Conscience as Relationship, Part I

General Principles and Personal Experience

As regards the discernment of what is actually good amidst the multitude of the many possible goods arising out of the “results of physics, genetics, and neuroscience, as well as of increasingly powerful computing capabilities, [and the] profound interventions on living organisms [that] are now possible” (Humana Communitas, 12), there is a work of moral conscience which, “for the believer, is part of his or her relationship with the Lord Jesus, in the desire to put on the mind of Christ in our actions and choices (cf. Phil 2:5)” (HC 12). In other words, there is both a dialogue between all people with respect to the true value of these developments for the good of human life (HC 11) and, at the same time, a particularly explicit dialogue between the believer and Christ: a dialogue which involves and draws upon the triple gift of Scripture, the Magisterium, and Tradition (cf. Dei Verbum 10). What is the dynamic good that is able to contribute in the widest and most comprehensive way to determining what it is right to do, both in the lives of each of us and in the course of the common life of mankind as a whole? Right action, then, informed by the truth about what exists and the dynamic nature of the good, a good both for man and his planetary home, is at the same time a religious act intimately and mysteriously taken up into the divine transfiguration of creation (cf. Lumen Gentium 16, Gaudium et Spes 36). Thus, while moral questions are generally immersed in the mentality of the times in which we live, they yet need an answer which, as it were, speaks out of the total good of human being-in-relation to God and to each other. From whatever perspective, then, we consider the times in which we live, the nature of the human person, and the exercise of human conscience, we are inescapably and immeasurably immersed in the mystery of our relationship to one another through which we come to the inseparably personal and common good. We live, however, amidst a particular crisis around whether or not it is possible to understand the relationship between human nature and being open to life — but this can also be expressed as a crisis about reacting to “being open to life” as if it is like an imposition: as if it is as impossible as carrying a weight, even the weight of a cross, which exceeds our strength — as if “being open to life” has no relationship to a person’s interiority or to the relationship between husband and wife. In other words, “being open to life” is seen as a coercive principle, bringing with it neither enlightenment nor good for the married couple.

These articles, then, are about expressing the possibility that the moral norm, being open to life, is not an exterior imposition on the human being but arises exactly out of the interiority of the whole person-in-action; indeed, this view of what happens chimes with a recently articulated account of conscience as “not just a faculty for applying a general norm to a concrete case, but which involves the whole person.”1 Thus there is a clear contrast between the possibility of a “general norm” being presented as if by “the theoretical intellect to the will so that it might carry it out”2 and an “embodied norm”3 of being open to life arising out of the very integrity of human being-in-relationship. Indeed, “being open to life” is an embodied norm that does not just arise out of a single person but arises out of the very mystery of human being-in-relationship: the covenantal relationship of husband and wife: the reality of husband and wife living in the transforming presence of the interrelationship of Christ and His Church. The nature of conscience is discussed, therefore, from the point of view of relationship: that conscience is where the truth of our relationship to God and to each other is expressed; and, therefore, it is possible to ask the corresponding question: Is it true that the more undeveloped our relationships are, the more insensitive we are to the workings of conscience? To which question the then-Cardinal Ratzinger said: “Whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill, ‘a living corpse, a dramatic character’s mask,’ as Gorres says.”4

In the first part of these two articles there is an exploration of the general theme of “Conscience as Relationship” and which unfolds, as it were, the nature of conception in the perspective of the resurrection. There then follows a reflection on personal experience: the limits of our rational reflection on our experience and the “meeting place,” as it were, between truth and Revelation, where conversion is understood to be an action of God that changes us because we have been “unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.”5

In the Perspective of the Resurrection

Just as the original gift of creation entailed the grace to fulfil it, the grace which made possible the intercommunion between God and man, so we are now living in the perspective of having lost that original grace — but which, because of the “passion of God” for redeeming humanity, is in the process of being given to us afresh: “The mystery of Christ’s cross — ‘for us and for our salvation’ — and resurrection — as ‘the firstborn of many brothers’ (Rom 8:29) — tells us the extent to which God’s passion is directed to the redemption and full flourishing of human beings.”6 Thus, in the words of Pope Francis, our lives are in the perspective of the redemption, which is the perspective of the “resurrection in the very process of occurring”: “Every detail of the life of the body and of the soul, in which the love and redemptive power of the new creation shine forth within us, leads to amazement before the miracle of a resurrection in the very process of occurring (cf. Col 3:1–2)” (HC 13). It is in this perspective of the “resurrection in the very process of occurring” that the reality of conscience is to be investigated.

