To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer:


Life is a train of moods like a string of beads; and as we pass through them they prove to be many colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.---RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.---ABRAHAM LINCOLN
There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state to another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.---ALEXANDRE DUMAS
“It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones" --- Alexander Solzhenitsyn quotes (Russian novelist, Nobel Prize for Literature (1970), b.1918)
“Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too selfish to seek other than itself.” ---Kahlil Gibran

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Going God's Way - The Church's Teaching on MORAL CONSCIENCE

ISSUE: What does the Church teach concerning moral conscience?

DISCUSSION: Moral conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. It is there that “man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). In his conscience, man not only discovers the natural law (cf. Rom. 2:15) but encounters God Himself, the author of the law.
      While the natural law written on our hearts teaches us the general, objective principles of the moral life, conscience applies the natural law to particular circumstances, enabling us to choose what is good and avoid what is evil (cf. Catechism, no. 1777).
      While all of us have the right and duty to follow our consciences, it is likewise true that our consciences must be correctly formed, and that is truly a lifelong task.
      In the formation of conscience, the Word of God is the light for our path (cf. Ps. 119:105); we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice (cf. Catechism, no. 1785). Further, in forming our consciences, we must be “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (ibid.; cf. Dignitatis Humanae [DH] 14).
      One of the principal documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (GS), devoted an entire paragraph (no. 16) to the subject of conscience. It is worth quoting in full:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged (cf. Rom. 2:15-16). His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor (cf. Mt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14). Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the man who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.
Listening to Conscience
      Moral conscience, which helps us to make good choices in conformity with God’s plan for our lives, is a sign of our tremendous dignity as human persons created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). The Catechism points out, however, that we need “interiority” (i.e., adequate reflection, self-examination, etc.) in order to hear and follow the voice of conscience amidst the many distractions in our lives (cf. Catechism, no. 1779).
      Conscience enables us to take responsibility for our actions. The judgment of conscience bears witness to the fact that we have made good choices, but also convicts us when we have made bad choices (i.e., committed sins), leading us to seek forgiveness: “We shall ... reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:19-20).
      The Church has always affirmed that we must not deliberately act against the certain judgment of our consciences (cf. Catechism, nos. 1790, 1800). Saint Bonaventure, the great thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar and doctor of the Church, put it this way:
Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.[1]
      “If your eye is not sound ... how great is the darkness!” (Mt. 6:23) Yet it does not follow that every judgment of conscience is correct. “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” (Catechism, no. 1786). As mentioned in the above quote from Vatican II, it is possible that a judgment of one’s conscience may be erroneous through ignorance, and a person may not be at fault for acting on such a judgment. But even if there is no sin, the bad choice is still a disorder, and one must work to correct the errors of moral conscience (ibid., no. 1793).
      Further, we are responsible for forming our consciences, allowing God’s Word to truly be a light for our path. When we do not respect the dignity of conscience -- when we do not seek what is true and good -- the conscience becomes increasingly blind and less capable of making sound moral judgments (cf. Mt. 6:22-23; Veritatis Splendor [VS] 63).
      The Catechism (no. 1792) gives several examples of how conscience can go astray, identifying the following sources of errors of judgment in moral conduct:
—ignorance of Christ and His Gospel
—bad example of others
—enslavement to passions
—mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience
—rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching
—lack of conversion
—lack of charity
      Conscience is our personal link to God’s law, and it must be distinguished -- often with the help of a confessor or spiritual director -- from our natural inclinations and “passions.” And deep down we know that as Catholics we are not acting with a “certain” conscience when we make choices known to be at odds with the Church’s moral teaching.
      It is interesting to note that in discussing the “culture of death” in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV) (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II also speaks, in an analogous sense, of the “moral conscience of society” (nos. 21-24). He speaks of the eclipse of the sense of God in our society and further teaches that, “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man” (no. 21). In the area of human life issues such as contraception, abortion, suffering, poverty, euthanasia, etc., we witness on a societal level what happens to an individual who routinely ignores the truth of God and the truth of man: The distinction between good and evil is blurred, and eventually one may call “evil good and good evil” (Is. 5:20).
      Yet, even in the case of extreme moral corruption on an individual or societal level, the voice of the Lord continues to beckon us to seek reconciliation and a fresh beginning (cf. EV 24).
The Truth That Sets Us Free
      Any discussion of conscience has to take truth into account. After all, Jesus came “to bear witness to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (no. 8) emphasizes that the aim of religious freedom is to enable people to “form their own judgments in the light of truth.” But where is truth found? That same Vatican II declaration further provides:
In forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself (DH 14).
      Some Catholic commentators assert that a well-formed conscience and official Catholic teaching may come to opposite conclusions in moral matters. This opinion directly contradicts Catechism, no. 2039: “Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.” A Catholic simply cannot claim to have a well-formed and well-informed conscience if he or she is ignorant of, misunderstands, or rejects outright God’s law and thus commits acts that the Church considers gravely disordered.
      One who “disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief” is “sinning against faith” (Catechism, no. 2088). Assuredly, there may be circumstances present that diminish the individual’s guilt, but that is very different from saying that the conscience is well formed.
      The Church is not merely one source to be consulted as we form our conscience. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. If we believe that Jesus is truly God, then we do not “consult” with Him -- we follow Him! The Church’s moral teaching is not just something that we can buy into in varying degrees based on our own personal preference. Rather, it is the truth of Jesus Christ that sets us free (cf. Jn. 8:32) and enables us to live fulfilling Christian lives.
            We believe with a divine and Catholic faith all that Christ has revealed. Can we deliberately choose to reject any of Christ’s teachings and still call ourselves His disciples (cf. Mt. 7:21)? “He who does what is true comes to the light” (Jn. 3:21) In his encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth), Pope John Paul II explains that a correct conscience involves a judgment in accordance with objective truth, while an erroneous conscience involves a judgment that a person subjectively considers to be true, but is not (nos. 62-63).
    A good conscience, then, must be attuned to the truth, as found not only through natural law but also through the revealed truths of Jesus Christ as taught by His Church. The education of conscience and the fostering of the virtues is absolutely necessary if we are to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Rom. 12:2; cf. Catechism, nos. 1783-85; VS 64).
      Scripture teaches that “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). We must allow His Word to enlighten our minds and change our hearts. Then, through the grace of Christ and the gifts of His Spirit, we are empowered to lead lives “worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27), making good choices in keeping with our dignity as Christians.


