The freedom with which God has endowed us, that is, the divine image we carry within us, brings with it often difficult decisions. Freedom entails having different courses of action from which to choose. It is frequently not easy to determine which course of action is best for us. Thus in His kindness, God has provided us with a help to making decisions that lead to complete, eternal happiness in Him, and we call this help “conscience.”
Unfortunately, the scandals that have so tragically been paraded through the media these past few months are continued evidence of a crisis of conscience we are experiencing in our time. For so many the conscience has become insensitive and jaded, incapable of reacting against and fleeing evil. At least as a warning device for sin, this “inner voice” no longer cries out; this most crucial of moral guides has been silenced.
Strangely enough this period of the silent conscience is also one in which conscience is being used as a justification for disobeying legitimate authority. Conscience, it seems, is most frequently heeded today when it is felt that one’s personal freedom is somehow being taken away. Conscience has in many instances become not an indication of “what I ought to do,” but rather of “what I want to do.” We are clearly in a time when misconceptions about the nature and authority of conscience abound. In the next two issues of Light and Life we will explore this frequently misunderstood but invaluble aid in the moral life, how it speaks within us, and what it takes to turn it into a faithful guide as we journey to our eternal home.
The clue to what conscience actually is, St. Thomas tells us, is in the very word. Conscience is the bringing together of knowledge needed for making a decision. It is an act of summoning information and applying it to a concrete situation. It is “the ordering of knowledge to something: for ‘con-science’ refers to ‘cum alio scientia’ [with other knowledge]” (I, 79, 13). In common parlance we speak of it as an "inner voice." Taking such a metaphorical view too literally, it may appear to some that, in this sense, conscience is a kind of autonomous power within the intellect. But St. Thomas analyzes the conscience differently.
Rather than a power in its own right, the Angelic Doctor says conscience is actually the result of the mind’s own activity. It arises from the mind searching its body of information on right and wrong, and forming that knowledge into a judgment on how to act rightly, in accord with moral goodness, in the decision at hand. We might think of it as a reflex action of the intellect. Often this is happening so spontaneously that we are unaware of the reasoning process that is taking place, and all we know is the final decision that the mind puts out for consideration. And so it appears within us as a voice suddenly speaking out from nowhere, “do this,” or “do not do this.” In reality this is the final result of the mind calling together all the pertinent information and drawing its conclusions as to morally wise behavior. Conscience is in fact the mind telling one what it knows to be right and wrong.
What an act of conscience will be revealing to us will thus depend on the information it has to draw upon. It is not going to suddenly, due to some divine intervention, suggest a course of action that will differ from perceptions of right and wrong that are already held within the mind.
Some of this moral knowledge, St. Thomas teaches, is already programmed into our nature as humans. God, in His goodness, has placed it there as a beginning for our decision-making. To think through any course of action, to think about anything at all, we need to begin somewhere. There is basic information, that the Angelic Doctor terms "first principles," required for the human understanding to begin its act of knowing. A process of reasoning never starts in a vacuum. So there must be some concepts already in place for us to start thinking in practical terms about right and wrong. Following the theologians of his time, St. Thomas calls this original gift of moral understanding “synderesis” (I, 79, 12). He also characterizes it as a “habitus,” by which he means a habit of thought, or an on-going state of understanding. In other words, this is a knowledge of morality that does not come and go. It is a permanent fixture within the human mind. People can deny its existence. They can refuse to follow this divine gift of moral understanding. But this will not erase synderesis from the intellect, nor remove man’s responsibility for acting upon the fundamental understanding of morality it provides. The Catechism, referring to this origin of all our moral judgments, says:
St. Paul relates how there is no escape from the responsibility of this divinely inscribed law (Rom. 2:14-16). He says that when non-believers are doing what is required by God’s commandments, this is evidence that those very precepts of God are written on their hearts. These in turn will be the law by which non-believers are to be judged, that is common to all human beings, no matter what they believe about God. There will be no use in any man protesting at the final judgment that, since he was not of the Jewish or Christian religion, he was not aware of what God was requiring and should not be held accountable for acts of murder, or lying, theft, and so on. It will be pointed out to him that God’s law on these matters was, in fact, known to him. He will be informed that this law from his first moment in this world was present in his mind. And it continued there throughout his life, though he gave it no heed. On this basis, God:
But this is knowledge of the most general kind. As we have said, it is the origin for our moral judgments, the first principles from which moral reasoning proceeds. Yet, there is more than these principles needed for coming to an act of conscience.
