The Problem With Conscience

The Problem With Conscience

I have this little voice in my head.

It’s not really a voice, actually. It’s more like an intuition.

Sometimes it tells me I should do something a certain way, or that I should have done something a different way.

A lot to times it comes a little too late, like as I’m doing something I’ve already decided to do.

Sometimes it’s a terrible feeling in my chest, like a brick, after I’ve done something that I thought would be good realized wasn’t, or that I’m on the fence about doing and do anyway.

Do you ever get that feeling? It’s your conscience talking.

What is conscience?

According to the Catechism, conscience is a “judgment of reason” that helps you recognize whether an action is good or bad. It could be something you’re going to do, something you’re in the process of doing, or something you’ve already done.

Conscience is present in your heart…the spiritual not physical heart. Your heart is the core of your being, where you make decisions, where you determine yourself.

The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, calls conscience a “law inscribed by God,” a “secret core and…sanctuary” where a person is “alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

Conscience is God’s voice speaking to you in the inner recesses of your heart, helping you judge the quality of your acts. It’s independent of Baptism. It’s just there. The vestige of a time, in the beginning, when we walked with God and knew his mind as our own. John Henry Cardinal Newman called it the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

Can you trust your conscience?

So that’s cool, right? God is sort of hanging out inside, keeping tabs on what I’m doing, and through little intuitions and feelings, he’s helping me walk the straight and narrow in order to stay close to him.

Except for one thing.

The Catechism also says, “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” The prudent man. How many of us are prudent? (I’m only half raising my hand.)

Now we’re getting to the problem. Some might hear they’re obliged to follow their conscience (and they are) but they are not the “prudent man” the Catechism is talking about. That’s because prudence would dictate forming conscience in the Faith…and they’re not!

Conscience can lead you astray. Because it’s a judgment of reason, it goes off what you know and understand. To really be sure conscience is guiding you in the right direction, you have to know Church teaching. You have to follow conscience, but can you completely trust it if you don’t know what the Church teaches?

In some cases, a bad decision that’s the result of following your conscience can reduce your responsibility. If there’s no way you could know better, there’s no guilt. There is such a thing as “invincible ignorance.” That’s when there is absolutely NO WAY you could have known any better. It remains a sin, though, and it can damage your soul.

EVEN THEN, you may still not be off the hook. If you haven’t taken the appropriate steps to form your conscience, that bad decision is all on you. If you happen to live in the one place on earth a Catholic missionary can’t reach, the remote mountains of China perhaps, you might be alright. But really, most Catholics have complete access to Church teaching these days (think Internet). It’s just a matter of making learning it a priority.

The point: Conscience needs enlightening

My point is, all this should make studying the Faith, and teaching it, even more urgent for you.

People need to know what Christ reveals…especially baptized Catholics. Their holiness hangs in the balance.

It’s not enough to just know a little. Most people are content with a limited understanding of the Catholic Faith. Perhaps they think it doesn’t matter because they’re following their conscience. But that may not be the case. Their conscience might be leading them to error.

The great thing about conscience is, if you enlighten it with education, it will lead you to God. There aren’t always concrete answers. You may find yourself having to make decisions in a morally gray area. In those situations, a right conscience can lead you toward God. Conscience makes you most happy when it knows the right direction to go.

Image credit: Unsplash/Chris Sardegna

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