Foundations of the Faith Part 8: The Catholic conscience

This is the eighth of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: The call to love

The previous article in this series presented Christian morality as a school of love that helps human beings to grow in freedom and to follow Jesus, who is both the teacher and the wellspring of love. The subject of this article is conscience: the inherent, God-given ability of the human person to judge, based on the principles of Christian morality, which personal acts help or hinder the attainment of eternal life with God. The conscience is aided in its task by the fundamental natural law:

“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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1776).

“Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1749

In essence, conscience is that “sacred place” in the human soul where “God speaks to man [and woman]” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 58). Made in the image and likeness of God, which means having the gifts of reason and free will, the human person is able to receive the natural law and apply it to concrete actions. The conscience will make “a judgment either of acquittal or of condemnation, according as human acts are in conformity or not with the law of God written on the heart” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 59). Since the natural law directs the person to achieve the good in truth, the person who is listening to God’s voice conforms his or her life, and every choice, to God who is “the first truth and highest good” (Populorum Progressio, No. 10).

Formation of conscience

Needless to say, this does not happen automatically. A child leaving the womb has to grow and mature in the use not only of reason and free will, but also of grace and love. The conscience also has to be informed and educated. On a very basic level, a child will feel shame and even hide from his or her parents when he or she has done something wrong, but the same child will seek out his or her parents for praise when he or she has done something right. To help a child form his or her conscience well, parents and family, church and society, must continue their own formation by a “continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 64). At the same time, they must reject any negative influences such as sin or anything contrary to God’s law and instead use the Ten Commandments and beatitudes to form good habits. A wonderful shorthand for forming a Christian conscience comes from Mary, who knows Jesus best, having witnessed his entire life: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

“The truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience, which leads one to take responsibility for the good or the evil one has done. If man does evil, the just judgment of his conscience remains within him as a witness to the universal truth of the good, as well as to the malice of his particular choice. But the verdict of conscience remains in him also as a pledge of hope and mercy: while bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God’s grace, to ask forgiveness, to do good and to cultivate virtue constantly.”

— Veritatis Splendor, No. 61

When parents model for their children how to form the conscience, they also are demonstrating what it means to be in relationship with God. Even Jesus as a little boy learned from the good examples of Mary and Joseph how to honor God’s law. Indeed, the formation of conscience is meant to happen within an intimate relationship with God. One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child — or a mature Christian can pass on to a beginner in the Faith — is the example of a loving, faithful and confident relationship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

This relationship is marked by a spirit of obedience, but not in a mechanical or slavish sense. Rather, the mature Christian constantly renews his or her effort to adopt the attitude of Christ (see Phil 2:5-11), who always listened to the Father, fulfilled the Father’s words and trusted in the Father’s love. The Christian — trusting that God loves him or her and desires his or her salvation — learns and practices the commandments and thereby builds up the virtues, ready to bring about the good in every situation.

Such a life is not that of an automaton, blindly obedient, but that of a child who trusts his or her parent, obeying in the root sense of the word which denotes “attentive listening.” It should be noted that there is nothing “childish” about this relationship. Its fruit, when lived well, fortifies the person in the courage and wisdom of Christ.

For most (if not all) people, the formation of conscience is not a faultless path to eternal life with God. Especially in cultures that are indifferent or hostile to Christianity, one will experience many obstacles. Hence the need for continual conversion to Christ, building upon the training from parents and mentors. In fact, mentors are not just for children. A Christian always can rely on the truth of divine revelation as expressed by the life of Christ and as taught authoritatively by the Church when forming one’s conscience. But it’s a good practice to also have a regular confessor or spiritual director, a mature Christian adviser who is persevering in the Faith. Such a relationship moves beyond an acquaintance and involves correction and challenges as much as validation and approvals. One of the greatest dangers that every person needs to avoid in conscience formation is relying too much on personal feelings when making a moral judgment. Feelings can be powerful tools, and they should not be dismissed altogether, but a good spiritual director helps a person to always return to God’s law as the moral gauge of one’s actions.

