Conscience: Our Guide Through Life
In recent months there has been much discussion about conscience. It is said, “Let your conscience be your guide” for the choices we make in daily life. This includes the decisions we will make in the voting booth on Election Day. We are also urged to make a frequent “examination of conscience.” And there is increasing talk of the need for conscience protection from governmental mandates that are contrary to our Catholic faith. But what exactly is “conscience”?
Unfortunately, and to great consequence, in our individualist and secular culture there is wide confusion about the meaning of “conscience.” For example, some people think of conscience as a subjective feeling, “I don’t feel bad about what I’m doing, so it’s OK,” they say. Some attribute autonomy and unassailable supremacy to the individual conscience over and above any objective moral principles. The result is a conception of right and wrong that descends into people simply doing whatever they want to do, rather than what they ought to do. We now have generations being raised today who were told over and over again that their wishes are basically the norm for right and wrong.
To gain a proper understanding of conscience, we might start with the word itself, which derived from the Latin conscientia, meaning “with knowledge,” specifically the knowledge of objective moral truth, the natural law, obligation rooted in our very human nature, that says to “do good and avoid evil.” More than mere intellectual knowledge, conscience is the voice of the Holy Spirit within our hearts. Thus, conscience is not the same as one’s opinions, feelings, or personal will – it is not a mere device for making exceptions to objective morality.
The Catechism teaches that moral conscience is “a judgment of reason” that enjoins the human person “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” (CCC 1777-78). In short, conscience is that sure orientation of the human heart and mind, our human nature, towards the good and the right.
Judgments of conscience are the outcome of a person’s honest effort to avoid being arbitrary or unresponsive in pursuing true human values. When we are able to set aside our personal prejudices or the biases that may close our hearts to the truth, then the choices we make are right. Then conscience is true and upright, and a person attains what he or she is implicitly or explicitly seeking: the knowledge of God’s design and will.
Now, it is one thing to know that deep within our human nature is a quiet, strong voice urging us to do good and avoid evil. But when we come to specific actions that require the determination of whether the given action is good or evil, we also recognize that we need information.
In a fallen world where error abounds and people are all too easily led astray by voices other than God, conscience needs formation if its conclusions are going to truly reflect God’s plan for us. In other words, we need to be taught what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.
Where do we find this guidance as we make our way through life?
In our search for objective norms of morality so that we are able to inform our conscience and do what is good, while avoiding what is evil, we turn obviously to the Word of God. The Lord, in his infinite mercy, speaks to us in sacred scripture and in his Church. The Word made flesh who came to live with us and teach us has left us the gift of his Spirit who guides the Church to all truth and convicts the world in regards to sin and righteousness (John 16:8-13, 20:22). Thus, in the living apostolic Church, we can hear the teaching of Christ today as it is applied to our situation, circumstances and needs.
The task of the papacy, the task of the Magisterium, the teaching authority in the Church, is to preserve and point to the truth so as to inform consciences. With over 2,000 years of reflection on the human condition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church provides us sure guidance and clear insight. Then, with our consciences formed by this knowledge, we are equipped to choose what is truly right as we make our way through this life on our way to the heavenly kingdom.
This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on February 8, 2016.