In addition to the understanding of synderesis, with which we are naturally endowed, there is the all important body of knowledge we acquire through education and experience. Depending upon the moral understanding a person has obtained through the course of his life, his actions are going to take shape in very different ways. This is why the workings of conscience are going to be very different among men. All are beginning with the same general principles of behavior that come with human nature. But there will be no application of these principles in a concrete judgment, that is, an act of conscience, without further knowledge contributed by the individual. So at one end of a process of moral reasoning are innate and broad principles, and at the other the final result we term the “voice of conscience.” But in between there is input the person has received on what is right and wrong behavior from parents, society, religion, as well as from lessons learned by his own experience. All of these have a way of directing the moral reasoning of a person in a particular way. All of this input “forms” the conscience. Thus, although all men are starting in the same place, there are so many different ways their conscience can end up being formed with many different conclusions arrived at.
So the question arises, of what use is the conscience? What kind of guide is this, that can lead man to so many different determinations of what is right or wrong? And the answer is, to a very large extent, the conscience is what we make it to be. It can direct us to act in conformity with what is truly right, or it can, because of a person’s failure to properly form it according to divine commandments, guide us to what is in fact wrong. Now God at the final judgment will not hold a person accountable for wrongs committed that they were not aware were contrary to His will. According to the Church's teaching, as we will see below, a person's goodness on the most basic level involves following the lead of a conscience that to all appearances is in conformity with the Divine Will. But the fact still remains, the judgment of a person’s conscience does not always end up coinciding with what is actually right or wrong. If it has at its disposal faulty moral information, it is going to lead us to a faulty moral conclusion.
Given the possibility of conscience leading to a decision that is in actuality wrong, nevertheless certain moral theologians in the past thirty years have falsely held there is nothing more required for right living than following the conscience wherever it leads. There has been immense damage done to the practice of the faith due to their erroneous teaching. One common way this has been used in the day to day life of married Catholics has been to justify the practice of artificial contraception, forbidden by the Church from early on and, most recently, in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). Vast numbers of Catholic married couples in our time are under the false impression, thanks to the misinformation given them, that conscience is the only guide they need to follow. If their conscience accuses them of no wrong in using artificial contraception, then there can be no wrong. And here it is most important that we separate truth from fiction.
It is true that we are bound to depend on conscience in a way that is very much unlike any other moral guide in life. Church teaching speaks of conscience as our most immediate moral light. As such we have an obligation to follow its guidance first and foremost. As the Catechism states: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself” (1790). And this makes sense. Conscience is endowed with authority from God. It is His representative, indeed, His most immediate representative to us. No other authority appointed by Him "speaks" from within the very soul of a person. It is our most local authority. When moral decisions are to be made, we turn first to the conscience, as in some matter relating to the Church we would turn first to the local pastor.
However, many contemporary theologians and clergy who advise couples to follow their own conscience with regard to artificial contraception falsely imply that it is our only moral guide in life. There are, in fact, other divinely appointed authorities we are bound to follow, including ultimately the teaching authority of the Church (the magisterium) as expressed in the moral guidance given by the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, and the bishops in union with him. Granted, our conscience is the most proximate authority we are bound to follow. But it is by no means the only one. Nor the highest one. And its conformity to those other higher authorities is essential.
If in the process of reasoning out a moral problem we have some indication that our conscience may not be in harmony with higher moral authority, we are bound to look into the matter more carefully. The comparison above of consulting the local pastor in a Church matter can be developed a bit more in this sense. If there is some injustice being done against a member of the parish, the proper first step would be to take the matter to the pastor. But, having done that the injustice continues, we would be at fault in leaving things where they stand. There would arise an obligation to pursue the matter with the higher authority of the bishop. So too with the conscience. It is one in a hierarchy of divine authorities in our lives, and rather than continuing in a state of disharmony, must always be working in concert with higher divine representatives.
This conformity to higher moral authority is the way we can truly place our trust in the conscience. We must not simply follow the conscience without being critical of it, presuming that it is always going to be leading us harmoniously with God’s will. For such harmony, correction will need to be made in its judgments. Watchfulness is required. Obviously, as we have mentioned, there will be cases of being completely unaware that we are departing from divine goodness, through no fault of our own. Such cases, Church teaching refers to as invincible (uncorrectable) ignorance. No sign of wrongful action has yet come to light for us. Our conscience has given an erroneous judgment, but to all appearances this judgment is the correct one.
But then at some point we begin to suspect that our conscience has gone astray. Doubt has been cast on the current state of our discernment. What the Church teaches we must do at this point is seek out further information. We cannot simply rest in our ignorance. To do so would be vincible (correctable) ignorance, and it puts us under the obligation of consulting the Catechism, or speaking with someone well versed in the Church's moral teaching, not to mention asking for divine help in prayer. Not seeking an answer, but to continue following a possibly erroneous conscience, is to fail in the practice of the faith. What this amounts to is willing a condition of ignorance, which in itself opposes the gospel call to constant conversion of life through conformity to divine truth.
By way of conclusion, the Catechism gives us a helpful and concise summary of what is most important for us to keep in mind with regards to conscience:
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