Conscience: Christ’s Whisper in Our Moral Life

Elijah, who is “very jealous for the Lord” (1 Kgs 19:4, 14), meets the Lord on Mount Horeb. On the mount, a powerful wind blows, then an earthquake shakes the ground, and then a fire erupts; however, the Lord is not in these great “voices.” Instead, the Lord is in the “a still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12) coming from a cave. In recognition of God’s presence in this tiny whisper, Elijah covers his face with a mantle and stands before the cave (1 Kgs 19:13). This whisper is an image of conscience. We all have God’s whisper within our hearts, but similarly, numerous loud voices compete for our attention and may drown out this whisper.

Guided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), this brief article explores two key questions: 1) what is conscience? 2) and what is its role in the moral life? In the first section, conscience is defined, in addition to the need of having it both formed and informed. In the second section, the paramount importance of conscience for the moral life is discussed.

Little whisper, who or what are you?

The Catechism states that when a person listens to conscience “the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777) For the believing Christian, the exploration of conscience starts here, for if conscience had been anything else other than God’s voice, it would not be that important. It would have been just another voice in an ever noisier world. However, conscience is unlike the voices of the world, which say one thing and later another. Moral conscience urges us “at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil.” (CCC 1777) Yet the term “conscience” has become muddled with things that are not what the Catholic understanding of moral conscience is.

In the post-Freudian world, conscience has come to mean many diverse things, but it has been particularly confused with the superego.1 To untangle this confusion, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the Freudian triple-layered understanding of personality. In Freudian psychology, the id is where our unconscious pleasures reside and drives us in an instinctual manner; the ego is our conscious self and mediates the id, societal demands, and the reality of the world around us; and the superego is the ego of another — typically our parents’ — superimposed over our own ego, and uses guilt to censor acts.2 Hence, if conscience were to be understood in terms of the superego, it would essentially be a sense of approval or disapproval; merely the result of psychological conditioning.3

The Catholic understanding, however, teaches that conscience “bears witness to the authority of truth,” (CCC 1777) not psychological conditioning. The Fathers of Vatican Council II state that within conscience, our “most secret core” and “sanctuary,” we “discover a law,” “a law inscribed by God” in our hearts which we “must obey.”4 Indeed, inside conscience, we “are alone with God whose voice echoes” in our hearts.5 It is in this sense that John Henry Cardinal Newman observed that “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”6

Nevertheless, such a “voice” cannot be understood as an exterior voice — either divine or diabolical — that intrudes or competes with our usual human process of reasoning.7 The “voice” of conscience is not a rival nor a substitute for moral decision-making. As now-Archbishop Anthony Fisher remarks, should we experience such exterior voices commanding us, a visit to a doctor or an exorcist would be wise.8

Rather, this “voice” is interior, for “Conscience is a judgment of reason.” (CCC 1778) By this judgment we are able to “recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC 1778) that we intend to perform, while undertaking an act, or on reflection of a past act. In this sense, conscience is not a special virtue; it is prudence in action, making judgment over what is right and what is wrong.9 Indeed, one who acts in conformity with such judgment, “We call that man prudent.” (CCC 1780)

Furthermore, to deepen our understanding, conscience can be said to be composed of three dimensions or acts. Firstly, there is synderesis or the perception of principles of morality; secondly, there is the application of such moral principles into given circumstances via practical discernment of the goods and reasons involved; and thirdly, there is the final judgment of the actual acts to be undertaken or which have already been undertaken. (CCC 1780) These three dimensions have been summarized respectively as: capacity, process, and judgment.10

Synderesis is the above-mentioned “voice” and the principles of morality — God’s laws — are, in a sense, given to us “under the gentle disposition of divine Providence.”11 This first dimension of conscience provides us with an awareness of moral truth or the first principles of practical morality and practical reasoning.12 These principles are our base for self-criticism in addition to social criticism; hence these principles can redirect us against self-interest or social pressures. However, these principles cannot give specific directions, only general guidelines.13 According to St. Jerome, synderesis is the conscience that survived the Fall.14

The second dimension of conscience — conscience as the application of moral principles into situations — requires habits of mind, namely prudence, as the mind often has to contend against temptations, confusion and dilemmas.15 However, conscience is not just a mental exercise but aims to moral actions; real choices under real-life situations by real people, like you and me.

In undertaking real choices, therefore, the third dimension of conscience, that of a final judgment of the actual acts, plays its part. This dimension is our conclusive and best judgment about a concert act to be done, or that has been done in the past.16 When St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians employ the Latin term conscientia, they are usually referring to this dimension of conscience.17 Indeed, conscientia can mean both “consciousness” and “conscience,” and this is particularly instructive as conscience is a special form of self-awareness. It makes us aware of ourselves as moral beings and, thus, summons us to act accordingly.18

It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that “conscience is the proximate subjective rule of all human acts.”19 In other words, we must follow our conscience faithfully in all we do or say. (CCC 1778) On this, the Church is following St. Paul in Romans 14:13-23 where he teaches that despite Christians being free from the Mosaic food regulations, they nonetheless must eat in accordance to their “good faith”; thus should a Christian believe that they are still bound to such regulations, St. Paul indicates they must follow their conscience, “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).

Some may think this means that we can just do what we please as long as “conscience” tells us it is okay. Such people mistake following their “conscience” as a way to disregard authority and thereby be a law unto themselves.20 But this is not the case. Conscience is not the source of moral laws. Nor can conscience conclude independently whether an act is good or evil.21 Rather, conscience is how we are able to participate in the eternal and divine laws of God.22 Indeed, to follow our conscience in accordance with the dignity bestowed in our humanity “implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience.” (CCC 1780)

Therefore, to participate in God’s laws, we first need to seek to know them; we need to form our conscience. As the Catechism highlights, “The education of the conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin.” (CCC 1783) This is a lifelong process of conversion to God’s call which is to seek the truth.23 In this way, a formed conscience is one that has been taught and is motivated to desire the good, one that can distinguish what is truly good from something that is only merely good.24

It is only such a formed conscience that can be properly informed. When making judgments of conscience, we must, as much as possible, obtain all relevant information about the situation. This information includes both facts of the matter and the objective moral principles that apply in that given situation.25 Fortunately, we are not alone in seeking such information. We are continually “assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC 1785) The Catechism further adds that the information we use to inform our conscience we ought to “assimilate it in faith and prayer.” (CCC 1785)

The proper role of conscience in the moral life

Having provided an exploration of what is conscience, in this second section its proper role in the moral life is discussed. From the above section, it has been seen that we can fail our conscience (and thereby sin) in one of two ways: 1) by failing to inform our conscience, 2) or by not simply following our informed conscience.26 Hence, unlike the simplification of some theologians, the rule of conscience is not “follow your conscience” but rather “form and inform your conscience as best and objectively as you can, then follow your conscience.”27 Yet this poses the question: can our conscience go astray?

As the Catechism indicates: “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgement that departs from them.” (CCC 1786) Therefore, our conscience can go astray.

Here it is important to distinguish between objective morality and subjective morality. The former refers to whether an act actually helps or hinders achieving true happiness (ultimately, friendship with God, for we are made for Him) and the common good of others, while the latter refers to our honest belief about whether an act is a helpful or harmful means to achieving said goals of true happiness and the common good.28 Moreover, formally speaking, morality consists of whether subjectively our acts are good or bad, yet even our honest errors of conscience, although not sin, still cause harm, both to ourselves and others.29 Therefore, it does not suffice to be only subjectively good. We must make the effort to be both subjectively and objectively good; otherwise, our errors become sinful due to our foolishness.30 Perhaps an adaptation of the story of Huckleberry Finn may be illustrative.

In a particular scene of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), we find the protagonist, Huck Finn, in a raft with his friend Jim, travelling down the Mississippi River. Jim is a runaway slave and plans to buy out or otherwise steal his wife and children out of slavery. Huck has lived all his life in rural Missouri and his conscience is only informed by the principles of this place and time: that black people can be slaves, that slaves are owned by their owners, and that runaway slaves ought to be returned to their “rightful” owners. Hence, as Huck travels with Jim, his conscience is in conflict. Huck has never questioned these principles, so for him, turning Jim back to the authorities is simply the correct and proper way to act.31 In the end, Huck does help Jim to liberty, yet he thinks of himself as a failure; as a weak and wicked man for letting his sympathies for Jim win over his conscience and “duty.”32

However, what if Huck was “strong,” in accord with his conscience, and would have handed Jim to the authorities; would his conscience lead him to sin? In such a case, Huck would have done subjective good yet objectively acted wrongly — as people cannot be owned nor enslaved (CCC 2414). If Huck would have acted in ignorance, but an ignorance that could have been corrected and informed without much trouble, he would be guilty of sin. “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility.” (CCC 1790) In such a case Huck’s conscience would be said to be vincible.33

On the other hand, should Huck be unable to correct his conscience, his ignorance would be defined as invincible.34 The Catechism teaches that should a person be with invincible ignorance, “the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him”; however, “it remains no less an evil.” (CCC 1793) Thus, although not blameworthy for the wrongdoing, the person must nonetheless strive “to correct the errors of moral conscience.” (CCC 1793)

It should be observed from the above that in both circumstances (vincible and invincible ignorance), Catholic moral theology holds that when people make concrete ethical decisions, each person is responsible for their actions, and such responsibility cannot be delegated to anyone nor anything else (e.g. advisors, religious or civil leaders, laws or customs).35 As Proverbs 13:1 state: “A wise child loves discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” Therefore, we ought to be like the “wise child,” learning from “discipline,” not only to avoid sin but to live the moral life.

In the first section, it was said that conscience makes us self-aware of our nature as moral beings. Conscience in the moral life summons us the be truly whom we are supposed to be; to be fully human as God wills us to be.36 It is by acting in accordance with conscience that we become who we truly are. That is, being Christ-like. Additionally, it means to accept “discipline.” We ought not to forget that Christ said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (Mt 5:17)

So akin to John Paul II’s two-wing description of faith and reason, the moral life requires both conscience and the teachings of the magisterium. As followers of Christ, we must seek biblical instruction as interpreted by the tradition of the Church.37 For the Catholic — the Church being “the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) — the moral teachings of the magisterium are an indispensable resource.38 Like two wings, conscience and magisterial instructions would be useless without the other. It would be akin to having a measuring tape without measurement markings, or laws without courts to interpret them. Hence, the only way to understand the proper role of conscience in the moral life is to understand it as one of two necessary wings. This is how we fly in the moral life.

Yet there is one main enemy in our flight of the moral life: the capital sin of sloth. The slothful person cannot be faithful to a relationship or cause as they are uncommitted. This, in turn, means that they are unable to form and inform their conscience due to an inability to care or take interest in things that one ought to.39 Moreover, the slothful person refuses to be moved, a total refusal to the good as it is too hard; thus preventing true growth of the person.40 Such a person has “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel [ . . . ] enslavement to one’s passions [ . . . ] rejection of the Church’s authority and her teachings, lack of conversion and of charity.” (CCC 1792) Only an authentic spirituality, based on the Eucharist and prayer, can build a relationship with God, and thus maintain our disposition to lifelong forming and informing of our conscience, thereby readying us for the moral life.41

Conclusion

This article has explored the complexities of what conscience is, and how having it both formed and informed is paramount for the moral life. Let us conclude with a final illustration of the interaction of these elements. We all have heard the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun [ . . . ] Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” (Mt 17:2-3; also Mk 9:2-4, Lk 9:29-30).

Why did both Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, indeed, speaking with Him? Through Moses (and now through the Church) we receive the Torah, God’s divine laws and commandments. Elijah, as we saw in the introduction to this article, was able to discern God’s whispering voice (conscience) from the cave. Jesus is in the center, between them both. If the moral life is to be living life in imitation of Christ, we must be in constant lifelong dialogue with both God’s law and His “voice” in our conscience. It is only then that we may also be “transfigured” into the human person God truly intended us to be.

  1. William E. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 2nd ed. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2003), 57.
  2. Richard M. Gula, “Conscience,” in Christian Ethics: An Introduction, ed. Bernard Hoose (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 111.
  3. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 57.
  4. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (7 December 1965), n. 16, in Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, New Revised Edition, ed. A. Flannery (Dublin, Ireland: Dominican Publications, 1992).
  5. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, n. 16.
  6. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (1885): 248, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, English translation. 2nd ed. (1997), n. 1778.
  7. Anthony Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 39.
  8. Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium, 39.
  9. Benedict M. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology (New York: Fathers and Brothers of the Society of St. Paul, 1996), 118.
  10. Gula, “Conscience,” 113.
  11. Vatican Council II, Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration on Religious Liberty, (7 December 1965), n. 3, in Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, New Revised Edition, ed. A. Flannery (Dublin, Ireland: Dominican Publications, 1992).
  12. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 59.
  13. Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium, 48.
  14. Kenneth R. Himes, “The Formation of Conscience: The Sin of Sloth and the Significance of Spirituality,” in Spirituality and Moral Theology, ed. James Keating (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2000), 60.
  15. Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium, 48–49.
  16. Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium, 49.
  17. Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for the New Millennium, 49.
  18. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 60.
  19. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 118.
  20. Gula, “Conscience,” 114.
  21. Gula, “Conscience,” 114.
  22. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 57.
  23. Gula, “Conscience,” 115.
  24. Himes, “The Formation of Conscience: The Sin of Sloth and the Significance of Spirituality,” 72–73.
  25. Benedict M. Ashley and Kevin D. O’Rourke, Ethics of Health Care: An Introductory Textbook, 3rd. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 61.
  26. Ashley and O’Rourke, Ethics of Health Care, 61.
  27. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 119.
  28. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 119.
  29. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 119.
  30. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 119.
  31. Jonathan Bennett, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,” Philosophy 49 (1974): 3.
  32. Jonathan Bennett, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,” 4.
  33. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 119.
  34. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 118.
  35. Ashley and O’Rourke, Ethics of Health Care, 61.
  36. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 62.
  37. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, 120.
  38. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, 64.
  39. Himes, “The Formation of Conscience: The Sin of Sloth and the Significance of Spirituality,” 63–64.
  40. Himes, “The Formation of Conscience: The Sin of Sloth and the Significance of Spirituality,” 64–65.
  41. Himes, “The Formation of Conscience: The Sin of Sloth and the Significance of Spirituality,” 68.
Eric Manuel Torres About Eric Manuel Torres

Eric Manuel Torres is a Catholic moral theologian and bioethicist with a background in health care. Based in Melbourne, Australia, he is currently completing a doctorate (PhD) from Catholic Theological College/University of Divinity. He holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences and a Master of Orthoptics from La Trobe University, a Master of Nursing Science from the University of Melbourne, a Graduate Diploma of Theology and a Master of Theological Studies from Catholic Theological College/University of Divinity, and a Graduate Certificate of Specialist Inclusive Education from Deakin University. He also holds a Certificate III in Business Administration.

Comments

  1. Avatar Regina Perry says:

    Thank you Eric for this teaching.

  2. Avatar Eric Manuel Torres says:

    A keen reader has observed a lapsus in my article. Instead of “Ratzinger’s two-wing description of faith and reason”, it should be John Paul II’s two-wing description of faith and reason. In the preamble to his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II wrote “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

  3. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Thank you Eric for this well researched article on “conscience”. If only more could read it and live it, the world would be a much better place. The future Pope Benedict XVI wrote a book years ago that I believe was titled “On Conscience” that I highly recommend. Best wishes and please continue to serve Christ and his Church.

    • Avatar Eric Manuel Torres says:

      Thank you Tom for your very kind words. Yes, Ratzinger’s ‘On Conscience’ is an excellent work, containing two of his essays/talks on this important subject. God bless!

  4. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    You have made good use of the Scripture in your discussion of conscience; and, as such, I particularly like the contrast between the ‘whisper’ and the ‘noise’ from the biblical account of Elijah’s encounter with God. There is, however, a further account of the value of the word of God which is that of its power to “disrupt” a mistaken conscience; go to Part II of Conscience-as-Relationship for the further details: https://www.hprweb.com/2020/02/conscience-as-relationship-part-ii/.
    God bless, Francis.

    • Avatar Eric Manuel Torres says:

      Thank you Francis for your comment and for the link to your article. God bless you and your family!

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