People have a lot of wrong ideas about conscience. Many are convinced that conscience is merely how we feel about the moral quality of an act or that conscience is a little angel on one shoulder, countering the voice of a little devil on the other. Our heads (minds) are caught in the middle, exercising free will to choose between those two opposing voices.
“Is it a sin to fornicate? I don’t feel it is. Therefore I’m free to do it.” “It’s a mortal sin to miss mass. But I feel God understands, so it’s not a sin for me.”
Wrong, wrong, all wrong.
There is also a misunderstanding of the authority that one’s conscience has. Some hear “authority of conscience” and believe it permits and validates moral relativism. “I believe abortion is wrong, but if someone else, by authority of their conscience, feels it isn’t wrong, they have a right to do what they feel is right.” Still, others see conscience as something that binds reality to its authority. “I feel this isn’t wrong, therefor society should allow it. After all, we have free will and must obey our conscience. The Church even says so!”
On the other hand, there are orthodox Catholics and conservatives who believe conscience can be imposed upon; that people should be forced to do what is objectively right and Good. “There ought to be a law!” echoes this attitude. But that position is not Truth either.
Part of the cause of all this confusion is that all these errors are rooted in something True. As with most lies and falsehoods, the more it borrows its material from Truth, the more convincingly it masquerades as the Truth, deceiving those who, for whatever reason, have lost the ability to discern Truth from Lies (Tip: “Mostly true” is the same as a lie. It isn’t true).
We all have a conscience, we have a right and a moral obligation to obey and follow our conscience and to respect that of others, and conscience has an authority that must be respected and honored. Those are all Truths. But those truths do not constitute a right to choose evil nor grant us license to do what we wish contrary to what is right and Good. That’s where the confusion comes in.
The subject of conscience can be a complex knot to untie, so I decided to lay out some of the more common misunderstandings and misconceptions about it and untie them piece by piece for you. I will break this down into two main topics. First, I’ll explain what the conscience is and what it is not. That will provide a necessary foundation for the next topic, the Authority of Conscience. I’ll be referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes as the theological foundation.
What is Conscience?
Conscience is not how one feels about the moral quality of one act over another. Conscience sometimes prompts one’s intuition, but it is not of the emotional or intuitive faculties. It is an intellectual faculty of reason, not emotion. Let’s go to the Catechism and Gaudium et Spes:
“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform…”-CCC: #1778
“Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.”Gaudium et Spes #16
What we find in our conscience is an orientation to objective Truth. “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.” There’s no room for subjective morality there. If we could make it up as we choose, God wouldn’t have to inscribe a law on our hearts. As a judgment of reason, conscience is enabled not only by grace but also by thought and reasoning. As such, it requires information. The conscience must be informed in order to guide us to choose the Good (“The education of conscience is indispensable,” CCC #1783). From the Church’s teaching, it’s clear that choosing right and wrong has nothing to do with our preferences or feelings but with right-reasoning and correct judgments based on information—on objective Truth and reality.
We can sometimes know right from wrong intuitively and instantly as a result of prompting by our consciences because deep within the conscience is “a law inscribed by God.” And the conscience knows (often immediately), based on what it has learned and identified by reason and by what God has inscribed within it. A well informed conscience knows right from wrong immediately. But the conscience, despite its authority, isn’t always right and can, at times, become blind and disempowered, unable to guide us to choose the Good.
“Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance… The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for Truth and goodness, or for a conscience that, by degrees, grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.”-Gaudium et Spes #16
Information is Power
Information is the material that forms true ideas and conforms the mind to reality. The more information we have, the more conformed to reality we are. The less we have, the more we rely on feelings, intuition, and preferences, and the less conformed to reality we become as we descend into a fantasy land of our own design. There’s only one way to get the Truth right, while there are countless ways to get it wrong. Let me illustrate that critical point with a cooking analogy.
