What does conscience look like? It is that part of me that is bigger than me. Many issues volley for attention: immigration; affordable education; war; neighborhood violence; health care; abortion; the hungry and homeless; the environment; human embryonic stem cell research; the dignity of marriage between one man and one woman as the most commonly recognized institution in history; economic inequality; gas prices; and the beat goes on. 

The common misunderstanding is that conscience amounts to “what I think” on an issue. Conscience is not just “what I think,” but it is me “thinking about what is just” and true. 

Conscience does not allow a citizen to forget he is first a person. It tells me I am a person, and, as such, I must look at a quandary according to a certain order: How does this act here and now, in and of itself, fit with being human, and not simply lower prices? Conscience insists that human dilemmas are moral concerns long before they are political points of view. Conscience tells me that, to be free, I must admit the truth that some acts are inescapably evil and no manner of circumstances or intentions can make them somehow good. Conscience bursts all other bubbles: It tells me the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, based not on the truth of circumstances or best intentions, but first and foremost on the truth of things in themselves.

Conscience must be formed, and, as such, it looks in three directions at once: It looks at me, looks at the moral dilemma at hand, and it sees the truth of both without favor. So often the voter makes appeal only to the first two categories, me and the dilemma. Mere opinion then substitutes for conscience. To make a decision in conscience is to consult the truth of the nature of things in themselves. Conscience begins “outside-in.” The objective reality summons accountability from me and forms the central coordinate of conscience. 

Good or evil

The moral sense of conscience must be molded, not developed simply by feelings, opinions, circumstance, intentions or movements, but by the deep moral sense in which we participate by being human and capable of reason. Conscience does not simply decide for happy or sad, but for good or evil. Conscience lines up the quandaries in size order and sees the resemblance. Marriage, racism, the environment, hunger and abortion are not competing events. They are cousins, if not siblings. Conscience refuses to let one of these become an “issue.” 

The seeming opposition of two perceived goods is not a roadblock or a barricade for stubborn resistance. There are times when it seems difficult to apply a judgment of conscience. Rather than stubborn resistance, this calls me deeper.  

One of the basic difficulties is that our limits have been eroded. In the modern era, a numbing progression has led our consciences from being the organism by which the human person makes choices, to being the rubber stamp for a trend, to being the prisoner of a lifestyle. Formation in a robust personalism is needed in order that we may say yes to all that the human person is. 

In political life, the mature conscience winces when it hears a candidate claim that he can fix health care, but still agree that a child in the womb can be killed. Conscience knows that if a candidate favors human embryonic stem cell research, which always includes the killing of a human person, then our neighborhoods can never be free of violence — because we just voted for violence.  

The moral sense knows that if you treat the environment any way you like, sooner or later you will need treatment because of the environment. Conscience realizes that if you support torture, you have just paid the deposit for a war 20 years from now. 

Conscience sees broadly. It breaks the bubble, brushes back the curtain and pries down the lever, and by the leverage of honest truth cannot simply change, but can transform the world. 

Father J. Brian Bransfield, a priest of the Philadelphia archdiocese, is the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis. Parts of this article previously appeared in OSV Newsweekly.

What is Conscience? (sidebar)

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but 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.

Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

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. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.

It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection.

Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God. ...

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.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1776-1782