Conscience: God's voice guiding us in our hearts

In cartoons, conscience used to be portrayed as an angel on someone’s shoulder, trying to steer a character away from temptation, which was represented by a small devil on the other shoulder.

Writing in the 13th century, St. Bonaventure described conscience as being like “God’s herald and messenger.” In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council defined conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man,” where he “is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

In his 1875 “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” Blessed John Henry Newman referred to conscience as “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

“What he’s talking about is that God speaks to us through our conscience in a similar way to the way that God speaks to us through Peter and his successors,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who has spoken about conscience in conferences around the country.

Father Landry told Our Sunday Visitor that Cardinal Newman’s insight reveals that “before even the Incarnation, before the foundation of the Church on Peter by Christ, there was already a means by which God was speaking to us individually in a way that we needed to obey.”

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The conscience, when properly formed, serves as an interior compass. Shutterstock

Attuned to God’s voice

To be a person of integrity, it is necessary to follow one’s conscience. Ignoring the conscience or trying to derive justifications for not obeying it has consequences for a person’s mental and spiritual health, not to mention his or her eternal soul.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience,” (No. 1800).

For someone who has done wrong, being troubled by their conscience represents “a pledge of conversion and of hope,” the Catechism adds (No. 1797).

Because conscience is so vital to a person’s being, it is inviolable, meaning that it is unjust for anyone or anything to infringe upon it or to force someone to violate their conscience. Pope St. John Paul II, while addressing the Tribunal of the Roman Rota in February 1995, said the Church “puts herself always and only at the service of conscience.”

“At the end of the day, the inviolability of conscience is something even the Church has to respect,” said David Cloutier, a moral theologian and ethicist at The Catholic University of America.

That is not to say that the conscience is infallible or can be cited to defend immoral behavior. At times, Catholics have invoked the rights of conscience to justify dissenting from the Church’s teachings on faith and morals, especially on hot-button topics such as the use of contraception.

As explained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the magisterium and as demonstrated by the saints, the human person, as much as he or she can, has a duty to inform his or her conscience in the light of truth.

“It’s probably the greatest responsibility we bear before God,” Father Landry said, “To attune ourselves to what God is saying to us in individual moments, about what we ought to do and about what we must avoid.”

Love good, avoid evil

In Gaudium Et Spes, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council connected conscience to the natural law. In man’s heart, they said there is a law written by God that can only be fulfilled by love of God and love of neighbor. Conscience, the council fathers said, reveals that law.

Thus, to obey the conscience is to recognize the very dignity of man. Conscience summons the human person to love good and avoid evil. When necessary, a man’s conscience speaks to his heart and tells him what to do and what to avoid.

Being true to one’s conscience is how someone will be judged, the council fathers said.

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience,” they wrote in Gaudium et Spes.

As further explained in Dignitatis Humanae, the council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, a human being also “perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience.”

In order for a person to come to God, he or she is bound to follow their conscience, and cannot be forced to act in a manner contrary to it, especially in religious matters.

“What Vatican II did is shifted the conscience as a faculty of right reason, where you make judgments about the moral status of this or that decision to, ‘This is your basic modality. This is your way of being human,’” Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a theology professor at Marquette University, told OSV.

St. Thomas More
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In one famous scene in the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” the Duke of Norfolk practically begs St. Thomas More to do as he and many others did to avoid being charged with treason by swearing an oath recognizing Anne Boleyn as King Henry VIII’s lawful wife.

Necessity of formation

Of course, the council fathers did not stop at their reflections about conscience residing in a person’s heart.

All people, Christians and non-Christians, are obligated to form or educate their conscience so that they can recognize good and evil, and exercise good judgment in ordinary and difficult circumstances where it can be tempting or convenient to ignore the demands of truth.

“You have a responsibility to become educated in a way that’s appropriate to your intellectual ability and the resources that are available to you. ... A conscience is well-formed when you’re accurately able to make judgments about certain acts,” said William Mattison, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI), writing in the 1980s while he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, described conscience as an organ that requires lifelong “growth, training and practice.”

Mattison told OSV that the Catholic Church affirms that human beings, through God’s gift of nature, are equipped with practical reasoning and the ability to ascertain things that are good or evil.

“You’re well-formed when, whether it’s immigration, sexuality or caring for someone at the end of life, you have an accurate understanding of those activities and dynamics, and therefore can make good judgments as to what constitutes good or bad actions,” Mattison said.