We couldn’t prepare and cook a dish we’d never cooked before. Moreover, we’re less able to prepare that dish if we’ve never tasted, seen, or even heard of it before. We’ll use Duck a l’Orange as an example. That dish’s identity (What it is), ingredients, and a printed recipe are fundamental parts of the information we’d need to produce the dish. How Duck a l’Orange looks, smells, and tastes are additional information that gets us closer to “the Truth”—to manifest the reality of the dish as it’s supposed to be.
“The more information we have, the better our conscience can direct us to choose the Good and reject evil.”
With only some of that information, a good cook might still be able to produce a Duck a l’Orange, but to varying degrees of imperfection. He may rely on intuition and instinct—his feelings—to fill in the gaps of information he doesn’t have. But even intuition is informed by past experiences, which means intuition, too, is information-based. The more information available to the person cooking the dish, the more correctly he will produce the dish he’s asked to produce. With all of the information, the cook would produce the dish perfectly.
Smell what I’m cookin’ yet?
The more information we have, the better our conscience can direct us to choose the Good and reject evil. The less information it has, the less the conscience can guide us rightly. The Church teaches that we are obligated to follow our conscience, but that requires that we inform our conscience. Informing our conscience is a duty, not an option. It’s a lie that we can exercise freedom and authority of conscience divorced from the duty and requirement to inform it.
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful… 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, #1783
If my conscience tells me that abortion is a human right, and I “feel” firmly convinced of that, yet I know that the Church says otherwise, I am obligated to honestly and thoroughly explore and consider the point of view of Church teaching (i.e., Why is life sacred? How do we know an unborn child is a person? What does the science tell us?). If I know that there’s more/other information to be gotten, I am obligated to consider it. Even I have to obey the authority of my conscience by thoroughly informing it.
Authority of Conscience
If your mind is fried at this point, take a break and return to this section later. But please don’t skip it. I can’t overstate its importance to the present culture and the future. Here’s a direct link if you want to bookmark it for later reference
The authority of conscience is also widely misunderstood, especially by those who form their personal theology by cherry-picking source material. You’re about to see how tangled this web can get and why so many people have confused ideas about conscience. In short: Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI are “to blame.” Not really, but follow me here.
In 2020, during his General Audience, Pope Francis said, "Freedom of conscience always and everywhere must be respected.” Many commentators and news outlets—some of them Catholic—interpreted this to mean that, in obedience to one’s conscience, a person is free to do what they feel is right and that, with due respect to the authority of their conscience, they should not be hindered. But it gets a little muddier!
Conscience Above Church Teaching?
A couple of years ago, an even more troublesome bombshell was unearthed from way back in 1968, in the form of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s own words. In his 1968 commentary on Gaudium et Spes, he said
"Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority."
This statement appears to say that the authority of one’s conscience is to be followed above the authority of the Church. How do we make sense of that? And how should we understand what Pope Francis said about respecting people’s consciences when their consciences are frequently wrong?
Let’s get into what authority of conscience does and does not mean. As always, let’s immediately listen to the voice of Holy Mother Church
“Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in religious matters.’-CCC 1782
The conscience does have authority over outside agency “For God has willed that man remain under control of his own decisions” because that is how a person, free to seek God, finds him. This is reflected in Joseph Ratzinger’s words.
But understand that this is not a conflict between two authorities, but a harmony of authority. Discipline and practices aside (governance, priestly celibacy, etc.), the Church does not have authority to compel a person's behavior by its teachings. It never had that authority. The Church’s doctrinal teaching proceeds from its authority to teach and preach but not to compel or force. The authority that compels behavior is found in the person’s conscience. And so the Church is the authoritative informer of human conscience, while the person’s conscience, whose authority the person is obligated to obey, is what compels behavior—a harmony of authorities, not a conflict between authorities.
