Pastoral Letter on Conscience

Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference

Issue 5, November 2001

The following article is a paraphrased version of a Pastoral Letter on the topic of Conscience issued by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference in spring 1998. Read the full letter.

When we approach an important decision we go to great lengths to ensure that we make the right choice. Everyone knows the experience of looking back regretfully on decisions taken after the most serious reflection and saying, 'If only I had realised...'

To this we might say, 'So long as you're sincere, that's what counts'. From one point of view that is perfectly true. To be sincere means being honestly convinced that we made every effort to ensure we are doing the right thing. Indeed, the phrase 'You must follow your conscience' means we should do what we honestly believe to be right. However, this is likely to be little consolation to someone harmed by our wrong decision. Nor does sincerity protect from the damage my mistake may do to me. Being sincere is not the same as being correct. That is why we must not stop at asking 'Am I being honest?' Searching for the truth involves trying to answer the question, 'Am I making the right decision?'

We have no right to judge another person. Only God can be the final judge of whether a person is sincere or insincere. Yet, we do not inhabit separate universes and all decisions affect others in some way. Therefore, it is legitimate to wonder whether a particular decision is for the better or for the worse. It is not a matter of condemning people but of clarifying the issues involved.

We must do what we sincerely believe to be right, but how we arrive at that point may be questionable. Coming to the decision we want to reach can be easier than we like to admit. Sometimes the convictions which we like to think are reasonable and balanced are nothing more than the product of our prejudices.

We talk about 'the voice of conscience'. That can be misleading. Conscience is not merely somebody whispering in my ear – as if all we have to do is sit there passively and wait for our conscience to speak. Nor is it just a feeling or an instinct. It is a considered and informed judgement of what is the best thing to do in a particular situation. Thus, in the Catholic tradition we see conscience as "a judgement of reason" (CCC 1778).

How do we make such judgements? The judgement of conscience is not just about whether the action causes more happiness than pain – sometimes a large number of people can be happy at the mistreatment of an individual or a minority. 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. In every action I say something about how I regard people – as people whose dignity is equal to my own, or as beings I may use or manipulate. The first question a conscience judgement seeks to answer is whether this action expresses the truth about my own and others' dignity.

In every choice we make, we respond positively to God to the extent that a decision is in accordance with our deepest God-given human dignity. It is in this sense that we may helpfully refer to conscience as a 'voice', the voice of God inviting us into the complete truth, inviting us to experience 'life in abundance' (John 10:10).

We will only hear 'the still, small voice of God' (I Kings 19:12) if we are sufficiently present to ourselves. At the same time, I am not being very wise if, when I come to make a decision, I think I have nothing to learn from anyone else. When I face a difficult moral decision, I need not act as if I was the first person who ever had such a problem. I need to look honestly at all the things that can help me come to a right decision. This is what is meant by 'informing my conscience'.

When it comes to the Church, there is a tendency to see its moral vision and ideals as regulations that restrict our freedom. Yet, the Catholic-Christian tradition we have inherited is an ally of our personal freedom because of its capacity to challenge us to respond to our situation with courage and creativity - as our ancestors so often did. Down through the centuries Christians wanting to love God and their neighbour have faced many different situations. 'Christian morality' is really the answer of those Christians and their communities to the questions they faced. To ignore this heritage is to act in a restricted way. When we do so we disregard a wealth of insight. The tradition exists to enhance our freedom by helping us to isolate the truth about what it is to flourish as a person.

It is the role of the Church, through its leaders, to clearly formulate the wisdom contained in our tradition so that people can see its implications for particular decisions they face.This is not just a matter of reflecting the consensus of Church members. It is a question of being faithful to a message which is God's message, and to a Church which extends not only across the continents but across the centuries. The authority of the Church is not dictatorship; it appeals to the consciences of people to accept that what it says is true because of Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit is with the Church in its teaching task. Direct answers are not always immediately available since the questions we face today are often not the same as those which existed when the Scriptures were written, or those faced by previous generations of Christians.

That concerned human beings, clearly motivated by compassion, can come to opposite conclusions about a particular moral issue, might push us towards the idea that there is no moral truth, that one person's opinion is as true as anyone else's. But something in us wants to believe that a moral argument is not like a discussion about whether custard has a pleasant taste. Such a discussion is meaningless - some people like custard, others do not, and that is the end of the matter. Physician assisted suicide, for example, cannot be right for some people and not right for others. Thus, in our Catholic tradition, we speak of certain obligations as being 'absolute', as being the same for everyone. While the word 'absolutist' may sound unattractive, in some circumstances it can be another word for 'hero'.

Heroes are those who would go to any lengths - even death - rather than deny the truth of Christ's Gospel. It is this truth we are referring to when we talk about acting in harmony with the plan of God and co-operating with the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth. The Holy Spirit is present in each of us as 'a gentle guest and friend who inspires, guides, corrects and strengthens' us (CCC 1697). That is why, for the Christian, coming to a conscience judgement is not just an effort of reasoning, it is also a prayer.

In summary

The judgement of conscience applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. Our conscience decisions will be either in accord with the truth about our God-given dignity or not. For this reason we say that conscience, the place of decision, is a place of encounter with and response to God. We have a rich community tradition upon which we can call to make informed conscience decisions.


1 November 2001