Conscience, then, in the perspective of the “resurrection in the very process of occurring,” is in the context of the “resurrection [of the person] in the very process of occurring”; indeed, as a person is a human being-in-relationship, then ultimately the individual’s resurrection is in the context of God’s gratuitously saving renewal of mankind. In other words, there cannot be the occurrence of the resurrection of the individual except in the context of the ongoing resurrection of us all. Radically, then, there needs to be an openness of the individual to his or her participation, as it were, in the ongoing process of the general resurrection: a relationship founded through conception, our union with Christ in virtue of the Incarnation7 and indeed because of all the gifts He gives us — from creation’s flowering through to the manifesting of the glory of eternal life.

The Founding of a Relationship to God

God is a “living dialogue” (cf. Gn 1:26) that expresses a truly mysterious reality of the reciprocal gift of being; and, therefore, so the mystery of marriage, derived as it is from the mystery of God (cf. Gn 1:27), is also a “living dialogue” which expresses the language of man and woman being “one flesh” (Gn 2:24). In other words, the very nature of man and woman being “one flesh” imitates the unity and diversity of the Blessed Trinity, and founds the necessity of understanding the whole reality of marriage in view of that original act of creation. Indeed, as Pope Francis says: “The relationship between man and woman is the primary place where all creation speaks with God and bears witness to his love.”8 Thus Pope Francis invites us to consider the primary experience of procreation in order to find a language which speaks anew to the problems of our time:

To appreciate the meaning of human life, we should begin with the experience of procreation. . . . The primordial reality of our ‘flesh’ precedes and makes possible all further consciousness and reflection, preventing us from thinking that we are the source of our own existence” (HC 9)

Thus, even if we have been “inadequately” loved, we are still called by the very nature of the gift of being given life to give as we have received (HC 9).

This article follows, then, with a specific consideration of principles and experience (I). The next article will go on to develop an account of the conscience as integral to the person and as a witness to the truth of our relationships (II); and, drawing on St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict VI, and Pope Francis, of the conscience and the word of God that entails a dynamic relationship that could prompt, possibly, the “un-doing” development of an erroneous conscience (III).

Conscience Expresses the Human
Being-in-Relation: Principles and Experience (I)

In view of the action of God at the conception of each one of us (cf. Humanae Vitae 13) it is possible to say that this is an ontological foundation for the existence of the possibility of a dialogue between the creature and the Creator; and, therefore, what is called conscience is a concrete expression of the relationship to God which arises out of conception:

Conscience is the inner voice in a man that moves him to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the ability to distinguish the one from the other. In the conscience God speaks to man.9

This relationship to God, however, exists in view of the redemption that Christ brings through His whole saving work and, therefore, situates that dialogue with God amidst a whole variety of voices. There is, then, the voice of truth which, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is a work of the Holy Spirit; and, as the Second Vatican Council says:

All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace . . . [the truth] and hold on to it as they come to know it. . . .

. . . Truth [, however,] can impose itself on the mind only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power. (Dignitatis Humanae, 1)

The sources of truth are many and varied, beginning with the dynamic interrelationship of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (Dei Verbum 10); however, there are many other sources of truth which can, as it were, be critically drawn from philosophy, psychology, embryology, and indeed every other subject in existence. At the same time there is often a personal example, conversation, a piece of advice, a maxim, a story, a film, an art work, or a piece of music, whether or not it includes songs which, in their own way, induce the truth in us like the induction of an electric current and animates the gathering of an immense, kaleidoscopic combination of insights which, ultimately, jostle and jumble down into an ever-enrichable communication of reality.

In the course, however, of recognizing, distilling, and bringing together the many illuminations of the lights of life, there are also the struggles that reveal the weakness and need of strength in the daily living out of what is good (cf. CCC 1776–89). Therefore, we do not exist except in terms of a conflict within us, as St. John Paul II says, quoting an early Father of the Church: “Saint Augustine, after speaking of the observance of the commandments as being a kind of incipient, imperfect freedom, goes on to say. . . . ‘I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God, we are free, while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves’ (27).”10 In other words, even when God makes possible “the observance of the commandments,” there is still an ongoing work of passing between slavery and the perfection of freedom-through-service.

