Understanding Conscience

Issue 21, April 2007 

Deep within our conscience we discover a law which we have not laid upon ourselves but which we must obey. Its voice, ever calling us to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in our heart at the right moment. . . . For we have in our heart a law inscribed by God . . . Conscience is our most secret core and our sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. (Gaudium et Spes n. 16)

Conscience poses a dilemma for all of us. On the one hand we have to follow our conscience; on the other hand our conscience may be wrong. (R. P. McBrien)

True moral insight, in St. Paul's understanding, is mediated to the individual through participation in the community ... The Christian is one who spontaneously seeks correction for ... biases within a community of shared loyalty, but of more diverse experience and perspectives. (Richard McCormick)

To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgement is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way, the inescapable claims of truth disappear ... Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualistic ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. (Veritatis Splendor, n. 32)

Conscience does not close us within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens us to the call, to the voice of God. It is the sacred place where God speaks to each of us. (Veritatis Splendor, n. 57)

The exercise of Christian conscience is about 'letting go'. We are no longer in command but called to follow a spontaneity whose origin is within us. The call to conscience is a call to be contemplative and responsive in our action.

Conscience is the judgement of practical reasoning informed by the various sources of moral wisdom found in the community. (R. Gula)

We have the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. A person must not be forced to act contrary to his or her conscience. Nor must he or she be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in religious matters. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1782)

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If a person were deliberately to act against it, he or she would condemn self. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1790)

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1784)

Education of character and conscience is a gradual process in which the developmental stage of each person needs to be respected. (Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales)

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. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1798)

In the depths of conscience we detect a law we have not imposed on ourselves but which holds us to obedience, always summoning each of us to love God and avoid evil. (Pastoral Constitution on the Church, n. 16)

Conscience is the recognition of an absolute call to love and thereby to co-create a genuine future." (John W Glaser)

Conscience brings us face to face with the radical, grace-filled invitation we receive to enter into a loving relationship with God through loving neighbour. (E. Dunn)

The Church puts itself always and only at the service of conscience. The teaching authority of the Church cannot take the place of personal conscience, but it must be a central feature in forming Christian conscience. The presumption of any individual must be that the whole church, and the teaching office in particular, are more likely to be correct than any one individual.

For Catholics, the Magisterium is a source of moral authority that is not simply one voice among many but normative. (R. Gula)

The judgement of conscience is not just about whether the action causes more happiness than pain ... Neither is this judgement just about what the action achieves. We need to consider what the action itself means, what it says. In every action I say something about the kind of person I wish to be and the kind of values I choose to live by ... The first question a conscience judgement seeks to answer is whether this action expresses the truth about my own and others' dignity. (Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference)