Conscience as Relationship, Part II

A Dialogue through Which God Takes Us beyond Ourselves


In the second of these two articles on conscience1 it is necessary to look more closely at the inter-personal structure of conscience and to explore, however briefly, its place in an account of human anthropology: the human being in relationship. Just as procreation establishes a relationship between parents and children, so God’s action at the beginning of each one of us “begets” a beginning to our relationship to Him. At the same time, however, as our self-reflection can be subject to all kinds of distorted preoccupations with blame, guilt, or remorse, there is nevertheless a path of truth between our subjective experience of life and the truth through which we recognize sin and its effects; and, furthermore, the principal help to helping us uncover our hidden sin is precisely that “unsettling” effect of the Word of God. In other words, throughout our formation in conscience, we are called to call on God to deliver us from our hidden faults (cf. Ps 19:12). Thus this second article on conscience draws on the help of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Henry Newman, St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis in finding a way to undo an error of conscience.

This second article begins by taking an account of the structure of conscience further (II) and then goes on to examine the natural rebellion of human nature in front of its own wrongdoing and the help of the Word of God in “unsettling” an erroneous conscience: in helping a person who is profoundly unaware of being in error about the truth of the good (III).

Integral to the Person and Witness to the Truth of Our Relationships (II)

Cardinal Ratzinger says that the

first . . . level of . . . conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others.2

On the one hand:

Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices — the exact opposite is the case.3

And on the other hand — bearing in mind that conversion is not just a moment but a constant turning, through conscience, to the truth to be found — Ratzinger also says: “But this way of conscience is everything except a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth.”4

Conscience Is Both “Within” and “Between”

It is possible, however, to consider conscience as some kind of disembodied voice that, while echoing in the depths of each human being, is a kind of “free floating” spiritual presence expressing the relationship between God and each one of us; and, of this, Newman says:

I conceive that we are in danger, in this day, of insisting on neither of these [looking unto Jesus (Heb 2:9), and acting according to His will] as we ought; regarding all true and careful consideration of the Object of faith as barren orthodoxy, technical subtlety . . . and . . . making the test of our being religious to consist in our having what is called a spiritual state of heart.5

Clearly, however, “a spiritual state of [the] heart” can be expressed in terms of faith and obedience; however, here they are being contrasted with it as a kind of state, it seems, abstracted from the reality of faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to His will. In other words, just as modern man is one who, very often, “presupposes the opposition of authority to subjectivity”6 — as if authority is not a service but an imposition on subjectivity and does not have an intrinsic ordering to it — so conscience expresses relationship and, in so doing, expresses the relationship between the Author of life and a particular person, each of whom is a real person in a common relationship to God and to each other. “For Newman[, however], the middle term which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth”;7 and, therefore, there can be decisive moment in the discovery of truth, in discovering that an opportunity “for love” is a counterfeit moment.

A dialogue in conscience, then, as reflected upon earlier, is a decisive moment: it is as if it is a letter to the lonely, a loudspeaker in the fog or the light of a lighthouse on a stormy night. At the same time, however, it is possible that conscience is altogether more intimate than these images communicate. To begin with, if there is an ontological foundation to the existence of the relationship between God and each one of us — a foundation at the level of being created by the Creator — then it follows that just as parents participate in the conception of a child and the child comes to know them, so the act of God which begets each one of us constitutes a concrete beginning to a personal relationship with God. Thus there are many indications of how that relationship between God and I, expressed in terms of the language of a “dialogue-in-conscience,” was there but frustrated and frequently failed to be fruitful in terms of turning me towards His help. Instead, the seductive sway of temptations were more glamorously attractive than the bold truth about not giving in to the lie of incomplete giving — having already long lived the lie that what belongs to others belonged to me and that my relationship was not to others, but was a kind of internal refusal of what was going on between us. In other words, just as there is a concrete expression to the relationship between parents and child, right from the beginning, so there is a concrete relationship between the child and God even if, to begin with, it is often expressed in terms of the parents praying with their child and generally introducing him or her to the mystery of God in a whole variety of ways.

At the same time, whether or not the parents have recognized their relationship to God — and can, therefore, facilitate that of their children, however imperfectly — does not detract from the possibility of God communicating with each one of us. In terms of the reality of a relationship, then, there are all kinds of concrete elements expressed in the dialogue of conscience between each one of us and God; indeed, it is even possible that a love can be planted and, like an isolated plant, escape notice until many years later. Thus, for example, I can remember conceiving an inexplicable love for the Scripture but, in the hustle, bustle, and boredom of life, it never occurred to me to open the Word of God and to read it; and, at the same time, I can remember bursts of prayer as I worked alone in the fields as a youth on a tractor, singing out loud a repetition of the words of simple prayers. But then, like a subsidence, the whole experience passed into the past or went fallow, as it were, and, apart from moments of wondering at the immense interconnectedness of everything, the difficulties of life seemed to increasingly sap the strength to live.

Conscience in the Structure of Human Personhood

But if the relationship to God is founded on His creative action and unfolds like the reality of parenthood, then the intimately interior structure of conscience is not just a kind of sound-box amplifying “the still small voice” of God (1 Kgs 19:12); rather, conscience is a constitutional structure of human being such that, like a musical note is played on the whole instrument, so conscience is integral to the whole of human being. Just as the whole human being is conceived through relationship and is ordered to relationship, so the conscience is a kind of fulcrum expressing the reality of all these relationships. Just as the relationship between the human being and speech centres, as it were, on the articulation of speech in the throat,8 yet the whole person is expressed in what is said; for, in the nature of speech, there is a tone and pace of voice expressing an emotional reaction as a part of a whole range of “relational” facial expressions, gesticulating hand movements, body language, eye contact, and implicit attitudes in conversation or any other kind of communication. So, while the articulation of what is said arises, as it were, out of the throat, it cannot be said that the throat originates what is said; and, therefore, while there is a reflection on a person’s life and relationships it could be said, too, that it is in the conscience that a person articulates what he or she understands to be true. Therefore, as Cardinal Ratzinger says: “Man is in himself a being who has an organ of internal knowledge about good and evil” requiring “formation and education.”9 Truth, however, is structural, it does not materialise out of a relationless universe; rather, it is like a trail of discovery between all that exists and, if expressed in the right spirit, builds up the personal, common good. Thus it is possible to describe conscience as the “organ” of relationship, the lifeblood of which is the truth, both natural and revealed.

The Concrete Circumstances of Conscience

In the context of marriage, then, there is the discussion between the spouses concerning the possibility of conceiving a child which entails all that is known about the circumstances of life, the health and willingness of the spouses, and any broader considerations concerning the welfare of others; and, at the same time, there is the gift of faith: believing that God exists to help His creatures is an indispensable help to couples in the range of all the difficulties of life: illness, poverty, accommodation, work, rejection, and the help of others, and the hope to go on when there does not seem to be a way forward. More specifically the nature of spousal love recognizes that a wife is a gift-to-be-received in the husband’s giving; and, if that gift is not totally given, then it is partly withheld: a partially withheld gift is fraudulently given. There is no equality, then, in a love incompletely given; for, if a love is totally given until death ends it, then it is clear that that person is unequivocally loving — presuming, however imperfectly and in need of being perfected, that the whole of love is present. Conversely, however, if the temporary or otherwise incomplete nature of the intention to love is present, either explicitly or in terms of actual behaviour, then it is clear that the very nature of what is being done “in the name of love” is contrary to it; for, in the end, love is ordered to the whole person and not just to a fragmentary finding of pleasure, the comfort of company or the practicalities of the cost of living.

Thus there cannot be a more equal spousal love than that of the reciprocal self-gift of those who love each other in the gift of marriage.10 In drawing out that love, however, there is a giving once begun which is abandoned to the end. Thus within the very movement of the reciprocal gift of self there is a recognition of the attitude that interiorly completes what is begun: the attitude of being open to life. In other words, even when there is a justified intention to avoid the conception of a child, where a child is conceived, that child is welcomed as the gift that he or she is. Thus the truth of this human action arises out of the very being of the spousal love that transcends each person and expresses the relationship of “being one flesh”: a flesh open to the act of God which brings a person to exist from the first instant of fertilization. Just, then, as truth is integrally necessary to all the movements of heart and mind that make love possible, so the conscience is like the vocal chords which express the whole person’s word of love: of truthfully expressed love.

Acting on the Basis of an Erroneous Conscience (III)

There can be a judgement of conscience, however, that is in error but, owing to the complete ignorance of this fact, the person is non-culpable. Before, then, discussing the formation of conscience and how that formation is implicated, as it were, in coming to a mistaken conclusion about whether a particular action is right or wrong, there is the global situation of human beings rebelling against their own wrongdoing; and, therefore, when we consider various accounts, in addition to my own, of coming to realize the whiplash of sin, we begin to see that human nature rebels against the destruction of life: the heart cries out against the very actions which have harmed it, whether or not the harm to ourselves involves a direct or an indirect harm to another person. In the experience of “living a passing love” there is an anguished pain owing to the very uncertainty surrounding “the being together” temporarily, especially if that involves the inability to enter fully into the abandonment of self-giving and the ambiguity entailed in the possibility of conceiving a child when commitment is unclear, or that a child is unwanted or going to be rejected and yet coming together makes it a likely reality.

Rebelling against Our Own “Wrong Doing”

In the life-style of a woman immersed in the pop industry it was, according the monk who reviewed it, “the story of a soul longing for the absolute; a soul under trial looking for comfort; a soul looking for love in some wrong places but finally making her way to the source of love — the arms of God awaiting her in Christ, Mary, and the Church.”11 In other words, that restlessness which St. Augustine described when he said that “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” was a general expression of an interior relationship that arises out of the very fact that each one of us comes to exist through an act of God. Thus it can be said: “the fundamental claim of Christian anthropology (that God has made us for Himself) explains the fundamental fact of human experience (that our hearts are restless)”;12 indeed, this restlessness resembles the remarkable persistence of those who, not knowing who their first parents were, are almost impelled to a life-long search for who contributed to their existence. It is possible, then, as our experience shows, to look for a “look-a-like love” in the “wrong places”13 and it is also possible that there is a kind of awakening to the “counterfeit” nature of this experience which comes with its own problems of repetition, depression, discouragement, bitterness, suicide, or drugs.

Where the failure of relationships involves the abortive death of a child, there is the whole discovery of a fatherhood14 and a motherhood untimely ended:

She was surprised at her body’s reactions. She felt as though her body betrayed her by grieving, in spite of how her mind was made up, and even though she didn’t believe that the child was anything more than a clump of cells. Her breasts were tender and leaked milk. Her whole being was longing for the dead child. She couldn’t stop crying for days.15

Three Authorities on Erroneous Conscience

Three authorities address the nature of an erroneous conscience: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, plus there are additional, relevant comments from Pope Francis on the help of the Word of God.

It is integral to our human development to educate, to form (cf. CCC 1783–85), and to listen (cf. CCC 1779) to the conscience; and, as a part of that, it is necessary to know and to recognize that “Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes.”16

St. John Paul II says that it is the act of judgment which distinguishes the acts of conscience from other acts.17 An act of judgement, then, lies precisely in judging it to be true that it is right to do good and avoid evil: this general act of judgement is expressed in terms of particular acts. Indeed, by implication, doing good and avoiding evil is integrally required of being and becoming truly human. “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (CCC 1778).

St. Thomas Aquinas says that an erroneous conscience is one which a person believes “to be a right conscience” when it is wrong.18 St. John Paul II calls this an “invincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself.”19 St. Thomas defines the binding nature of an erroneous conscience to be “per accidens, by coincidence.”20 St. Thomas explains this by saying that a “right conscience binds per se”;21 and, precisely because the person holds the mistaken belief that “his” conscience is right, the person is obliged by the precept that a right conscience “binds absolutely and on all occasions.”22 Furthermore, “if the ignorance is invincible . . . [an ignorance of which ‘the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself’]23, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him” (CCC 1793). But then the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say that the evil committed “remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience” (CCC 1793). Of this depth of ignorance, however, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said: “The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper — not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience, but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth.”24

Finally, St. John Paul II says that a non-culpable conscience “continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.”25 Thus there is an implicit relationship between the objective truth that makes an upright conscience binding and, because of “invincible ignorance,” the resemblance of an error to the truth; but, in that very relationship there is, as it were, the possibility of a path between a subjective error and its discovery: the path responding to the “truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.”

The Ongoing Benefit of Listening to the Word of God

In the light of invincible ignorance, then, there is a further consideration to be made; and, indeed, this is not just a remedy, as it were, to invincible ignorance, but a general requirement in the formation of the conscience. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger, St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis speak of the value of the Word of God. Pope Francis speaks of “being ‘unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord’”;26 and, therefore, he is speaking of the “word of the risen Lord” as a unique word which can pass us to where we cannot take ourselves without His help. In dedicating the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time to the Word of God, the Pope goes on to reflect that regularly encountering the Word of God develops our relationship to each other; to the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist; and to the Lord, because: “otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, struck as we are by so many forms of blindness” (Aperuit Illis, no. 8). In other words, if in general we need the Word of God to enlighten us through Christ and the Holy Spirit, how much more do we need to recognize that it has a specific contribution to redressing the “blindness” of being invincibly ignorant of our need of salvation and of the need to be delivered from specific sins.

More specifically Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, citing the tragic blindness of those who have caused the death of many, goes not to say that this “should rouse us to take seriously the earnestness of the plea: ‘Free me from my unknown guilt’ (Ps 19:13).”27 Similarly, St. John Paul II says, in Veritatis Splendor,

before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience, we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: “Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39–41).28

In other words, reaffirming the regular “reception,” as it were, of the Word of God is a general way of specifically forming and reforming our conscience; and, therefore, it is not just that this is a work to be done in front of difficult or doubtfully good decisions but, rather, an existential work: a work of continually benefitting from the dialogue with Christ and Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Whatever proposals there are, then, for implementing the latest of many encouragements to turn more fully to the Word of God, it is worth considering in what way, particularly, one of the charisms of the Church may help us to do this.29

Finally, then, this whole discussion may have indirectly illuminated a number of controversial decisions by Pope Francis which seem, superficially, to challenge established teachings of the Church. Although “abortion,” said Pope Francis, “is never the answer,”30 people can be confused by his actions. Thus, for example, when Pope Francis invites well known advocates of abortion to Vatican conferences it may be that, in practice, it is feared that he is endangering the natural and revealed opposition to the deliberate destruction of life.31 On the contrary, however, it may be that Pope Francis is putting each person in dialogue with the truth precisely because of his emphasis on the actual reality of the human person32 being, as it were, greater than specific points of view, hoping in the help of a dialogue that will benefit all the participants: a dialogue that is hoped to be, in one way or another, in the actively liberating presence of the truth of the Word of God (cf. Heb 4:12).

  1. See Francis Etheredge, “Conscience as Relationship, Part I: General Principles and Personal Experience,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Jan 2020), hprweb.com/2020/01/conscience-as-relationship-part-i/.
  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On Conscience (National Catholic Bioethics Center and Ignatius Press, 2007), 32.
  3. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Presentation by His Eminence Card. Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of the first centenary of the Death of Card. John Henry Newman” (Apr 28, 1990): vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19900428_ratzinger-newman_en.html.
  4. Ratzinger, “Presentation.”
  5. Ratzinger, “Presentation”; Ratzinger is now quoting Newman but gives no reference for the quotation.
  6. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” Communio 37 (Fall, 2010): 530; communio-icr.com/files/ratzinger37-3.pdf.
  7. Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” 530.
  8. Ratzinger, paraphrasing Robert Spaemann, says: “Conscience is an organ . . . because it is something that for us is a given, which belongs to our essence, and not something that has been made outside of us,” and then, a little later on, he says, using Spaemann’s comparison to speech, speech “is formed from outside, but this formation responds to the given of our own nature: that we can express ourselves in language” (Ratzinger, On Conscience, 61).
  9. Ratzinger, On Conscience, 62.
  10. This does not invalidate the marriage of St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary on the basis that a true marriage is a reciprocal gift of self expressed, explicitly, in the selfless love of each other — even if in this instance it entailed the interior purification of that reciprocal love by renouncing the specific, unitive, and procreative expression of it. However, marital tenderness does involve many other aspects other than that of affection ordered to intercourse and, therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that if Joseph and Mary were upset over the loss of Jesus that they naturally comforted and encouraged each other.
  11. Fr. Christian Raab, OSB, “Review: Sunday Will Never Be the Same: A Rock and Roll Journalist Opens Her Ears to God,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Sep 2019): hprweb.com/2019/09/review-sunday-will-never-be-the-same/. The book reviewed is by Dawn Eden Goldstein.
  12. Justin Taylor posted excerpts from the work of Peter Kreeft on St. Augustine’s lines: 1.1.1. See Taylor, “An Analysis of One of the Greatest Sentences Ever Written,” Gospel Coalition (Mar 8, 2017): thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-analysis-of-one-of-the-greatest-sentences-ever-written/.
  13. Fr. Christian Raab, “Review: Sunday Will Never Be the Same.”
  14. This is much less admitted, well known, and written about; but cf. Francis Etheredge, The Prayerful Kiss, which includes among other aspects of this subject a prose and prose-poem account of suffering the loss of a child because of the mother imagining there to be a “bunch of cells”: enroutebooksandmedia.com/theprayerfulkiss/.
  15. From “Betsy’s Abortion Story,” a subsection of an article called “Abortion Stories: Exploding the Myths of Consequence-Free Sex,” by Roseanne T. Sullivan in Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Sep 2019): hprweb.com/2019/09/abortion-stories/.
  16. St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 62.
  17. Veritatis Splendor, nos. 59 and 60.
  18. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 17, a. 4, trans. Fr. George Woodall, and as supplied by him as part of the course content of the Maryvale Institute’s now discontinued MA in Catholic Theology. It is two pages long, so I shall refer to these pages as 1 and 2. This point refers to 2.
  19. Veritatis Splendor, no. 62. This raises the question of “the truth” that can be spoken to a person whose conscience is in a state of invincible ignorance.
  20. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 17, a. 4; Woodall, 2.
  21. Aquinas, Quaestiones, q. 17, a. 4; Woodall, 2.
  22. Aquinas, Quaestiones, q. 17, a. 4; Woodall, 2.
  23. Veritatis Splendor, no. 62. See note 19, above.
  24. Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” 538.
  25. Veritatis Splendor, no. 62.
  26. Quoted from Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 137, by Pope Francis in his “Letter to Priests”: hprweb.com/2019/09/letter-of-his-holiness-pope-francis-to-priests/#fnref-24676-26.
  27. Cardinal Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” 538.
  28. Veritatis Splendor, no. 63.
  29. E.g., the Neocatechumenal Way, prayer and Scripture reading groups, etc.
  30. “Pope Francis: prenatal diagnosis no excuse for abortion,” Vatican News, May 25, 2019: vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-05/pope-francis-yest-to-life-conference-speech.html.
  31. Dorothy Cummings McLean, “Pope Invites Pro-Abortion UN Leaders to Amazon Synod,” Oct 1, 2019: panamazonsynodwatch.info/feature/pope-invites-pro-abortion-un-leaders-to-amazon-synod/.
  32. Cf. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, trans. Andrew Guernsey, “Chapter Eight of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’”: “Pope Francis evaluates reality through the person or, again, he puts the person first, and thereby he evaluates reality. What counts is the person, the rest comes as a logical consequence.” In Homiletic & Pastoral Review (May 2017): hprweb.com/2017/05/chapter-eight-of-the-post-synodal-apostolic-exhortation-amoris-laetitia/.
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); and Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020).

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 co-founder of the Donum Vitae Institute.

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