Thus there are the many voices expressing a variety of difference possibilities, beginning with the incoherent but persuasive point that there is no truth. It is incoherent to claim that there is no truth because, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, if it is true that there is no truth, then it is true that there is truth. Similarly, the claim that there are personal truths, while evocative of recognizing that I am called to marriage but you are called to the priesthood, is still deceptively attractive in a more widespread and dizzying way that makes people think that there is nothing universally true.

Reasoning’s Struggle to Learn from Failing to Love

On the one hand, then, there is the help of reason amidst the very conflicting possibilities that arise; indeed, deep within us is the very hope of an everlasting love — which suffers a shrivelling recoil in the disappointment of discovering ourselves deceived by the bright opportunities that fail in the flowering. In other words, without fully realizing it, we may have turned away from the word in our hearts to refuse an invitation to be seduced by a momentary meeting and put ourselves, however dazzled by an opportunity of a look-alike-love, through the door of no-return — like the hand trapped in the curved-up bowl that cannot release what it has gripped or the lobster that cannot back out of the lobster-pot. All the ensuing disappointment, belated understanding of the value of that hiddenly uttered “no,” unravelling a life hitherto still struggling against seeking secret, shameful pleasures is suddenly, like the slipping of a rock on a precarious hillside, sliding down to pits that would be plunged if they were waste.

Reason, however, struggling against the heart’s slippage, struggling in failure’s fumes instead of air, still struggles against the dying of love’s light like the flower it was hoped to be withering without being watered with what gives life to love; and, in the gasping of the years that followed, grasping the counterfeit nature of gifts passing for the self-gift of love until, almost exhausted, it becomes clear that the truth of giving what was not completely given has chained the giver to a compulsively incomplete giving. But in the very triumph of reason’s discovery of the truth of love’s failures is the creeping despair that comes with being unable to flee the fetters that were dressed in so many delightful disguises until, gradually, the heart-breaking truth broke through and failure upon failure to love forced the possibility of extinguishing life as the only freedom left from a life manacled to failing to live a lasting love.

In a world, however, where many people fall together and melt, as it were, in each other’s weaknesses, there are many arguments for accepting that the truth of everlasting love is a kind of mirage beyond the reach of the reality of human life; and, in a sense, this is true for those of us who turned from the voice that voiced the “no” for our salvation — even if there is a kind of optimism which begets another hope, another relationship in the almost indestructible hope of love. But now experience shows that there is no possibility of rewinding the past to the present in that what is present is precisely because of the past; rather, experience shows that there is only the past’s ongoing shackling of the present: an inescapably open, wounded longing for love that is increasingly unreachable.

The Lord’s Answering Pity (Cf. Mt 9:36)

On the other hand, the truth that comes to meet us comes in various ways, beginning with the reality of brokenness: of being unable to be chaste; being unable to fend off the fear of marriage; or fearing, even more, the demands of parenthood. At the same time, the undeniable experience of suffering the loss of a child through the mother believing there to be a “blob of cells” that she did not want is not in itself a remedy to the sin out of which the gift of the child arose; indeed, the reality of discouragement, depression, hopelessness grows deeper with the impact of the path of life crumbling underfoot. The sacrament of reconciliation, while helpful, turns into a turnstile as going in and coming out repeats repeatedly. The wisdom of the Church, communicating the wholesome nature of love as-a-gift-to-be-given in marriage, was like the thumping on the chest of a man suffering a heart attack; and, if he survived, he knew that although he had not died the cause was still untreated and threatened to repeat the experience or bring about a further deterioration, in this case, in his moral health.

