September 25, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Forming our conscience

John F. Fink(Thirty-third in a series)

When asked how they base their ethical or moral choices, a recent survey found that only 20 percent of teenagers said they did so on “principles or standards.” The most common answer, 33 percent, was “whatever feels right or comfortable.”

We’d like to put a positive spin on the results of that survey. Perhaps, if given the choice, they would have said, “I follow my conscience.” St. Bonaventure taught us, “Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger. This is why conscience has binding force.” We are obliged to follow our conscience, but it must be a well-formed conscience.

St. Paul taught the Romans, “They [the Gentiles] 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” (Rom 2:15).

Pope John Paul II echoed St. Paul in his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”): “Conscience is the application of the natural law to a particular case, an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in a particular situation, respecting the universality of the law” (#59).

The encyclical called everyone to “act in accordance with the judgment of conscience.” However, it said (as Pope John Paul also said in his encyclical “Dominum et Vivificantem” (“Lord and Giver of Life”), “Conscience does not establish the law; it bears witness to the authority of the natural law,” and, “In order to have a ‘good conscience’ one must seek the truth and make one’s judgments accordingly” (#60).

I hope this is what the teenagers meant when they said they would choose whatever feels right and comfortable in a given situation. If they have a rightly formed conscience and they follow it, they will feel right and comfortable.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, by the way, devotes 27 paragraphs (#1776-#1802) to the conscience, including the formation of conscience, which, it says, “is a lifelong task.”

Unfortunately, too many people today have a mistaken idea of the role of conscience. It has come to mean the freedom to act as one thinks best, each person choosing his or her own ideas of morality: “If it feels good to me, it must be OK.” This is almost synonymous with relativism.

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote often about the role of conscience. For him, conscience meant much more than a person’s preference or the right to reject a teaching of the Church. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he wrote, “Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from him who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives.”

A well-formed conscience is difficult to achieve. If we find ourselves at odds with the Church over some matter, our obligation is not to reject the teaching, but rather to form our conscience in conformity with the Church as the most reliable authority on matters of faith and morals. †

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