Can You Kill Your Conscience?
Q. Is it truly possible for someone to “kill” his conscience — that is, to make it completely inoperable so that he has no moral discernment at all?

A.E., via email

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:

When we read about wicked crimes committed in cold blood, we wonder if the criminal is without conscience. Sometimes that seems to be the case. It is possible, through a willful life of sin, to dull the conscience and weaken it, perhaps even to the point of rendering it ineffective. In such case, moral theologians speak more of a “deformed conscience” rather than a “dead conscience.”

Conscience is the “proximate norm of morality,” and we have a duty to follow our conscience. However, conscience is not infallible, and we must form it continually, through the frequent examination of conscience and Sacrament of Confession, the meditative pondering of the Sacred Scriptures and the assiduous study of the moral teachings of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) spoke of the conscience this way: “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” (No. 16).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also offers a detailed reflection on conscience in its discussion of the dignity of the human person (see Nos. 1776-1802). It declares: “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” (No. 1777).