The next stage we confront in considering our moral decision making/lives is to ask about the mutuality of relationship between our body and soul. One asks how can we make a choice of good over evil in the face of multiple choices: how can I do good and avoid evil?
What is Conscience?
Conscience is a judgment of the intellect in which we as a human person recognize the moral quality (good or bad) of some concrete human behavior. The word “conscience” comes from two Latin words, the preposition “cum” translated “with or together” and the word “scientia” which is translated “knowledge.”
So conscience etymologically means to “have knowledge together with.” While the individual conscience is a subjective act of reasoning, the label “conscience” indicates the social nature of the moral conscience implying that conscience is not solely a subjective reality but something shaped by and learned within the communities in which we live.
The basis of conscience in the subjective is the fact that as creatures created by the godlike constitution of our being, we possess what Paul wrote to the community of Christians in Rome.
that (the Gentiles) who do not have the law (of Moses, revealed in Scripture) do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts while their conscience also bears witness . . .
Vatican II,Gaudium and Spes
Conscience is then an inner sense, a capacity to recall that which is inherent to every person. It is the place that God speaks to us. (16).
The objective basis of conscience is the ongoing process of turning to what is true and good. We find the conversation that leads us to a moral decision from our own experiences in life, the experiences of family, friends, colleagues, experts in the field in which we are called to make a decision, we analyze and test narratives of our communities, images, language, laws, rituals, actions and norms that those around us who live moral lives. For the Christian, the Word of God, the convictions of our creeds, the lives of the holy ones (saints) who have gone before us, the informed judgment of theologians, etc., but most of all, the moral instruction of the teaching authority of the Church--the teaching office of the pope, the bishop of Rome and bishops worldwide (Gula, in Hoose, 1998, p. 115).
The Catholic Catechism
Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that one is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all one says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what one knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of one’s conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law. (1778)
The great Oxford scholar John Henry Cardinal Newman described the conscience as
a law of the mind; . . . 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 original Vicar of Christ.” (‘Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,' V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II, London: Longmans Green, 1885, pg. 248)
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 [cf. Romans 1:32 .]. 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. (1777)
Formation of Conscience
As one can imagine, conscience is not just “there.” It requires growth, development, exercise. We call this the formation of conscience. As mentioned above, we form a good conscience by a continuing passion for what is good and what is true. We search out the answers from those resources that are credible and well-informed. Because not all of us are top rate scholars—philosophers and theologians—we need to seek out the opinions and teaching of those who are well formed and well informed.
High among those credible individuals is the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, who enjoys the charism of truth in the gift of infallibility (Matthew 16). We live in a special time of the lives of two pontiffs who are exceptional in their personal holiness and intelligence, the recent John Paul the Great and the present Pope Benedict XVI. Their scholarship and writings are so easily available to us these days on the World Wide Web. The Vatican Web site offers easy access to all papal teachings. Search engines can reveal not only those teachings, but credible and authoritative commentaries and explanations of those teachings, as well as the writings of the great teachers (Fathers and Doctors) in the history of the church for two centuries on the subjects of moral interpretation.
Another important moral formation of conscience is the healthy and correct development of one’s own emotions and passions. We are creatures of very strong movement of our hearts and heads at an emotional level and they get in the way of acknowledging what we know to be the right course of action. All the electronic media, so attractive to us these days, form our emotions and passions in ways often contrary to the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Our emotions and passions have the power to sway us from the best of right moral arguments.
The continuing formation of our consciences includes cultivating our emotions to go along with what we already know to be morally right. Expose your self to right emotional reactions. Read the loves of the Saints; pray for right development of emotions. Cardinal Ratzinger reminded his hearers (and us) in 1991 that the “high road to truth and goodness is not a comfortable one.” We must be prepared for personal tension and social contradiction in making a right moral decision.
The Supremacy of Conscience
Our Church has always recognized the supremacy of the conscience. The origins of this supremacy can be found in St. Paul’s teachings of eating meat offered to idols in his first letter to the Church at Corinth (8:1-18). If your conscience has been well formed--if you have sought out right counsel--and if you have mature control of your emotions and passions, your conscience--the voice of God in your spirit--is inviolable.
Jesus put it one way: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that belong to God” (Matthew 22:21). In our own time, John Paul the Great wrote an encyclical entitled Splendor Veritatis (The Splendor of Truth) in which he defended the moral law that is found in every human heart. Peter reminded the Jews of his time that “it is better to obey God than to obey men” (Acts 5:29). But it bears reminding that as in most things in human nature, the supremacy of conscience is not an absolute supremacy. Supremacy involves responsibility that one has sought the counsel of those who hand on the teaching of the moral law, the best living authorities and the best traditions of the past. Then with the awareness of role of our emotions and passions—attending to our own active faculties—we can come to a right moral decision.
Guilt and Conscience
It is not an uncommon criticism from the secular world today that we are a “guilt-ridden” people. Other Christians easily stereotype us Catholic Christians by what they often call a “guilt laden lifestyle.” How easily they misunderstand that part of the nature of conscience is guilt. Without guilt the full exercise of conscience is retarded. “The feeling of guilt, the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to the spiritual make-up of the person” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (1991). “This feeling of guilt disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience’s complaint against (one’s own) self-satisfied existence.” The Cardinal went on to say that as physical pain signals a disturbance of one’s normal physical bodily functioning, so also does guilt function as a disturbance for one’s normal spiritual functioning for an erroneous conscience. He stated that “whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill . . . all persons need guilt feelings.”
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, 2007. On Conscience, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, CA
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
© 2011 Robert J. Schihl
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