by Bishop John Keating
Bishop of Arlington, VA
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
gives a Clear and Succinct definition of Conscience:
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. (CCC, n. 1778)
Moral Conscience, present at the Heart
(Will) of the person, enjoins him at the Appropriate Moment to do
Good and to avoid Evil. It also Judges Particular Choices,
Approving those that are Good and Denouncing those that are
Evil ... When he listens to his Conscience, the
Prudent Man can hear God Speaking.
(CCC, n. 1777)
Veritatis Splendor the Holy Father shares a powerful insight when he states that
Conscience is what Motivates a Person to take Responsibility for the
Good and the Evil he has done. Taking
responsibility for One's Acts and Behavior, the Holy Father emphasizes, means Spiritual
Growth and Maturity; Failing
to take Responsibility for One's Actions is a Major Liability for Eternal
Veritatis Splendor, n. 61)
What is Conscience? I still think that the idea my parents gave me is the simplest to
understand and the best to hang on to when the World's Fashionable Arbiters of Right and
Wrong, of Acceptable and
Unacceptable Behavior, seem to have Center-Stage.
My Parents taught me that Conscience is simply my ability to Judge my Behavior as closely
as possible to the way God Judges it. To Form my
Conscience meant to pattern my Judgments of Right
and Wrong on God's Judgments of
Right and Wrong. [The popular slogan:
"Follow your own Conscience" is often interpreted to mean just the Opposite: Judge your own
Behavior as Right or Wrong; then
God will pattern His Judgments accordingly.]
Spiritual Development and Maturity in an
individual are best measured by one's Honest Ability to Judge Human Behavior, not by the Standards of
the Media and Entertainment Industries, nor by the Standards of American Criminal Law or Supreme Court decisions, but by
God's Standards. I can still remember my mother impressing that fact upon me when she told
me the story of Jesus Reprimanding Peter:
"Get out of My sight, you Satan ... You are not Judging by God's Standards, but by Man's".
Saint Bonaventure wrote that "Conscience is like God's Herald and Messenger; it does not
command things on its Own Authority, but commands them as coming from God's Authority, like a Herald when he proclaims the Edict of the
King. This is why Conscience has Binding Force." (Quoted by the Holy Father in
Veritatis Splendor, n. 58)
Saint Paul put it so Plainly and Eloquently:
"Do not conform yourselves to this World, but be transformed by the renewal of your Mind, so that
you may Judge what is God's Will, what is Good, Pleasing and Perfect". (Romans 12:2)
In a widely De-Christianized Culture, as the Holy Father pointed-out
Sadly, the Criteria employed even by some Catholics in making Moral Judgments and Decisions are often Contrary to those of the
Veritatis Splendor, n.88). What is Unacceptable, the Holy Father affirms, is the attitude of One who makes his own
Weakness the Criterion of Truth
Veritatis Splendor, n. 104). Nowadays, he states, this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the
Moral-Norm to One's own Capacities and Personal Interests, and even in the Rejection of the very idea of a Norm
Veritatis Splendor, n.105).
"But in this way the inescapable claims of Truth disappear, yielding their place to a Criterion of
Sincerity, Authenticity and 'Being at peace with Oneself', so much so that some have come to adopt a Radically Subjectivistic
Conception of Moral Judgment ... there is a tendency to grant to the Individual Conscience the Prerogative of Independently
determining the Criteria of Good and Evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite Congenial to an Individualist Ethic,
wherein each individual is faced with his Own Truth, different from the Truth of others".
Veritatis Splendor, n. 32)
Vatican Council II makes the point:
"Hence, the more a Correct Conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from
Blind Choice and try to be guided by Objective Standards of Moral Conduct".
Gaudium et Spes, n. 16)
The Formation of Conscience
Dignitatis Humanae at section 14, actually tells One how Formation of
Conscience is to be accomplished:
"However, in forming their Consciences, the Faithful must pay careful attention to the Sacred and
Certain-Teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the Will of Christ the Teacher of Truth. It is her Duty to Proclaim and
Teach with Authority the Truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to Declare and Confirm by Her Authority the Principles of the
Moral Order which spring from Human Nature itself".
To repeat, Conscience is of the Intellect of the
Soul. It does not stem from Bodily
Emotions or Feelings.
If the Ideal of Conscience is to Pattern One's Judgments of
Right and Wrong on God's
Judgments of Right and Wrong,
how do we Learn God's Judgments? The Formation of
a Correct Catholic Conscience begins with
a Belief in God, Who can neither Deceive
nor be Deceived, and Belief in His Son, Jesus.
