he should not treat another person as he would not wish to be treated himself; otherwise the command would seem arbitrary to him. Such knowledge can’t be simply pumped in. There has to be soil, or the seed cannot take root.
In this second stage, conscience takes basic moral principles (e.g., I shouldn’t do evil) and applies them to practical situations (e.g., if I wouldn’t want someone to pull my hair, it’s probably evil to pull my sister’s hair).
This leads to the third role of conscience: forming a judgment about the concrete act (e.g., pulling my sister’s hair is evil, so I shouldn’t do it). It’s here that conscience has a connection to emotions like regret, which is why we can talk about the “pang of conscience.” It’s not just regret, either: it’s here that the conscience “‘warns,’ ‘advises,’ ‘urges,’ or ‘prohibits’” regarding actions we have not taken yet, or (if we have already begun to act) it may “examine a judgment of action, intervene, stop its accomplishment,” or cause us to reconsider.
By means of these three roles, “conscience is the way that moral knowledge becomes immediately practical again.” That is, conscience uses these three steps to get from “do good and avoid evil” to “do this good and avoid that evil.” And it’s about conscience understood in this way that the Church has some shocking things to say.
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