Conscience

The Echo of God's Voice

Conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man.1

The superego, which was proposed by Sigmund Freud, is understood as the part of the personality representing the conscience. This is formed in early life through the internalization of the standards of our parents and society. We can therefore understand our conscience as being governed by what we have internalised from our parents or society. If we determine what is right and wrong, then we can be excused for some things because our culture and upbringing have contributed to our perception of what is right and wrong. In this scenario there is no room for objective truth — our standards of behaviour are prescribed from our own personal experiences. We can therefore blame our parents for their overbearing upbringing or lack of boundaries, and the effect that this has had on our behaviour.

The uncomfortable feelings of guilt and fear which is the sanction of our conscience can also, therefore, be attributed to this distant parental voice, or society’s moral standards. At the end of the day there are only two possible causes for the experience of our conscience: human or divine. There is a very good reason for crediting the experience of our conscience to a human source, as it enables us to evade the serious truth that our conscience is the echo of God’s voice. If we define our own truth and determine what we can and cannot do, this alleviates any unnecessary burden about being answerable to our Creator.

The Biblical Description of Conscience

If we look at the biblical description of conscience described by St. Paul, we come to discover that our conscience bears witness to the natural law written in our hearts and made explicit in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mt Sinai. The prior knowledge of good and evil that we are born with is embedded in the depths of our being. This law is absolute and unchanging, as God himself is the absolute divine authority to which we are answerable to. He is our Creator who has written in our hearts our innate knowledge of right and wrong. “For instance, pagans who never heard of the Law but are led by reason to do what the law commands, may not actually ‘possess’ the Law, but they can be said to ‘be’ the Law. They can point to the substance of the Law engraved on their hearts — they can call a witness, that is, their own conscience — they have accusation and defence, that is, their own inner mental dialogue, on the day when, according to the Good News I preach, God through Jesus Christ, judges the secrets of mankind” (Rom 2:14–16).

In Saint Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he describes how the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.”2 The natural law equates with the first level of conscience identified by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The first level, the ontological, is our primal remembrance of the good and the true. It is the primal remembrance of the good and the true that is recognised by St. Paul in the behaviour of the Gentiles, where they are said to “be the law,” where an inner sense of the good and the true is “engraved on their hearts.”

Accordingly, the first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon “conscience” means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is in harmony with some things but not with others.3

The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights how the echo of God’s voice deep within our hearts urges us to do what is good and to avoid evil. The law within us, inscribed on our hearts, is not something of our own doing. It is this aspect of our conscience that the secular world today finds intolerable and too uncomfortable to acknowledge. The din of everyday life and the distractions of our technological age do everything to try and drown out the voice of our Creator which echoes in our hearts. In our present time the volume of noise and diversity of distractions that we experience has certainly been intensified to a level previously unknown to mankind.

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 move and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.’4

The Light to Know Good from Evil

The development of our conscience is a life-long task. Our prior knowledge of good and evil, imprinted on our souls and validated by the Ten Commandments, and indeed by human law, shapes the education of our conscience. Within the Christian tradition, it is recognised that a person becomes more sensitive to the echo of God’s voice following their conversion. This is because the grace of repentance and forgiveness of their sins enables them to begin to hear and listen to God’s voice more attentively. The key determinant in being able to listen to God speaking in the depths of our heart is a pure heart that is free from sin and the attachment to sin. The greatest human tragedy is that if we remain outside the life of grace, we will become increasingly deaf to God’s voice and so lose our moral sense and lack discernment in what is right and wrong. While we may lack this ability to discern correctly, at a deeper level we do not lose the ability to know that what we are doing is wrong and that our actions are forbidden and contrary to our human nature.

Though I lost my sense of the obligation which I lie under to abstain from acts of dishonesty, I should not in consequence lose my sense that such actions were an outrage offered to my moral nature. Again; though I lost my sense of their moral deformity, I should not therefore lose my sense that they were forbidden to me.5

The significance of our conscience is also highlighted in St. Catherine’s Dialogue, where again conscience makes it clear to the individual that what they are doing is wrong. The stark language in the passage below depicts clearly the truth of the matter: “the wicked see clearly that they are doing wrong.”

Because the wicked see clearly that they are doing wrong; conscience makes it clear to them. Because of the selfishness that has debilitated them they do not make an effort to get out of this sinfulness, though they see by a natural light that what they are doing is evil.6

Judgement and Imperative

If God wills the salvation of every single person born, then a very significant means of achieving this is a person’s conscience. It is clear that we never lose the light to know that what we are doing is wrong. Just as we never lose this light, so our conscience judges the quality of our actions. The challenge in our modern times is for “man to perceive and recognise the prescriptions of the divine law.”

Conscience is a judgement of reason whereby the human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgement of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.7

If we reflect on our personal experience as a child, we can recall more starkly the times where our actions were judged by our parents and, on receiving a reprimand, we are invariably impelled or directed to behave in a more appropriate manner. The judgement from our parents is followed by an explanation of how we should behave and, depending on what we have done wrong, a punishment. In a similar manner, our conscience bears witness to our concrete acts, judges us, and leaves us with a sense of duty as to what we ought to do. As described by John Henry Newman below, the two aspects of our conscience can be identified: “a judgement of reason and a magisterial dictate.”

I shall attempt to show that in this special feeling, which follows on the commission of what we call right or wrong, lie the materials for the real apprehension of a Divine Sovereign and Judge.