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As their children’s first teachers, parents are called to help form their children’s consciences. Shutterstock

Discerning the will of God

When one reaches the point of making a moral choice, one must appeal to one’s conscience and “must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law” (CCC, No. 1787). If doubt exists or the conscience is uncertain, the judgment requires more prayer. When a certain judgment of conscience has been reached, it must be obeyed (see CCC, No. 1790). A person who has made a judgment in conformity with the divine law will often have a deep sense of inner peace, even amid chaotic circumstances. A lack of peace, however, may signal that something is wrong; the person may need not only more discernment but also more good counsel. It is very important to also note that reaching a certain judgment in conscience does not mean thereby that it is the right one, for a personal conscience can be in error about God’s law (“Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” [Veritatis Splendor, No. 60]; that is the domain of God).

On the one hand, it’s possible that negative influences, outside a person’s responsibility, have warped his or her capacity to judge well. In this situation, a person has what the Church calls “invincible ignorance,” and the person is not culpable for an evil committed, even though the action in question remains evil (and the person will still suffer the consequences of his or her choice). On the other hand, it’s also possible that a person has willingly yielded to negative influences or has failed to form his or her conscience or has rationalized an evil choice in the hopes of achieving a future good (which is always wrong). In these cases the person would be culpable and would hopefully ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy in order to remain on the path of conversion.

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Stained-glass depiction of the Annunciation. Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

The subject of conscience is a foundational teaching of the Church, which is committed to handing on what it has received from Christ. One short article cannot offer a full treatment. In fact, no amount of reading or study alone will be able to provide a person with a solid understanding of the reality of conscience. To be sure, one needs to read the Scriptures, the Catechism and the magisterial teachings of the Church (like Gaudium et Spes and Veritatis Splendor). One also needs to accept, as the Church teaches, that there is an objective truth that can be known by every human being capable of rational thought. But the vital requirement for appreciating conscience remains entering and maturing in a deeply personal relationship with God, and this means listening to him and doing what he says after the appropriate discernment.

In order to see what a “working conscience” looks like in a relationship with God, one can consider the stories of Eve and Mary. Both women are in a relationship with God and with a fellow human being. Both hear God’s voice and receive a command (or a word) from him. And both make a choice that brings with it consequences. Although the word “conscience” never appears in either narrative, the conscience of both women is active in their individual situations.

The serpent’s temptation

In the book of Genesis, one finds the second story of creation (2:4-3:24), in which the inspired author uses the narrative to write about the relationship between God and the human person. What one learns is that God is the creator. He made the world and everything in it, including man and woman. God provided them with everything they needed to live in harmony with him and with each other. Genesis 2:9 states that “Out of the ground the Lord God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food.” Moreover, he made man and woman from the same “stuff,” which underscores their equality and complementarity.

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In Genesis, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is original sin. Shutterstock

The only commandment that God gives to the human beings is not to eat from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” In other words, the human beings are to respect the relationship between God and themselves. He is the creator. He is the one who knows what is good and evil. Human beings are part of creation. They are a special part, enjoying the ability to think and to choose, which means they are made in God’s image, but they remain creatures. It would be a sin to second guess or add to God’s word. To ponder his word is fine; to understand it is better, a worthy goal; but to add to it or dismiss it is a sin. The human being’s joy depends on listening to God and following him.

Yet, if the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, then he or she has the freedom to listen to God or not, to follow his words (or commandments) or not. Indeed, to remain in relationship with him or not. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which God said the man and woman could not eat, becomes a source of temptation. If the other trees are delightful to look at and good for food, why not this one? The Evil One, personified in Genesis as the serpent, sees an opportunity here.

“It is ... an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1756

The serpent goes directly to the heart of the matter. He asks Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden?’” [emphasis added]. It seems like an innocent question; it’s just a simple request for information. But the serpent’s goal is to incite the woman to question God’s commandment: What did God really say? The danger is real and terrible. If she even entertains the serpent’s question, she already has listened to him instead of relying on God’s word.

The woman, of course, does know what God said and, therefore, should have recognized the serpent’s intentions. Yet, she not only listens to the serpent but also offers an answer. And she does more than that. In an attempt to show just how much knowledge she has, she even adds to God’s words: “You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.” But a quick review of Genesis reveals that God never said anything about touching or not touching the tree.

