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What is the Catholic Church's teaching on conscience?

Every human being has a conscience, an inner guide to determining right from wrong. About this faculty, the Second Vatican Council's "Decree on the Church" had this to say:

"In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can, when necessary, speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged."

So we hear the Church telling us that it is our duty to follow the dictates of conscience -- that, in fact, God will judge us according to how we follow the leads of conscience. Does this mean, then, that it's all right for people to do anything just so long as their conscience tells them it's right?

No, it does not mean this. The Church recognizes the existence of objective moral norms that conscience is bound to uphold. If, for example, one person killed another after a minor dispute, then argued that his conscience told him to do so, the objective moral law would still condemn him for killing.

We sometimes find people in whom conscience is ill-formed simply because they have never been taught right from wrong in a proper manner. Conscience, like all our other human faculties, must be disciplined and trained through time. There are also individuals in whom the voice of conscience has become distorted, or even silenced, because of habitual sin.

The Navajo Indians have a helpful image to explain this. They picture conscience as a triangle that turns inside the human heart. Whenever we do something wrong, the spinning triangle brushes the walls of the heart, causing us discomfort and leading to reform. It occasionally happens, however, that an individual does so much wrong that the points of the triangle get rubbed away and the walls of the heart become calloused. In such cases, the voice of conscience becomes practically silent.

What are some of the ways in which Christians can form a good conscience?
"In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church." So reads the Second Vatican Council's "Decree on Religious Freedom." In the teachings of the Church concerning the moral life, we find a clear expression of the manner in which both the natural and divine laws can illuminate and direct conscience. This is why religious education is so important -- for young people and adults as well. We may also work toward the formation of a good conscience through daily prayer and reflection on the Scripture, through effective preaching and by spiritual reading. Finally, good conscience formation requires that we make an effort to live a life of moral virtue.

Many people have the mistaken notion that a well-formed conscience inhibits human joy by burying one in an avalanche of "shoulds," "oughts" and "shall nots." But those who avail themselves of the benefits of religious education, prayer, reading and moral living will discover that a good conscience is essential to experiencing greater freedom and happiness. A good conscience can help us to discover God's will in our lives, and it is by doing God's will that we most truly realize our fullest measures of freedom, growth, peace and joy.

To obtain a printed copy of the Evangeline Scripts write to:
Evangelization Office
Diocese of Lake Charles
P.O. Box 3223
Lake Charles, La. 70602

Copyright 1991 Diocese of Lake Charles, La.
With Ecclesiastical Approbation
+ Jude Speyrer, S.T.L., D.D.
June 1991
Used with permission