My last offering was about St. Thomas More, a martyr for faith and conscience in 16th century England. It is really a wonderful story – I encourage you to take a few minutes and read it, if you have not already ……
A person’s conscience is his or her integrity and identity. As I said in the article on St. Thomas More, one’s conscience cannot be taken away. It can only be given away – forfeited – to another. Thomas More’s conscience on an important moral and spiritual matter was forced down by the very King of England, Henry VIII. Our moral and spiritual consciences are forced down whenever someone (an employer, the government, even a religious figure!) does not recognize our freedom of conscience.
What is conscience, and why is it so important?
A authority on conscience that you would expect a Catholic priest to cite is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here are some excerpts from the Catechism that will help us understand what conscience is. I will then try to offer some further explanation.
The catechism states that:
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. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
Conscience, then, is the place where we understand truth, understand human situations, and make choices on how to act. It is the place where we are responsible.
How does the process of using one’s conscience work?
The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment. CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) 1780
Conscience, then, is the place in the human person’s mind and heart where a person applies principles to a concrete situation. The person makes a choice based on a standard they believe to be true. The person tries to assess the circumstances of the concrete situation to find out where the true principle is at work, or where the true principle is being violated. A person must be allowed freedom to perform this process! It is violation of human dignity to do otherwise. To violate this process in another is to degrade them.
Where do we find true moral principles to inform our actions?
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. CCC 1784
Catholics use the principles of reason given by our God who created us, and the principles of faith given by that one and the same God who revealed Himself to us. God gives us the power of knowing reasonable principles, and the ability of knowing Divine Truth about who God is and what God wills. Non-Christians may use reasonable principles, even while not being able to grasp the faith principles.
It is important to note that conscience does not mean that each person is able to create their own “reality”. Or in other words, each person does not have their own personal “truth” that is just as true as another’s “truth”. Conscience, rather, means that each person is responsible for participating in the standard of truth given by God through creation and redemption. People will be judged on their desire to understand the truth that binds us, and how they applied that truth to their relationships with God, neighbor, and creation. Different people will come to different conclusions on what is true or right, but freedom of choice is not the same as freedom from consequence or responsibility for one’s actions.
What then, do we need to do to form our consciences towards truth and responsibility?
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart. CCC 1784
We need to be educated! We need our parents, our religious leaders, and our professional educators to teach us how to form our conscience, and how to use our conscience. We certainly can educate ourselves as well. Living in a country that traditionally recognizes many types of freedom, we have a great opportunity for this kind of education. Such education can free us from merely following physical or psychological passions. Such an education can free us from being manipulated.
Please understand that conscience is not the same as saying that I have a right to act however I please, without any comment from others. Our actions are not performed in a vacuum – they affect the rights and conscience of others. Proper authorities have the responsibility to safeguard the rights and consciences of all people. Sometimes even well-intended persons will be unable to act on their conscience, but they should not compelled to act against it!
Hey, why is this important to vocations? Before you can ever act on the calling of a vocation, you must first act on the calling of your conscience. If we fail to value or use our conscience, we will have our conscience rights suppressed, and religious rights will quickly follow. We need to learn these things, so that we can use and enjoy these things, to the end of having an abundant and holy life!
More on conscience’s link to vocations in the next entry!