Formation of Conscience

Catholic Moral Teaching

Conscience is defined as: “the judgement of the intellect deciding, from general principles of faith and reason, the goodness or badness of a way of acting that a person now faces. It is an operation of the intellect and not of the feelings or even of the will. An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way. Conscience, therefore, is a specific act of the mind applying its knowledge to a concrete moral situation. What the mind decides in a given case depends on principles already in the mind. These principles are presupposed as known to the mind, either from the light of natural reason reflecting on the data of creation, or from divine faith responding to God’s supernatural revelation. Conscience does not produce these principles; it accepts them. Nor does conscience pass judgement on the truths of reason and divine faith; it uses them as the premises from which to conclude whether something should be done (or should have been done) because it is good, or should be omitted (or should have been omitted) because it is bad. Its conclusions also apply to situations where the mind decides that something is permissible or preferable but not obligatory.” In summary: “Always the role of conscience is to decide subjectively on the ethical propriety [e.g., goodness] of a specific action, here and now, for this person, in these circumstances. But always, too, the decision is a mental conclusion derived from objective norms that conscience does not determine on its own, receiving it as given by the Author of nature and divine grace.” (John Hardon, S.J. Modern Catholic Dictionary, page 126)

How do we judge ourselves?

To examine ourselves according to the virtues we must understand a few important points about how we make judgments of conscience (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1777, 1778, 1780, 1784):

How is the judgment of conscience related to the Divine Law?

By the judgment of conscience, man perceives and recognises the prescriptions of the Divine Law. Conscience bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good [God] 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.

What is an upright conscience?

An upright conscience is one that knows the authentic principles of morality and can apply these principles in practical circumstances of life. It also makes good decisions about specific actions already done or to be done. In all that he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment.

What is formation of conscience and how is it to be educated?

It is educating our conscience in keeping with the true good as willed by the Creator. Human beings are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own opinions. Therefore, formation in virtue is required which prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. Also required is the study of the Word of God, prayer, regular examination of conscience, seeking advice from others who are in a position to know, and most of all, acceptance of the Church’s authoritative teaching through the Magisterium.

Are we always to obey the certain judgment of conscience?

Our judgment of conscience is certain when we have no positive doubt that something should be done or not done. A certain (not doubtful) conscience must always be followed. Otherwise, we would be condemning ourselves. “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.” (Dignitatis Humanae, 3,2) Three rules apply in every case (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1789):

a) One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
b) One must live by the golden rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Matthew 7:12).
c) Charity must always proceed by way of respect for one’s neighbour and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brother and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ” (1Corinthians 8:12) Therefore “it is right not to … do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Romans 14:21)

Can the judgment of conscience be certain and yet incorrect?

Yes, through ignorance.

Are we obliged to have a correct conscience?

Yes. Failure to enlighten our conscience through seeking the truth and good is to want to be blind. Habits of sin always blind our conscience. In these cases a person is guilty of the evil committed through what is called vincible or culpable ignorance. In other words, the truth could have been discovered easily if the person had wanted to do the right thing in the first place.

Does invincible ignorance excuse a person of moral responsibility?

We must distinguish what we mean. Invincible ignorance refers to the inability to discover the truth because of factors of which the person has no control. If ignorance is truly invincible, that is, not culpable, the person does not sin in acting on a certain but erroneous conscience. However, an erroneous conscience should be corrected. Nevertheless, the evil consequences of acting on an erroneous conscience remain evil. This highlights the importance of making sure our conscience is correct.