Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famous 19th-century English convert from Anglicanism who will be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September, is probably the best known English-language modern defender of the primacy of conscience.
His insights were confirmed more than a century later at the Second Vatican Council. Its Gaudium et Spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) held:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin” (No. 16).
Venerable Newman famously once wrote an English nobleman that he would toast the pope, but he would toast his conscience first. Saying this meant no disrespect to the papacy or the Church’s magisterium, or teaching authority. What he meant was that all Christians must make a conscious, intentional effort each and every day to act according to the whisperings of God in their hearts, developed through prayer, study of Church teaching and consultation with (or imitation of) those wiser and holier.
It is no exaggeration to say that striving to form and live by our consciences is the core of Christian life. It is good to follow Church teaching and precepts, but unless we engage them and make them our own, daily trying to conform ourselves to the heart of Christ, we will never achieve the greatness God wants for us.
In the following pages, you’ll find some suggestions and concrete steps for developing your conscience. There are few more important efforts a Catholic can make.
Formation of conscience
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. 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. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
Catechism, Nos. 1783-1785
- Who we are at the deepest level
- Prudent judgment of actions as compatible with the best of who we are
- Based on objective moral standards
- Always to be followed, if well-formed and certain
- Always a good, when well-formed, even if not always right
Conscience is not:
- Feeling guilty or a lack of guilt
- A good angel on one shoulder telling us what to do and a bad angel on another tempting us to do what is wrong
- Simply one’s subjective opinion or feeling
- Always certain; one can have a doubtful conscience
- Always right; one can at times follow one’s conscience and make a morally wrong decision
Choose with conscience
Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.
To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.
Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- The Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”
- Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience:
“Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience ... you sin against Christ.”
Therefore “it is right not to ... do anything that makes your brother stumble.”
Catechism, Nos. 1786-1789
Five key steps
Step 1: Use your current wisdom to LOOK at and assess the situation; try to view the situation and issues as clearly as possible.
What is happening and what and who exactly is involved? What are some of the motives? What are possible consequences? What good can happen? What bad can occur?
Step 2: PRAY that your heart is open to doing what is right.
Am I willing to do what is right and do it for the right reasons? Am I open to the guidance of others? Am I willing to say “yes” to God?
Step 3: Use your head to widen and test your understanding of what is good and right by SEEKING THE WISDOM of others.
Wisdom of key others: What do/would others say about this situation and why? Parents, family, respected friends, professionals who are experienced in dealing with this situation?
Wisdom of the Church: Is there a teaching of the Church that applies to this situation? Whom could I ask? If I were to ask my faith community to pray with me, what would I ask them to pray for in this situation?
Wisdom of God: How might the values of Jesus apply to this situation? Do the Scriptures have something to say to me? The commandments? The beatitudes? Stories from Jesus’ life?
Step 4: Use your head and heart to make a personal DECISION. As I reflect on the wisdom of others and apply it to my situation, does my own understanding of what is at stake become clearer? Have I prayed about the situation and, if so, which direction gives me the greatest sense of peace?
What is my conscience — the deepest core of who I am — telling me to do? Do I really desire to do the right thing and desire the best for myself and others?
Step 5: Use your hands and feet and heart to ACT on the decision. What are the first steps I specifically need to take to put this decision into practice? Am I praying for continued wisdom and guidance from God? Am I praying for the courage to do what is right and for the right reasons?
After taking these five steps, has anything changed that would make me re-evaluate the decision? If so, start at Step 1 and move through the steps again.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla:
Gianna Beretta Molla, a doctor specializing in pediatric medicine, was a happily married mother when, in September 1961, pregnant with her fourth child, she learned that she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. She refused any treatment that would save her life, but put the life of her unborn child at risk. A few days before her child was due, she told God: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child — I insist on it. Save him.” She died April 28, 1962, just seven days after giving birth to her baby, Gianna Emanuela, who, 42 years later, attended the Vatican Mass declaring her mother a saint in 2004.
St. Thomas Becket:
The 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury defended the Church against attempts by King Henry II to bring the English Church under the control of the crown, suffering harsh measures from Henry and fleeing to France under the protection of King Louis VII for six years. After Louis negotiated a settlement in 1170, Thomas returned to England, but the confrontation between the archbishop and the king restarted almost immediately. Within two months of his return, Thomas was hacked to death in the side chapel of Canterbury’s cathedral by four knights who heard the king ask, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” At the moment of his death, St. Thomas declared, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus and the defense of the Church.”
St. Thomas More:
Soon after the succession of King Henry VIII to the English throne, Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and scholar, enjoyed a meteoric rise in English political life, eventually becoming chancellor of England. When Henry insisted that his divorce should proceed without the approval of Pope Clement VII and began taking severe measures against the Catholic Church in England, Thomas resigned as chancellor and retired to his estate in Chelsea. When he refused to take Oath of Succession, he was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. A year later, he was tried and condemned for treason. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535. His last words were that he was “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”
In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
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.
If — on the contrary — the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time “from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.”
The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.
Catechism, Nos. 1790-1794
Do's and Don'ts
- Get the best, objective and most accurate information on which to base a judgment
- Seek out the wisdom of God’s Word, of Church teaching and practice, of wise and mature people
- Think, reflect, study
- Seek to grow in maturity of conscience by looking at consequences of past actions
- Surround oneself with supportive environments of mature, loving, wise people.
- Trust actions that come from good habits (virtues) and healthy, fully integrated parts of our lives
This is the sixth in a 12-part series. The next, on authority in the Church, appears July 11.
This material was prepared by OSV Newsweekly staff. Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant.