July 8, 2016


Relying on our consciences, and forming them well

How do you make your moral decisions?

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that most Catholics rely on their consciences when considering moral questions. Seventy-three percent said that they rely on their consciences a great deal, and an additional 18 percent said they rely on their consciences some. Only 9 percent said that they don’t rely on their consciences. (One has to wonder what they do rely on.)

The result of the survey is good news because the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (#1790), and “In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” (#1778).

Pope Francis spoke about conscience a lot in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). He mentioned conscience 14 times when writing about what the Church should do about Catholics who are not living in ideal marriage situations.

For example, he wrote, “Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace” (#303).

Note that the pope spoke of “an enlightened conscience.” The catechism speaks of “a well-formed conscience.” Unfortunately, for too many people today, following one’s conscience 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, the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is relative. What is true for you might not be true for me. We see the results of such a philosophy in our society’s embrace of absolute tolerance. Today’s capital sin seems to be intolerance.

Harvey Cox taught Harvard University undergraduates a course in “Jesus as a moral teacher” for about 20 years. In his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox says that, in his discussions with his students, he learned that the virtue his students valued most was tolerance. They loathed being looked upon as judgmental.

They were, he said, “benevolent but uncomfortable relativists.” However, he wrote, “I was glad they were coming to realize that a nation with 250 million separate moral codes is an impossibility, and a world with six billion individuals each doing his or her own thing would become unlivable.”

St. John Paul II wrote about conscience in his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”) that he issued in 1993, just after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He said that everyone must act in accordance with the judgment of conscience, but, “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).

The catechism devotes 27 paragraphs (1776-1802) to the conscience, including the formation of conscience. It says that “the education of the conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. The education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (#1783-1784).

It also says, “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience” (#1798).

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

—John F. Fink

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