Put another way, the Church has no authority to compel behavior but must respect the authority of a person’s conscience. It sounds like conscience trumps Truth, but that is not the case. Conscience is subject to Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Church teaching is authoritative, and therefore it is required material that a person is obligated—in obedience to conscience—to consider in the formation of their conscience. Church teaching cannot optionally be ignored or tossed away, despite the authority of one’s conscience. Because the authority of one’s conscience comes from its natural function to pursue Truth (InformationTruth), the conscience has no authority to ignore information available to it. Once again, this is a harmony of authorities, not a conflict between them. (Additional sources Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Ch. 3, CCC #2035-2036).
Keep in mind, too, that there’s a difference between infallible doctrine and reformable teaching, which is why a person might be at odds in conscience with Church authority/teaching. I personally believe this to be an exceptional circumstance today, given 2000 years of developed theology, doctrine, and teaching, but it remains a possibility. For example, the Church always taught that suicide was a grave sin, but it no longer teaches that it is always and absolutely outside of God’s saving mercy, given new information on mental health and psychology available today, which was not available in the past.
Pope Francis Said That (except he didn’t!)
When talking about the authority of the conscience, we are not talking about a primacy of moral relativism. The Church’s teaching assumes a person’s conscience is honestly informed, that they aren’t sticking their heads in the sand and acting blindly. Let’s go back to Gaudium et Spes:
“Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly and rightly, to be sure. Often, however, they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil.”
Gaudium et Spes #17
And now back to paragraph 1783 of the Catechism, with emphases added by me.
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful (no self-deception). It formulates its judgments according to reason (not feelings), in conformity with the true Good willed by the wisdom of the Creator (objectivity, not relativism). The education of conscience is indispensable.
How do we reconcile that with Pope Francis’s call to respect the conscience of others? The mystery is lifted in light of the second part of the quote that day, which reflects Church teaching. It’s a portion of his statement that isn’t often talked about because reporters and bloggers apparently don’t know what it means or why it’s important
"Freedom of conscience always and everywhere be respected." … "May every Christian give an example of the consistency of an upright conscience enlightened by the Word of God.”
The Holy Father isn’t giving scandal or talking heresy here. He is reflecting the whole of the Church’s teaching, though many chose only to highlight half of it (the first half of the comment). The Holy Father correctly reminds us to respect the conscience of others, but he also tells us (and them) to be examples of “an upright conscience enlightened by the word of God.” This is in line with Church teaching from #1783 of the Catechism, which tells us that “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful”—that is, full of Truth, not opinion.
The Church also teaches that an upright conscience is an informed conscience, grounded in Truth and that the word of God is part of the information that must form that conscience (“All those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God” Vatican 1 Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith). The Pope has all the right pieces in his statement, particularly in the second part of the quote (“May every Christian give an example of an upright conscience…”). His words there all point to Church teaching, not to heresy. But unfortunately, he assumes everyone else is able to understand these key phrases and knows their roots in Church teaching, and he takes for granted that news outlets will know enough to explain their meaning. Even Catholic “news” and blog sites overlooked it, either by ignorance or by choice.
“For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it, he will be judged… Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for Truth and goodness, or for a conscience which, by degrees, grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.”Vatican II, “Gaudium et spes”, Article 16
“Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance…” The Church acknowledges that the authority of one’s conscience is not an authority above Truth (right and wrong) but is subject to the primacy of Truth. As such, the person is obligated to inform their conscience whenever it becomes apparent to them that what their conscience prompts them to do is contrary to what Truth, reality, or even the Church is guiding them to do.
We can’t know what we don’t know and won’t be held responsible by God for what we didn’t know about an action we chose. Our conscience is often disabled by innocent ignorance. That is not a stain on the person’s character, and God will take that into account at judgment. But allowing one’s conscience to remain in ignorance is a serious sin. God is the final judge of our lives, and He alone will judge us according to how we have acted in accordance with our conscience. That is true for all man, whether believers, nonbelievers, Christians, Jews, or Pagans.
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References and Sources:
Vatican II Document Gaudium et Spes
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 1749 through 1783
The Reshaping of Catholicism: Current Challenges in the Theology of Church, by Cardinal Avery Dulles - Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco
The Role of Conscience - by USCCB