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Choosing In Accord With Conscience

September 1, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


“Follow your conscience,” as we saw last week, is a sound moral precept; however, it must be understood in its proper context. For one’s conscience to function properly, it must be formed in accordance with God’s universal absolute truth, in harmony with the natural law that is written on the human heart.
As specified by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, correct formation of conscience demands educating it “in keeping with the true good as willed by the wisdom of the Creator, should begin from the earliest years of infancy, and is a lifelong task” (The Faith, p. 159).
In the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Vatican II fathers were absolutely clear in their avowal of the indispensable obligation to form one’s conscience in truth and to then follow its dictates in living out one’s life: “In accordance with their dignity as persons . . . all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth. . . . They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2 § 3).
It was also stated last week that there are three primary sources — Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium — on which we should depend for authentic Church teaching on matters of morality. It is precisely these sources to which the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers in stating that “an upright and true moral conscience is formed by education and by assimilating the Word of God and the teaching of the Church” (n. 374).
Moreover, we are given additional aids to assist us in forming our conscience so it operates as a right guide in steering us safely through the tumultuous vicissitudes of life: “[Formation of conscience] is supported by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and helped by the advice of wise people. Prayer and [daily] examination of conscience can also assist one’s moral formation” (ibid.).
And what is the benefit we gain? “The education of the conscience,” underscores the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (n. 1784).
In the complex world in which we live, people are often confronted with the responsibility of making sound moral judgments in very complicated situations. This is especially true in areas such as end-of-life decisions and bioethics. The Catechism tacitly acknowledges this fact in a subsection entitled “to choose in accord with conscience” when it states:
“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” (CCC, n. 1786).
Implied by this teaching is that it is possible for conscience to be either true or false (erroneous).
In an excellent high school level textbook composed by four authors (Fr. Edward J. Hayes, Msgr. Paul J. Hayes, Dorothy Ellen Kelly, RN, and James J. Drummey) entitled Catholicism & Ethics: A Medical/Moral Handbook (CE-MMH), the distinction is cogently articulated:
“A true conscience is one which indicates correctly the goodness or badness of moral conduct. An erroneous conscience is one which incorrectly indicates that a good action is evil or an evil action is good” (p. 47).
On man’s part, “he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in the divine law” (CCC, n. 1787). It is for this precise reason that a properly formed conscience is so important.
Before proceeding, it is important to firmly accept that the Ten Commandments, which are basically a summary of the principles of natural law, are not mere suggestions that one can take or leave; they are commands from our Creator which bind us to obedience.
In fact, one can come to know them (except for divine positive law, e.g., the Third Commandment) through the use of reason even if they had not been received by Moses. Their purpose is not to restrict man’s freedom, but to serve as a blueprint from an all-loving, all-wise God, “the source and judge of all that is good” (CCC, n. 1955), which leads to everlasting happiness and eternal life.
Pope St. John Paul II expressed the self-delusional danger inherent in trying to justify actions contrary to the natural law in the name of “following one’s conscience” in his December 1990 World Day of Peace Message:
“To claim that one has a right to act according to conscience, but without at the same time acknowledging the duty to conform one’s conscience to the truth and to the law which God himself has written on our hearts, in the end means nothing more than imposing one’s limited personal opinion.”
Stated in a slightly different way, then, the roadmap provided by the Ten Commandments makes common sense: “It is reasonable and proper for human dignity not to steal, commit adultery, and so on” (Fr. William P. Saunders, Straight Answers, p. 294). However, “man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decisions difficult” (CCC, n. 1787).
In such circumstances, we must trust the teachings of the Church’s Magisterium and likewise strive “to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and His gifts” (CCC, n. 1788).
In addressing the topic of erroneous conscience, the Catechism places special emphasis on the fact that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC, n. 1790). In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS), St. John Paul II provides the justification:
“If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience, the proximate norm of personal morality” (VS, n. 60).
What is meant by a certain conscience? “If our conscience, whether it speaks the truth or not, speaks with assurance, without a suspicion of error, and its voice carries conviction,” explains Fr. John Laux, MA, “we are said to have a certain conscience” (Catholic Morality, p. 19). In other words, “a certain conscience is one which dictates a course of action in clear terms without fear of error. It clearly labels as good or bad an action contemplated” (CE-MMH, p. 48).
One must follow a certain conscience even if it is false; however, as St. John Paul II teaches, “Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes” (VS, n. 62 § 3).
What level of culpability, if any, is associated with acting with an erroneous conscience? In certain cases, one’s ignorance can be invincible (unavoidable). The action “remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder” (CCC, n. 1793), but culpability for the act cannot be imputed to the moral subject.
On the contrary, if a person’s ignorance could and should have been avoided, it can “be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man ‘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’ (Gaudium et Spes, n. 16). In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (CCC, n. 1791). (Note: The matter of vincible and invincible ignorance was covered more fully in an earlier column; see volume 150, n. 40; October 5, 2017.)

Resolve The Doubt

What about the case of a doubtful or uncertain conscience? “No one is allowed to act with a doubtful conscience” (CE-MMH, p. 50). If such circumstances prevail, a person is firmly obliged to resolve the doubt before acting. His or her obligation is to first determine what the Church teaches on the matter; if necessary, trusted and knowledgeable counsel should be sought from a person in position to know the truth.
The Catechism enumerates several possible sources for errors of judgment in moral conduct: ignorance of Christ and His Gospel; the bad example given by those with whom we associate and society in general; an unhealthy enslavement to one’s passions; the assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience (i.e., moral relativism); rejection of the Church’s authority and her magisterial teaching; and lack of personal conversion and of charity (cf. CCC, n. 1792).
On this basis, can any reasonable person doubt that the formation of conscience is a lifelong task? The obligation to sincerely live one’s life in accordance with a well-formed conscience is undeniably a weighty responsibility that must never be taken lightly.
To close our consideration on the topic of conscience, let us reflect prayerfully on sage advice given in a 1976 pastoral letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“We must have a rightly formed conscience and follow it. But our judgments are human and can be mistaken; we may be blinded by the power of sin in our lives or misled by the strength of our desires….Clearly, then, we must do everything in our power to see to it that our judgments of conscience are informed and in accord with the moral order of which God is creator.
“Common sense requires that conscientious people be open and humble, ready to learn from the experience and insight of others, willing to acknowledge prejudices, and even change their judgments in light of better instruction” (To Live in Christ Jesus; as cited in CE-MMA, p. 51).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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