The feeling of conscience (being, I repeat, a certain keen sensibility, pleasant or painful, — self-approval and hope, or compunction and fear, — attendant on certain of our actions, which in consequence we call right or wrong) is twofold: it is a moral sense, and sense of duty; a judgement of the reason and a magisterial dictate. Of course its act is indivisible; still it has these two aspects, distinct from each other, and admitting of a separate consideration.8

If God planted the natural law in our hearts, then if we transgress this law we will suffer the consequences. In a similar manner, if we transgress the human laws that govern society, then we too will suffer as a result. While the human laws are set in place by man, they have their origin in the divine law; the Ten Commandments. The uncomfortable feelings of fear and guilt which arise when we have done something wrong are the sanction imposed on our conscience. We have all experienced this and the feelings that arise give a sense that we have offended someone. This someone is God. This is the crux of the issue. Does the example I have given previously of our experience as a child just reinforce the fact that our conscience is in fact Freud’s superego? The vividness of our memories as a child and the feeling of being judged, and invariably punished, indeed lends weight to our conscience truly being of human origin. This argument will always be convincing for the person who does not want to consider the alternative. The temptation to convince oneself of the validity of this argument will not leave a person with a sense of peace and consolation. It is the absence of this interior state that points to the reality of their conscience being of divine origin.

Our Interior Dialogue with God

In St. Paul’s description of the law being present in the Gentiles, he describes how “they have accusation and defence, that is, their own inner mental dialogue” (Rom 2:15–16). It is this aspect of our conscience that we can testify to, in our lived experience. As described by St. Pope John Paul II, the interior dialogue that we play over to ourselves is of unbelievable significance. It is in this dialogue that souls travel towards the port of truth and salvation or towards the whirlpool of deceit and destruction. No one else sees our inner dialogue or takes part in it. We have all experienced the battle with our thoughts, where we seek to justify our actions, or perhaps minimise what we have done, or blame others. As described below, the reality is we are not just having an interior and hidden dialogue with ourselves, but a dialogue with God himself!

According to Saint Paul, conscience in a certain sense confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a “witness” for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness with regard to the law, of his essential moral rectitude or iniquity. Conscience is the only witness, since what takes place in the heart of the person is hidden from the eyes of everyone outside. Conscience makes its witness known only to the person himself. And, in turn, only the person himself knows what his own response is to the voice of conscience.

The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man.9

The greatest ‘proof’ of the true nature of conscience is in our personal experience. The uncomfortable feelings which are experienced after doing something wrong evidences the sanction imposed from a higher authority. The uncomfortable truth that our conscience is the echo of God’s voice has been proclaimed by the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years. This voice has also been persecuted for all those years, as it is a voice that does not fit in with the desires of the world. It is not surprising, on one level, that if the true nature of conscience is denied or minimised, then the full truth and reality about sin, our personal judgement, and hell will also be denied or minimised.

As the level of noise and distractions, and the range of available pleasures to each one of us has increased, the true nature of our conscience has been slowly and surely radically silenced. While the world around us changes dramatically and at a pace which is truly staggering, God remains the same. God is unchanging, eternal, all-knowing, and unconditional love. What does this really mean for the multitude of people who walk unknowingly in our secular world, who experience the sanction of their conscience? It means that they live an interior life filled with uncomfortable emotions that subconsciously they want to be free from, but don’t know consciously how to alleviate.

Objective Truth

One of the great temptations today is not only to deny or minimise the divine source of our conscience, but to separate our conscience from any possibility of objective truth. If we act in good conscience to the best of our knowledge, then it is alright. If objective truth did possibly exist, then the responsibility to align our conscience with the eternal law becomes something too onerous, unrealistic, or out of step with the demands of daily life. Yet if we began learning physics, chemistry, or English, we have to abide by certain objective rules to develop a clear understanding of the subject. If we followed our own subjective feelings and opinions independent of the teaching authority and tradition of the subject, our learning and development would be severely impeded. But surely this analogy does not shed light on our moral life? Our moral life is something very different and cannot be compared to the traditional subjects that we all learn. The surprising, or not so surprising, fact, depending on the nature of one’s personal belief in God, is that God is the author of both the traditional subjects we learn at school as well as the moral law. If God is all-knowing and the origin of all knowledge, then it follows logically that just as we are governed by objective truths in the subjects we are all familiar with, so we must learn and be open to the objective truths that govern our moral lives. If we don’t, then our conscience will be formed by the whims and changing fashions of the world we live in and not the unchanging eternal law that we are called to participate in. This is a life-long challenge because of our fallen nature. We will always have to battle against our sensual nature, which will always pull against the demands of our conscience. As described with succinct economy by St. Catherine of Siena, “conscience always pulls in one direction, and sensuality in the other.”10 Just as our conscience is a witness to our concrete behaviour, as Christians we are called to bear witness to the true nature of our conscience as being the echo of God’s voice.

  1. John Henry Newman, in The Genius of John Henry Newman: Selections from his Writings, ed. Ian Ker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 263.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 40.
  3. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006), 92.
  4. Gaudium et Spes 16, as quoted in CCC 1776.
  5. Newman, “A Grammar of Assent,” in Genius of Newman, 71.
  6. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 352.
  7. CCC 1778.
  8. Newman, “A Grammar of Assent,” in Genius of Newman, 70–71.
  9. Veritatis Splendor 57–58.
  10. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, 90.
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.

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