Lesson 3a: Conscience: Nature and Function

The nature and function of conscience in Moral Theology is most important, therefore a correct understanding of its nature and function is equally important. The formal treatment of 'conscience' in Veritatis Splendor is found in nn.54-64 (also 32 and 34) and also in the Catechism ##1776-1801. Some presentations are also found in the documents of Vat.II; cf. GS, 16;17;41; DH, 1;2;14.

In general, the term 'conscience' can signify knowledge of oneself (a joint knowledge: con-scientia in Latin). In English, we distinguish between a psychological meaning of conscience (often 'consciousness') and the moral meaning of conscience (a judgment or decision). The psychological is often reflective -- looking back, remembering, recollecting; the moral is directive -- looking forward, directive of prospective activity. It is this latter understanding that most concerns Moral Theology.

Some popular usage of the term 'conscience' often describes a personal 'feeling', an 'insight', perhaps an 'intuition' -- as in, "I feel that's right;" or, "I sense that's wrong," rather than a reasoned judgment or decision about right and wrong. Those who 'regulate' their life by a 'feeling' or 'intuition' follow a very uncertain guide. Some metaphors about conscience appear, such as the 'voice of conscience' or a 'voice within', which are fine provided we realize that metaphors have limits as these expressions surely do.

What we are concerned with is a practical decision -- very practical! Just as we make 'practical' decisions in all other areas of real life (health care; business), so we make practical decisions about how we will live.

Acts of the practical intellect are twofold: we can judge acts already performed (as in an examination of conscience) which is called consequent conscience. Or, the judgment can be about the moral quality of an act to be done or to be omitted -- this is called antecedent conscience. It is this judgment of antecedent conscience that most concerns Moral Theology. The judgment we make before we act: that this act is good and should be done by me, or, this act is evil and should be avoided by me.

Since it is a judgment, indeed, a practical decision of the practical intellect, it in no way differs from any other practical decision, i.e. it can be a correct decision or an erroneous one.

Now, conscience is not quite the same as knowledge itself but rather what we do with the moral knowledge we have. Conscience is not merely I.Q. In fact, wherever you get you moral knowledge -- from God's Revelation; family training; Church teaching; wisdom gleaned from the lives of the saints or your own life experience, it is the application of your acquired knowledge that is directive of your prospective activity. That antecedent judgment that something is good or evil and will be done or avoided by me always involves two components: one OBJECTIVE, another SUBJECTIVE.

Perhaps, an outline chart will help:


Correct Certain
Erroneous Doubtful

Objectively, when one judges as right what truly, objectively is right, one has made a correct decision of conscience. Similarly, when one judges as evil what truly is evil, again, another correct judgment of conscience. However, when one judges as good what is really evil, or, judges as evil what is truly good, one has made an erroneous judgment of conscience. Practical judgments are not infallible. Truth is infallible, but our judgments about the truth can be correct or mistaken. Conscience, after all does not invent truth, nor does it construct truth; rather, conscience can only discern, discover and detect the truth.

Subjectively, when we make a judgment on the truth about the good, we may be subjectively certain about that judgment or perhaps doubtful. The certainty about this moral judgment is what the textbooks call 'moral certitude' -- that is, the kind of practical certitude prudent people use and rely on in the practical affairs of life and living (i.e. the absence of positive doubts).

Thus, the two conventional maxims of traditional morality:

    (1) one can ALWAYS act on a certain conscience;

    (2) one should NEVER act on a doubtful conscience.

What do you do with a doubt? The same thing one does in other practical areas of life: you get more information; you ask people who have lived well enough and long enough to know what they are talking about. Clearly, if the doubt involves a small matter, we have to make a little effort to resolve it; if it is a big matter or important value, we have to make a big effort to resolve the doubt and achieve the practical certitude we need to act on a certain conscience. These distinctions are reflected in the Catechism ##1786-1751.

For some, this is all that needs to be said: "Follow your conscience, and say no more." However, since conscience does not invent truth, there is and remains the obligation for the serious Christian to form and inform a correct conscience in the first place (CCC ##1783-1785).

Up to this point, at least on the components or mechanics of conscience -- objectively correct or erroneous; subjectively certain or doubtful -- all religions agree. It is here in the formation of conscience that different and differing convictions can come into play. The goal, of course, is the pursuit of truth, indeed the 'splendor of truth' in a true (correct) conscience. There is such a thing as a correct conscience, even a correct Catholic conscience.

Thus, as a Catholic in pursuit of the truth I look first for principles located in Sacred Scripture, clarified by Sacred Tradition and taught in any age by the teaching Church. As the Catechism states: "In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer . . . before the Lord's Cross, . . . assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit; . . . aided by witness and advice of others, guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." (#1785). This is the teaching of Vat.II: "In forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church" (DH, n14). Significantly, the Council cites the classic theological expression on conscience formation, the Address of Pope Pius XII (23 Mar. 1952).

Some care should be exercised with the popular expressions "good conscience" or "sincere conscience." In the faithful pursuit of truth, let us presume that all seekers are sincere. Lacking sincerity would be a case of bad faith. But even when we are most sincere, we are not exempt from error or mistaken judgment. Thus, just as I can be sincerely correct, so I can be sincerely erroneous. Sincerity will not undo reality. If I mistakenly drink a can of Drano -- sincerely thinking it a soft drink -- unless there is nearly immediate emergency intervention, I will die of poison. It's true I made a sincere mistake, but sincerity will not undo reality. Thus, the pursuit of a true and correctly formed conscience takes precedence over all other moral effort. The truth matters; it matters eternally.


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