1.      Catechism, no. 1792 identifies some causes of errors of judgment when it comes to living a moral, Christian life. Are any of these items present in my own life? Do I understand God’s law as a source of freedom or a form of bondage? Do I live as a child of God?

2.      The Church emphasizes the importance of having a properly formed conscience. What can I do to help ensure that my conscience is properly formed? (See Catechism, no. 1785.)

3.      How would I charitably respond to someone who says, “I’m Catholic, but I disagree with many of the Church’s moral teachings. I follow my conscience on the subject of contraception and abortion”?


Holy Bible (Catholic edition)
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Vatican II Documents
Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)
Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth)
Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)
Precis of Official Catholic Teaching on the Christian Call to Personal Sanctification
Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners

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Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God
Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions
Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew
Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel
Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

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• No Bull: Papal Authority and Our Response
• All Aboard!: Without the Church There Is No Salvation
• Following Our Bishops
• “We Believe in One God....”: The Nicene Creed and Mass
• That They May All Be One: The Difference the Church Makes
• The Theological Virtue of Faith

© 1999 Catholics United for the Faith
Last edited: 8/20/1999

[1] II Librum Sentent., dist. 39, a. 1, q. 3, conclusion: Ed. Ad Claras Aquas, II, 907b, as quoted in VS 58 (Vatican translation).


  1. Conscience may be the single most misunderstood issue among Catholics nowadays. It's very true that conscience is a judgment of reason and it definitely uses the objective principles of the moral law to judge the morality of acts in specific circumstances. Conscience is NOT itself the SOURCE of the moral law. The common point of misunderstanding is that many nowadays are looking to their conscience as the source of moral principles, which is a serious ERROR. Many who reject Church teaching will say, "I'm just following my conscience." which again apparently not the case, right and wrong have basis and these are NEVER based on PERSONAL INDOCTRINATION. Crimes are not based on personal beliefs,the offense of murder does even come from religious set of norms.

  2. In my ebook on comparative mysticism I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.