Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Should We Let Our Conscience Be Our Guide? (Glad You Asked: Q&A on Church Teaching)

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Should We Let Our Conscience Be Our Guide? (Glad You Asked: Q&A on Church Teaching)

Article excerpt

The Second Vatican Council describes conscience as an intimate personal encounter with God, as "people's most secret core and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths" (Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World). It is an awesome perspective, personalizing the exercise of conscience and implicitly linking moral choices with final judgment by reminding us that God collaborates in the very decisions for which he will judge us.

The image more commonly associated with conscience in church teaching revolves around law, whether revealed law, natural law, or church law. In this model our conscience--however unconsciously--applies universal precepts to specific situations. And the universal precepts are already within us. From the prophet Jeremiah we hear God promise, "I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts" (31:33). Paul proclaims in the Epistle to the Romans that those outside the law (because they were outside the covenant) nevertheless had "the demands of the law ... written in their hearts" (2:15).

Each act of conscience is a practical moral judgment by a unique individual person. As such, it is imperfect, fallible, and subject to all the distortions and limitations of genetics, age, culture, personality, education, experience, and so on. If a person's knowledge or effort is conspicuously deficient, the quality of the moral judgment is flawed as a result. If one habitually acts against conscience and reinforces sinful behavior, conscience is clouded and even blinded.

The conscience of even the most enlightened and principled person is always evolving because the formation of conscience is a lifelong process. Childhood faith formation cannot suffice to guide a lifetime of adult moral judgments. Religious education, reflection on scripture, prayer, experience, the advice and example of others, gifts of the Holy Spirit, virtuous habits, and attention to the authoritative teachings of the church--these are among the formative influences on our conscience. …

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