Catholic Doctrine of Conscience
The first principle of ethics is that we should do good and avoid evil.
The great problem of ethics is determining what is good and evil in particular circumstances.
Although it is, in fact, part of the Catholic tradition that conscience is supreme, such that even a poorly-formed conscience ought to be obeyed, this small part of the tradition ought not to overshadow the Church's teaching that it is an obligation of conscience to form our consciences by using objective standards drawn from natural law and the supernatural truths revealed to us by God through the Church.
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse." We are responsible--held accountable by God--for the proper formation of our consciences. It is a great sin against the light to choose ignorance and cultivate sin.
In this section, I've started with the passages quoted by the Catechism, then added a few favorites of my own. The examples could be multiplied endlessly.
"This day I set before you life and death. Choose life!"
- Do to no one what you yourself hate. Do not drink wine till you become drunk or let drunkenness accompany you on your way.
- Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.
- Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.
- Do to others as you would have them do to you.
- This is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
- Because of this, I always strive to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
- Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
- For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.
- It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
- When you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ.
- The aim of this instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
- But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
- This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1776 "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."
1777 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.
1778 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:
- Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
1779 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:
- Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.
1780 The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment.
1781 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:
- We shall . . . reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
1782 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."
1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.
1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
1786 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.
1788 To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts.
1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- - One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- - the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
- #1792 reformatted as a list.
- Some sources of errors of judgment in moral conduct:
- - Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel
- - Bad example given by others
- - Enslavement to one's own passions
- - A mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience
- - Rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching
- - Lack of conversion
- - Lack of charity
- #1792 reformatted as a list.
1793 If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith."
- The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.
1795 "Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (GS 16).
1796 Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.
1797 For the man who has committed evil, the verdict of his conscience remains a pledge of conversion and of hope.
1798 A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.
1799 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.
1801 Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.
1802 The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.
Misinterpretations of Vatican II
The idea of conscience in the modern world has been reduced to a single maxim, "If you think it is right, it is right for you. Do what you think is right."
While this bears some resemblance to the Catholic Doctrine of Conscience, it is a counterfeit of the real thing. This false understanding of conscience is Moral Relativism, and it bears much bad fruit in our human relationships.
- A very corrupt variant of the concept of conscience has seeped into popular thought. The embellished meaning draws on an inflated notion of personal autonomy that does not yield to external authority. This modern idea invokes a baseless privilege of the individual to replace universal moral principles with their own subjective sense of right and wrong. So contrary is this view to authentic Church teaching that Pope Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari Vos characterized the error as a deliramentum, meaning a form of madness.
- Blessed Cardinal Newman characterized this new variant of conscience as a “miserable counterfeit” for the real thing. He decried the modern understanding of conscience whose proponents “do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Lecture V, in "Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching").
- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at one point expressed concern that the new variant of conscience had entered theological discussions as a thinly veiled moral relativism, “a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to elude the clutches of reality and to hide from it” (Ratzinger, Values in a time of upheaval, "Chapter 5: Conscience and truth" [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005]). He outlined how this false idea of conscience exhibits several deceptive qualities. It tends to reject the notion that truth can be known; it refuses to allow itself to be called into question; it seeks its grounding in social opinion; and it considers mere conviction or intensity of feeling to be the ground of right judgment.
- The damage done by this counterfeit idea of conscience is compounded by the fact that the Church (rightly) insists that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC 1800). Many who hold the corrupted view of conscience derive a misguided sense of heroism from this instruction, insisting not only that they can make their own rules of right and wrong, but claiming that the Catholic Church requires them to do so.
Star Trek fantasized about "deflector shields" that could stop enemy missiles and lasers. The shields of invincible ignorance are spiritual realities in our day. Simply repeating the contents of the Catechism is futile. The truths of the faith just bounce off of the relativism and indifference of the culture of death. Modernists have been circulating a counterfeit doctrine of conscience in Catholic education. We need God's help to soften our stony hearts and make them receptive to the seed of the gospel.
- GS 16.
- Cf. Rom 2:14-16.
- Cf. Rom 1:32.
- John Henry Cardinal Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.
- St. Augustine, In ep Jo. 8,9:PL 35,2041.
- 1 Jn 3:19-20.
- DH 3 § 2.
- Cf. Ps 119:105.
- Cf. DH 14.
- Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 6:31; Tob 4:15.
- 1 Cor 8:12.
- Rom 14:21.
- GS 16.
- 1 Tim 5; cf. 8:9; 2 Tim 3; 1 Pet 3:21; Acts 24:16.
- GS 16.