Catholics have the added obligation to educate their conscience in light of the Church’s moral teachings, since the Church, by the will of Christ, is the teacher of the truth, as explained in Dignitatis Humanae.

St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, once counseled a businessman who had made a poor examination of conscience that “it is necessary to put your conscience in better order than you put in order your business affairs.”

The Catechism says that, in the formation of conscience, “the Word of God is the light for our path” (No. 1785).

“It’s so important for people to be introduced to the solid sources with which God does try to guide us,” Father Landry said. “A Christian who doesn’t get to know Scripture or the Catechism, who doesn’t pray, who doesn’t have a devotion to the saints, who doesn’t ask advice of those who are full of God’s wisdom, who doesn’t surround himself with holy friends, that person is at risk of erroneous judgment in conscience.”

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Conscience is the primary tool God gives us to guide our moral decisions. Shutterstock

Errors in judgment

Regarding bad judgments of conscience, there are various factors that determine a person’s culpability, or responsibility for their actions.

Gaudium et Spes says that “conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.” Someone can be invincibly ignorant of truth, the Gospel and moral principles for a number of reasons.

In Paragraph 1792, the Catechism lists ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, a bad example given by others, and enslavement to one’s passions as some of the reasons for errors of judgment in moral conduct.

“Someone may have grown up in a home in which the principles that were given distort rather than clarify what God is asking,” Father Landry said. “Someone may have gone to a parish where something contrary to the Gospel has been proclaimed and actual truths of faith are derided rather than proclaimed. Someone may have had a bad experience in a classroom with a heretical theologian or in the confessional with a priest who was unfaithful to what the Church teaches.

“There would be lots of reasons why a conscience may be poorly formed, that have nothing to do with the person’s personal culpability. They were just improperly taught,” Father Landry added.

Mattison, of Notre Dame, said several variables can contribute to an ill-formed conscience, such as mental health disorders and bad societal formation.

“Think about slavery and for how long people thought it was a good thing to do,” he said.

The Catechism says conscience “can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments” (No. 1801). However, ignorance and errors of conscience are not always free of guilt.

“The question of culpability has to do with to what extent you could have overcome the error,” Cloutier told OSV. “For example, getting pulled over and telling the police officer that you didn’t notice the speed limit had changed. You’re still culpable because the officer can say you should have known. Whereas invincible ignorance can mitigate and sometimes completely eliminate culpability.”

While the invincibly ignorant may be relieved of culpability, the same cannot be said for people who simply do not care for truth and goodness, who display little interest for God and engage in habitual sin to the point that their conscience has dimmed.

“Those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame,” says Gaudium et Spes.

“What we’re dealing with is people who think God has a duty to convince us beyond all doubt that what he says is true,” Father Landry said. “Whereas faith says that because God is saying it, I believe in what he says, even if I don’t understand it.”

Avoiding confusion

Gaudium et Spes’ section on conscience, especially its emphasis on the human person’s obligation to follow their conscience, is often read out of context by Catholics who want to justify dissent, Cloutier said.

“The issue of dissent is a different issue from following a potentially erroneous conscience,” Cloutier said.

For example, some Catholics who dissent from the Church’s teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil may invoke the primacy of conscience to defend their decision to use birth control.

“The Church says you are bound to follow your conscience, a well-formed conscience, but that’s not code for, ‘Do whatever you think is best,’ because your conscience saying something is right does not make it right,” Mattison said.

In a November 2017 video to a conference organized by Italian bishops on his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis emphasized the distinction between conscience as the place where God reveals himself and the ego that tells someone they can do as they please.

“The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations,” Pope Francis said.

Rather than declaring personal autonomy, the Catechism says that one’s conscience “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” (No. 1777).

The most common erroneous notion of conscience today, Father Landry said, is that it is one’s personal opinion about the way the entire universe should be ordered and constructed; the idea that conscience is one’s gut feeling of how things should be rather than how they really are.

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Because conscience, properly understood, is an inner organ of sensitivity toward what God is saying, Father Landry said it is crucial for Catholics and all people of good will to follow their conscience.

“To disobey our conscience is to disobey what we think God, either accurately or erroneously, is asking of us in a particular moment,” Father Landry said. “That’s why conscience has primacy, but it’s very important for us to attune our conscience to the truth that God is teaching us. Otherwise, it’s a GPS with really bad data, which is not only going to get us lost in ordinary circumstances, but actually may get us killed by taking us off cliffs.”

Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.

Using Our Reason Every Day
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Every day, people are faced with circumstances that require them to analyze facts and principles, and then to make the best decisions to address those situations.