Conscience is one of those words that gets thrown around by people with surprising regularity. And it usually involves a firm declaration that “I am following my conscience” when they want to reject teachings of the Church that make them uncomfortable or that they don’t want to follow.
The conscience has been described as the judgment of the practical intellect in choosing a course of action that is good or bad when facing a specific decision. It is a basic capacity for moral discernment that responds not to subjective feelings but to objective principles, making a concrete decision in light of those principles.
Conscience seems, in the hands of those who wish to manipulate it for their own purposes, a pretty slippery objective. And apparent so often in the rationales of those who claim such recourse to their conscience is that “conscience” for them is a law unto itself and a teacher of moral truth. Conscience, of course, is neither. Rather, it is subject to moral truth and must be formed and informed through experience and critical investigations of the sources of moral wisdom. Seen in this way, here is the true definition of conscience: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. . . . For man has in his heart a law written by God” (Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 16).
In this issue, we are blessed with several articles that look at the formation of conscience in several real-world ways. In her piece on Blessed John Henry Newman and conscience, Stephanie Mann considers the way that the foremost convert of the 19th century defended the idea of conscience and was led, step by step, in the formation of his own regarding the Catholic faith and even the then-controversial topic of papal infallibility. It is a lesson for all of us.
Closer to home, Msgr. Owen Campion gives us a historical retrospective of the role of Catholics in the civil rights movement. And one of the key undercurrents of his discussion is the way that many Catholics came to form their consciences properly regarding the dignity of every human being and how objective moral truths cannot be twisted simply because we do not like the color of a person’s skin.
We must act on our conscience, it is true, but first we must form that conscience properly. Blessed John Henry Newman understood that, and so did many Catholics who put their lives at risk by marching against segregation or standing against the lynching of innocent black men.
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.