Eve has turned her thoughts away from God and is left to her own devices, which are not divine, but “creaturely.” The serpent is able to tell more lies, and because of her sin, Eve is an easy target. The serpent blatantly contradicts God and even suggests that God is a liar: “You certainly will not die!” So the woman, having abandoned God’s commandment, relies only on her senses: She “saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom.” And once again words — “gaining wisdom” — are added to God’s word, this time by the serpent.

The woman makes a judgment based not on the commandment she received from God but on the serpent’s word and her senses. So she and Adam eat the fruit (he, by the way, is as guilty as she, because he also fails to listen to God).

The consequences of their sin are devastating. First, the relationship with God is so damaged that they want to hide from their creator. Second, their own relationship is damaged, as one can see when Adam puts all the blame on Eve. Third, they are banished from the garden and must now toil and labor in pain. And if all of that is not bad enough, they also pass on their sufferings to their progeny. Failing to listen to God is a sin and an evil that is destructive not only to the sinner but also to the whole family of mankind.

AdamandEve
“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” 1791, by Benjamin West. Shutterstock

Righting Eve’s wrong

Mary’s situation is in strong contrast to Eve’s. The basic outline of Mary’s life is well known. She is a simple woman, living in a little town, when God’s word breaks upon her like the morning sun shattering the darkness of night. And God’s word to Mary is specific: He tells her through an angel that she will conceive a baby in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Mt 1:18; Lk 1:31, 35).

Now Mary was a faithful Jew, and so she would have been familiar with the Scriptures that describe irregular pregnancies (for example, Sarah giving birth in her old age to Isaac). Nevertheless, this word from God was unprecedented. When the angel announces the birth and says to Mary, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28), Mary is troubled and ponders what the words mean. She even asks the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34).

The exchange is important because it shows that God’s words (or commandments) are not always understood immediately and that a good amount of time dedicated to prayer may be needed before coming to any understanding or any decision to act. Indeed, it is significant what Mary does not do: She does not pretend to understand something she in fact does not understand. Instead, by pondering God’s word, she shows her willingness to continue to listen and to wait for God to make himself clear.

Notice, too, that Mary is not doubting that God can do what he says; she is making the effort to understand what he says. When the angel explains that the power of the Holy Spirit will make the conception possible, Mary gives her consent. (Joseph, by the way, who experiences his own crisis over Mary’s situation, also gives his consent after listening to God.) Needless to say, Mary’s decision bears fruit for everyone: the birth of Jesus and the gift of salvation.

“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

— G. K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Mary and Joseph honor their relationship with God and listen attentively to him, basing their judgments and actions on his words. They are unwilling to act hastily or to base their responses on their feelings and thoughts alone, even when God’s word does not make much sense at first. They honor God’s word by giving it appropriate discernment. Mary does not dismiss the angel’s message as impossible, and Joseph does not divorce Mary as he intended, because through prayer God’s word is clarified. Once God’s word becomes clear to them, they act, trusting in God.

Neither of the two Scripture stories mention conscience explicitly, but both demonstrate the teaching on conscience that the Church has passed on. The human being, having been created by God, enters a relationship with God at the moment of conception. Gifted with reason and free will, the human person, using his or her conscience, is able to make a judgment between good and evil. The person is responsible for his or her acts and for forming the conscience.

As the Catechism says, in this latter task, “[T]he Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (CCC, No. 1785). The path enlightened by God’s word is not always an easy one to travel, but it does guarantee freedom, peace of heart and the promise of heaven.

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum

Loving God and Neighbor
The Ten Commandments and the beatitudes constitute the fundamental precepts of Christian morality, supporting people as they walk in the footsteps of Christ. The former expands on the fundamental natural law infused in the human person at creation: for example, to do good and to avoid evil (Veritatis Splendor, No. 12). The latter communicates the spiritual principles lighting Jesus’ path to the Father. Ultimately, every divine law, commandment or precept assists a person in loving God and neighbor more freely and fully. Those who persevere in love on earth return to God in heaven, which is the word the Church uses to express the fulfillment of the relationship with God that begins when each human being comes into existence.