If the conscience were an internal organ, I think we’d be able to have it surgically removed. As it is, we can deaden our conscience but I don’t think it’s possible to completely kill it even with the strongest poison.
While I’ve never sought to destroy my conscience I have tried to silence it now and then. Thanks to my parents and all the people who’ve helped to positively form my conscience since I was a child, I can now recognize what a great gift it is.
While there are always plenty of threats to conscience health, an especially big one is on the horizon, so I thought it would be good to look at what the conscience is, how it’s formed or malformed, and what the Church says about external forces that try to coerce us into violating our conscience.
Our conscience is our “most secret core and sanctuary,” according to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. It’s where we are alone with God “whose voice echoes in our depths.” Deep within our conscience is a law inscribed by God that calls us to love and to do what is good and avoid evil. And if our ear is tuned to it, we hear it at just the right moment.
The Catechism states that conscience judges choices, bears witness to authority of truth and welcomes the commandments. By the judgment of reason, we recognize the moral quality of acts we’re going to perform, that we are performing or that we have done. (CCC 1777)
Bl. John Henry Newman put it this way:
Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise … [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
Like virtues–and vices–our conscience is formed to an extent by habits. We have to learn and practice its interior law. Throughout our entire lives it must be formed and our moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful and formulates judgments according to reason. To make moral decisions, not only must our conscience be formed but it must be informed about the topic.
There are some ground rules for acting in good conscience:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- The Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Mt. 7:12, Lk. 6:31, Tob. 4:15)
- Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ.”
As we exercise our conscience, “there are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC 1756)
When someone ‘s conscience is malformed or when they make errors of judgment in moral conduct, it’s for one of these reasons: ignorance of Christ and the Gospel, bad example, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejecting the Church’s authority and teaching or lack of conversion and charity. (CCC 1792)
If our conscience is formed properly, the Church teaches that we have a right to act in conscience and freedom to make moral decisions. The Vatican II Council Fathers wrote that man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. (Dignitatis Humanae)
We’re obliged by our conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are “contrary to the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29).” (CCC 2256)
The federal government’s mandate that nearly all employers offering their employees health insurance provide free contraception, sterilization and some aborifacient drugs is directly at variance with Church teaching. Not only would this new rule force many Catholic organizations to violate their consciences but also Catholics throughout the country who will be forced to pay through their health plans for the “free” services.
In reference to the Church’s position on contraception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae states:
“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of the natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.
This seems like the right moment to listen for the voice of God in our conscience. As St. Augustine said:
“Return to your conscience, question it … Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.”