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Formation Of Conscience

August 25, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Conscience, used as a term to designate a person’s awareness of moral truth, can be spoken of in three intertwining senses. As we saw last week, each can be identified in a key paragraph of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
An excerpt of this crucial teaching of our faith bears repeating:
“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, sounds in his heart 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. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 16).
The level identified last week as “general moral conscience” is an awareness of God’s voice ever calling man to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil. It refers to the natural law that is written on each man’s heart, an awareness of the basic unchanging moral principles and truths that guide each of us.
“Particular moral conscience,” on the other hand, corresponds to practical judgments made in particular situations (i.e., to “do this, shun that”). It pertains to practical judgments of the intellect made as the termination of a process of moral deliberation.
The final sense, “transcendental moral conscience,” relates to man’s most secret core and his sanctuary where he is alone with God. It might be described as man’s call to be rather than to do; it is rooted in man’s dignity of having been created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), of being His adopted children and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) instructs the faithful that “conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed” (CCC, n. 1781). Incumbent to responsible use of one’s conscience, however, is that it is formed properly, for as the Catechism goes on to accentuate:
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC, n. 1783).
Pope St. John Paul II alludes to this in his 1992 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS) in quoting words spoken by Jesus:
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matt. 6:22-23).
“These words of Jesus,” explains St. John Paul, “represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good” VS, n. 64 § 1).
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV), he returned to this verse to affirm that, by analogy, it points to the conscience as the “bright lamp of the soul” (EV, n. 24 § 1).
In an excellent article entitled “Challenges in Forming the Conscience,” moral theologian Fr. James McTavish, FMVD, elaborates on the analogy used by St. John Paul II:
“If your conscience is sound then your whole body will be filled with light, but if your conscience is not well-formed then your whole body will be in darkness. The formation of conscience stands as the ethical imperative of the Church — to form Christians who are responsible with a well-formed and mature conscience” (Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas, volume LXXXVII, n. 882, January-February 2011, p. 19; hereafter CFC).
As affirmed by Vatican II, formation of conscience is an essential part of Church’s mission (cf. Dignitatis Humanae [DH], n. 14). Moreover, it is “indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC, n. 1783).
“The education of the conscience,” underscores the Catechism, “is a lifelong task” (CCC, n. 1784).
And as Fr. McTavish expounds, “If care is not taken to continually form conscience, it may become less capable to discern what is the correct course of action in a given situation and can become numb, gradually silenced as a result of habitual sin (cf. GS, n. 16)” (CFC, p. 23).
Why is this true? Simply stated, we live in a time of widespread subjectivism. The masses live by the saying “let your conscience be your guide,” a statement that is true in principle. However, it presumes a sure and certain conscience, a conscience that is formed in truth. This all-important precondition — absolutely required for making correct moral judgments — is often lacking.
As stated two weeks ago, many people have an incorrect notion of conscience — they consider it to be an autonomous inner voice guided by personal preferences and public opinion rather than objective truth. The popular idiom “If it feels good, do it” guides their way of living.
As Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ perceptively observes: “It seems to me that in this electronic, permissive age, the peer group, and the media are more effective in the formation of conscience than are the family and the Church” (Fundamentals of Catholicism [Vol. 1], p. 134).
There are acute dangers associated with a conscience malformed in this way, the reasons for which are brilliantly outlined by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk:
“The sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of teachers, yet the least luminous” (p. 45).
In fact, the Catechism cautions against the pernicious influence that the mass media can have on those who are not vigilant:
“The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences” (CCC, n. 2496).
How, then, is conscience formed? As Catholic Christians, we have two foremost sources that top the list: 1) the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed through Sacred Scripture and 2) the ongoing Tradition of the Church.
Together these two sources form the sacred “deposit of faith” and are “to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (Dei Verbum [DV], n. 9 § 1). In properly forming our conscience, “the Word of God is the light for our path (cf. Psalm. 109:105),” teaches the Catechism, “we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (CCC, n. 1785).
In the complex world in which we live, many ethical situations will arise where clear-cut answers to moral dilemmas are not evident in Sacred Scripture or Tradition. Here is where a third source for formation of conscience becomes critical, namely, the Church’s Magisterium, or her teaching office. It has been entrusted exclusively with “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God…and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DV, n. 10 § 2).
The Vatican II fathers alluded to the importance of the Church’s teaching office when they stated:
“In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself” (DH, n. 14 § 1).
It can accurately be said, then, that Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium — in a manner analogous to a three-legged stool — are legs on which depend authentic Church teaching on matters of faith and morals. It is through these three “sources of information” that we are to form our conscience continuously.

Pray And Read

To seriously attend to such a noble task, it is important spend quiet time in prayer, to read and study Sacred Scripture and the Catechism (as well as lives of the saints, the works of solid, faithful spiritual masters, papal encyclicals, and more), and to participate in parish Scripture study courses and/or other forms of catechetical/adult education programs if possible.
Likewise, parents must give assiduous care, through word and example, to the formation of the children God has entrusted to them.
The importance of regular and frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist cannot be overemphasized. When difficult situations arise, it is advisable to consult trusted experts trained in the art of moral and spiritual direction. Through these means, virtue will grow and one’s conscience will become more discerning and sensitive.

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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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