In a word, then, there came a point when the Word of God began to act in a different way; hitherto there had appeared to me many images of the Lord — as Shepherd, as the Crucified, as the One Crowned with Thorns — but whatever consolation there was to these experiences, it did not last. These “image-words” were, as it were, without a mounting which made them more visible and influential in my life; indeed, as it was, they were a bit like treasure that ended up in a dusty and cobwebby psyche. Many years on I came into contact with the Neocatechumenal Way and with the Scriptures, so a different kind of communication came to exist: the inspired word of God written, very often, through many and varied types of human experience; and, at the World Meeting of Youth in Denver, Colorado, the words of Christ stood out as St. John Paul II proclaimed, “I come to give you life and life to the full” (Jn 10:10). Although I listened to many more words and indeed thought them to be enlightening my life there came a point when, unexpectedly, I found myself in the Gospel of the man who had been invited to the Wedding Feast of the King and who had not changed his clothes and was thrown out of the wedding feast (cf. Mt 22:1–14). At this point, then, I left the Neocatechumenal Way and understood, afterwards, that the Lord had thrown me out as I was without a change of heart. No human being had said to me that I cannot continue coming to hear the word of God; but, nevertheless, I experienced leaving and, as the Scripture says of the man who goes back to his sins, I was like a dog who went back to his vomit (cf. Prov 26:11). The experience of going back to that vomit was excruciatingly horrible and began to convince me of the existence of sin and of being a sinner. Up to now, although it was clear that I was frustrated in my attempts to do what was right, to complete a course of study and to find lasting work or a vocation, it was not so clear what was what at the root of all this disorder; but, through the word I received, I was beginning to see that I was more than a man without faith and indeed a broken Christian — I was a sinner in need of salvation. Thus I had begun to experience what has been described as being “unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.”11

There then came a point, like the prodigal son sat amidst the pigs’ food (cf. Lk 15:11–32), of wondering yet again about the possibility of yet more unsatisfying sin, the imagined if illusory relief of the possibility of madness or a suicidal hopelessness in front of the difficulties of getting anywhere with a line of training, work, or relationships. If, then, the first word that spoke to me was a kind unveiling of the root problem of being asleep to the reality of sin and the need of salvation, my experience of the word which followed a year or more later was like an antidote: If God can create everything from nothing, He can make a new beginning for the sinner (cf. CCC 298). For, without effort, this word passed into my life like a rainbow — opening on a real relationship to God the Helper which had never made itself so plain to me as when the present became a past that plotted the many gifts of that help. The many gifts of old events disclosing their significance, new words coming through pilgrimages, new events showing through the completion of a course of study, marriage and family life, and the community of the Church to accompany the me of “us”. In other words, being “unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord” could not be a more positive experience; and, as it unfolds, it unfolds in the presence of all the joys and difficulties of life, both individually and amidst marriage, family life, social relationships, and the events of the day in the daily life of our society and world.

  1. Carlo Casalone, SJ, “Humana Communitas: Human life in the drama of relationships”, La Civilta Cattolica, English Edition, vol. 3, no. 4 (Apr. 2019), p. 12, as found at Originally published by La Civilta Cattolica, it was posted on the web notification of—milan-may-6-2019.htmla conference on Pope Francis’s Letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Humana Communitas, (hereafter HC).
  2. Casalone, “Humana Communitas,” 12.
  3. Cf. Etheredge, “Being Open to Life — Abstract Norm or Embodied Word”, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Jan. 2018),; and as included in Etheredge, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends, chap. 4, part III; and, finally, these articles are particularly indebted, especially in its final section, to Etheredge, From Truth and truth: Volume I – Faithful Reason (2016), chap. 3.
  4. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On Conscience (National Catholic Bioethics Center and Ignatius Press, 2007), 18, with a quotation on 78 from A. Gorres, “Schuld und Schuldgefahle,” in Internationale katholische Zeitschrift “Communio” 13 (1984): 434.
  5. Quoted from Gaudete et Exsultate 137, by Pope Francis in his “Letter to Priests”, fn. 26,
  6. HC, preamble, para. 1.
  7. Gaudium et Spes 22: “For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.”
  8. HC, preamble, para. 2.
  9. YOUCAT, 295; cf. also CCC 1776.
  10. Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 17, quoting from St. Augustine, see fn. 27: In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 41, 10: CCL 36, 363.
  11. Quoted from Gaudete et Exsultate 137, by Pope Francis in his “Letter to Priests”, fn. 26,
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    These essays, this one and the one to follow, are both a simplification and development of a longer and more difficult piece of work on the reality of an erroneous conscience (chapter 3 in Volume 1: Faithful Reason, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (