When I was in a Catholic college many years ago, my moral theology class featured an anthology of essays on various moral choices, pro and con, to provoke classroom discussion. One essay was written by a self-described reverend, arguing that we cannot judge people who commit adultery because people who love each other must follow their consciences. The Church, he said, has no authority over the conscience of the individual.
I recall feeling at the time that something was terribly wrong with such a misuse of the word “conscience,” and I now know that my suspicion was well founded.
A Miserable Counterfeit
A very corrupt variant of the concept of conscience has seeped into popular thought. The embellished meaning draws on an inflated notion of personal autonomy that does not yield to external authority. This modern idea invokes a baseless privilege of the individual to replace universal moral principles with their own subjective sense of right and wrong. So contrary is this view to authentic Church teaching that Pope Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari Vos characterized the error as a deliramentum, meaning a form of madness.
Blessed Cardinal Newman characterized this new variant of conscience as a “miserable counterfeit” for the real thing. He decried the modern understanding of conscience whose proponents “do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases” .
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at one point expressed concern that the new variant of conscience had entered theological discussions as a thinly veiled moral relativism, “a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to elude the clutches of reality and to hide from it” . He outlined how this false idea of conscience exhibits several deceptive qualities. It tends to reject the notion that truth can be known; it refuses to allow itself to be called into question; it seeks its grounding in social opinion; and it considers mere conviction or intensity of feeling to be the ground of right judgment.
The damage done by this counterfeit idea of conscience is compounded by the fact that the Church (rightly) insists that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC 1800). Many who hold the corrupted view of conscience derive a misguided sense of heroism from this instruction, insisting not only that they can make their own rules of right and wrong, but claiming that the Catholic Church requires them to do so.
In the interest of embracing our faith truly and deeply, I would like to offer a brief catechesis on conscience. While the foregoing reflection on the corruption of conscience has identified some warning signs, I would like to focus on the authentic notion of conscience as taught by the Catholic Church, emphasizing the joy and dignity this doctrine offers us in contrast to the inflated self-importance of the corrupted view.
What is Conscience?
The Catechism says that conscience is a judgment of reason which enables us to perceive the universal moral principles, to apply these principles to particular situations, and to judge the moral quality of concrete acts (CCC 1780, summarized).
Perceiving universal moral principles. Notice that conscience is an act of perceiving or recognizing what is good. The universal standard is inscribed in the human heart. At one time the idea of such an inborn capacity was looked upon with suspicion. But let me suggest the analogy of human language. No other species has a language as complex or as powerful as ours. It is an astonishing fact that young children seem to possess a “language acquisition device” because after only brief and limited exposure to examples of language, children acquire the complex rules of syntax faster than would be justified if they learned the rules from mere trial and error.
Similarly, when we observe children playing games, or in social interactions, we notice their spontaneous interest in identifying right and wrong acts. If you are a parent you know this is true. Where does this standard come from? Whereas some psychologists argue that moral conscience is nothing more than children’s internalizing the rules they learn from grownups, I believe the ability to recognize and apply universal moral principles, like the ability to use well-formed human language, comes far too easily and exhibits far too much consistency across cultures to be explained by the mere assimilation of exemplars.
Applying these principles to particular situations. The Catholic doctrine of conscience says the degree of freedom in conscience applies to the practical judgments of what an individual should do here and now in light of objective universal principles. Conscience has no freedom to modify universal principles themselves. If someone were to say that their conscience dictated that adultery is acceptable to him personally from now on, this would be the abnegation of conscience because it denies the standard itself. A moral judgment of conscience looks like this: Human life is a universal good (principle). This situation I face is one in which the dignity of human life is at stake (reason). I choose to do […] in light of this situation (practical judgment). Fill in the blank as you will. That is the exercise of conscience. A baby is left on your doorstep. There are a hundred actions you can take, many of them moral; but if you are Catholic, it is impossible for you to allow her to die.
How do we know what to do in particular situations? The exercise of conscience requires effort on our part not only to discern moral principles, but to attend to details of situations all around us so that we can apply the principles, and ask others for help in discerning what to do. The Catechism affirms “it is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This quality of interiority is all the more necessary as life distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection” (CCC 1779).
Evaluating the moral quality of particular acts as good or evil. Human beings don’t just “do things.” We are given the dignity to evaluate what we do as being good or bad so that we can become better. Take a moment to contemplate this. This miraculous gift of being able to discern what is good and evil was granted, not to the great swimmers like the dolphins, or the strongest animals such as the elephants, but to the modest, soft-spoken species with intelligence, the species that drops whatever it is doing to build a tube to fit in a half-mile-deep tunnel to rescue 33 Chilean miners whose wives are waiting above ground praying rosaries and invoking the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We don’t just seek the good, we seek heroic good. What a privilege it is to be human. This is why I am Catholic.
Conversely, when we do what is wrong, or allow evil to occur due to our inaction, we feel remorse. The “pangs of conscience” are not meant to demoralize us but to point us toward hope. To remind us we still have a duty to do what is good, and to develop virtue. The Catechism teaches that the painful judgments of conscience are in fact witnesses to the universal truth of the good (CCC 1781). The very fact that conscience holds us responsible for our actions confirms that we are placed on this earth for beatitude, that we must ask forgiveness, and most importantly, that we can be forgiven.
Imagine a life without knowing these truths. It would consist in the dull calculation of the likely utilities of our potential actions, without a shred of the sense of the creative love we Catholics know, or the opportunity for growth that conscience affords. The Godless existence would be the lethargic fulfillment of basic human needs through a faceless bureaucracy that calculates the cost/benefit of rescuing the trapped miners and renders its decision based on an impersonal utilitarian formula.
If you are Catholic, your calling is higher than that.
 John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” Lecture V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching.
 Ratzinger, J. (2005). Values in a time of upheaval. (Chapter 5: Conscience and truth). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
© 2013. Jeff McLeod. All Rights Reserved.