Conscience is defined as “the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one’s conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong.” From a Catholic understanding of conscience, this is an incomplete definition. The Catholic view of conscience involves the freedom of the human person, the teaching authority of the Church, and the search for truth (trying to make the right moral decision.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines conscience as “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already performed.” (CCC 1778) Conscience is a “judgment of reason” that determines whether an act is right or wrong. CCC 1780 outlines how conscience works:
â€¢ Perception of the principles of morality;
â€¢ Application of the principles to the given circumstances;
â€¢ Judgment about the concrete act to be performed or already performed
â€¢ The prudent choice of a course of action in conformity with the judgment
Man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. (CCC 1778)
What Conscience is:
Pope John Paul II tells us that conscience is an “interior dialog of man with himself” about right and wrong. It “is also a dialog of man with God”: it is “the witness of God himself” calling him to obey the moral law, and is a person’s “witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness.” This is the basis of the great dignity of the conscience: it derives from its witness to objective moral truth. (John, 1993,57-58, 60)
Conscience is awareness of God’s call to know and to do good. Conscience is a basic awareness of good and evil. “â€¦Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that’ (John, 1993, p.54)
Conscience is practical judgment â€¦The judgment of conscience is a practical judgmentâ€¦” (John, 1993) This judgment makes evident what we must do or not do. Conscience is very practical. It urges us to do good or keep from doing evil, it guides us and it has a retrospective role to play. The person may have a “guilty conscience” because he knows that he made the wrong moral choice.
According to Saint Paul, conscience in a certain sense confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a “witness” for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness with regard to the lawâ€¦ (John, 1993)
Conscience is the means God has given us to make moral decisions. Our freedom demands that we use it: “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC, 1777)
These points stress the personal nature of conscience, an individual call by God to be a loving person, searching for the moral truth. In our everyday routine, most of our decisions of conscience are inherent. We then make them from habit and give them little thought. They result from our already acquired values. A good habit is an asset that enables us to do good relatively easy.
With God’s grace, conscience can lead someone on the first steps of a spiritual journey that ultimately points to the completeness of truth found in the Incarnate Word and his Church.
What conscience is not:
Conscience is not a majority view
Conscience is not “going along”; if everyone is doing it, then it must be okay. This view of conscience conforms personal behavior to popular opinion.
Conscience is not a feeling. The idea of “what’s right is what feels right” means that individuals are the creators of their own ethical rules and only answer to themselves. “As long as I have good intentions, then what I do is okay.”
Conscience is not instinct. “My hunch tells me I should act this way.”
Although a gut-feeling or hunch can be a good start, a moral conscience is more developed. It involves figuring out how we are to love both God and others.
Conscience does not create standards of right and wrong-because this standard resides in God alone (the conscience simply points to a standard that it did not create on its own), allowing us to discern and respond to truth.
Some deny even the existence of personal conscience. These people believe conscience is a concept, created by organized religions to help control people through guilt. The denial of conscience leads to the death of moralityâ€¦everything and anything is okay.
As Catholics, we have an obligation to form our conscience based on God’s revelation and the authoritative teaching of the Church. If one believes that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in her teaching, then the Church is an indispensable source of truth, including moral truth.