Forming conscience

Question: I was talking to my theology teacher after class about the conscience. He seems to equate conscience with whatever a person thinks. Isn’t conscience something more than merely what I think or opine?

Name withheld, St. Louis

Answer: You are correct. Conscience cannot simply be reduced to whatever one thinks. Frankly, it is often the role of conscience to challenge what we think. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes conscience as a deep sense of right and wrong that God has inscribed in our heart. It is, in effect, the voice of God echoing deep within. The catechism says:

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment ... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God ... His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC, No. 1776).

Surely, the conscience does interact with our intellect and reason, but of itself it is deeper and, one might argue, innate and preconscious. Here, too, the catechism says, “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” (CCC, No. 1778).

Since conscience involves the practical intellect and the virtue of prudence especially, it is proper to say that conscience can be “formed.” But “formed” does not mean it is acquired from scratch. For indeed there is good medical and scientific evidence, which conforms to the teaching of faith, that the basic “sense” of conscience is present even in the youngest children who can readily and innately grasp basic moral principles. The “formation” of conscience therefore involves the learning necessary to listen well to conscience and apply its voice to moral acts in each and every circumstance. Conscience is also formed when we acquire better and deeper knowledge regarding complex moral situations.

Significance of clothes

Question: Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. But God then changes that by clothing them in animal skins. Is there some significance to this?

Jason Corby, Wichita, Kansas

Answer: Yes. One might immediately (and humorously) perceive that fig leaves make lousy clothes and would tend to cause itching. Adam and Eve likely used them because they were at hand as they sought whatever was available to quickly resolve the shame of their nakedness.

However, that God took animal skins and clothed them (Gn 3:21) has the significance of being the first shedding of blood. Death enters the world through sin. And though one could argue that the cycle of life and death were already operative in the world before man, Scripture connects the killing of these animals with what sin has done. Now animals must die to provide food and clothing; something not necessary in the Garden of Paradise, which provided ample food from the trees, and where nakedness did not need covering. The Genesis text thus hints at what St. Paul said: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.