From there we move to the question of what Jesus Teaches, and whether or not
He teaches through the Authoritative Teaching of His
Church. If Jesus does teach through His
Church, we had best listen, and Act in accord with what we hear.
Generally the process begins at home. My Parents used to give us children many examples from the Gospels of
God's Judgments of Good and Evil ...
the Widow's Mite, the Prodigal Son, the Hypocritical Pharisees, the Grateful
Leper, and so many more. But beyond the Revelations God has made in
Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, there is
the Church, which Jesus Commissioned to do
precisely that, to teach Morality in His Name and by His
Authority. "He who hears you, hears Me". (Luke 10:16)
Our age is beneficiary of a truly outstanding Instrument of conveying God's
Moral Judgment of Human Behavior, the
Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Among other things, the Catechism succinctly names the various elements that together
Form and Develop
"In the Formation of Conscience the Word of God is the Light for our path; we must assimilate it in
Faith and Prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our Conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the Gifts
of the Holy Spirit, aided by the Witness or Advice of others and Guided by the Authoritative Teaching of the Church".
(CCC, n. 1785)
The Word of God: In His Wisdom God has made known many of
His Judgments of Good and
Evil, especially through His Son,
Jesus Christ, as Recorded and Handed-on in
Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.
Examination of Conscience: One of the Traditional Ways to reform one's life along with
Seeking Forgiveness, Helping the
Poor, Working for Justice, Confession of
Faults, accepting Fraternal Correction, Spiritual Direction is
the Examination of Conscience
(CCC, n. 1435). It has a Special Place before going to
(CCC, n. 1454);
Confession of Venial Sins helps to Form
Conscience (CCC, n. 1458).
Gifts of the Holy Spirit: The Seven (7) Perduring
Gifts we Receive in the Sacrament of Confirmation
help in Forming Conscience
(CCC, n.1785) and in Decision-Making
(CCC, n. 1788).
Prudence is the
Virtue (a Permanent Disposition of the Soul) that
Guides that Practical Judgment.
"And this is what takes place through the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, of Freedom and
of Love: in Him we are enabled to Interiorize the Law, to receive it and to live it as the Motivating Force of True
Veritatis Splendor, n.83)
By the Light of the Holy Spirit, the Living Essence of Christian Morality can be understood by everyone,
even the Least Learned, but particularly those who are able to preserve an 'undivided heart' [Psalm 86:11]".
Veritatis Splendor, n. 119)
Witness and Advice: We need the Good Example and the
Sound Advice of others, both to Form and to
Sustain Conscience. The great Cardinal Newman, speaking of
"Left to itself, though it Tells Truly at first, it soon becomes Wavering, Ambiguous, and False; it
needs Good Teachers and Good Examples to keep it up to the Mark and the Line of Duty; and the Misery is that these External Helps,
Teachers, and Examples are in many instances Wanting". (Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations)
The Teaching of the Church: Pope John Paul II has spoken of it so Beautifully:
"The Church puts herself always and only at the service of Conscience, helping it to avoid being
tossed to-and-fro by every Wind-of-Doctrine proposed by Human Deceit (cf. Ephesians 4:14), and helping it not to
swerve from the Truth about the Good of Man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the Truth with certainty and
to abide in it."
Veritatis Splendor, n. 64)
"In a positive way, the Church seeks, with great Love, to help all the Faithful to form a
Moral Conscience which will make Judgments and lead to Decisions in accordance with the Truth, following the Exhortation of the
Apostle Paul: 'Do not be conformed to this World but be transformed by the Renewal of your Mind, that you may prove what is the
Will of God, what is Good and Acceptable and Perfect' [Romans 12:2]".
Veritatis Splendor, n. 85)
Just as these Elements are available to us to help us Form
Conscience in the Truth, we are often surrounded by
Contrary Elements that serve to Deform
Conscience and toss us To-and-Fro. Especially vulnerable are young people, who
can be mightily influenced by a Cultural Atmosphere which supplies Norms of Good and
Evil that are in-conflict-with
"Thus, if, for example, the Daily Soap Operas portray Divorce as the way normal people solve their
Marriage Difficulties; if they depict Fornication and Adultery not as Lust but as the Natural and Expected expression of Emotional
Attraction; if Contraception is virtually Presupposed in any Sexual Relationship and if Abortion is presumed to be the only
alternative if Contraception fails in an Extramarital Relationship; if Lying is shown as Acceptable in the service of what is seen
as a Good Purpose, such as to deceive one's Spouse or Parents, who are presumed to Lack Understanding, then is it any wonder that what
is said on Sunday from the Pulpit if indeed it is said on Sunday from the Pulpit seems Restrictive and almost
Irrelevant". (Archbishop John P. Foley, in his talk to American
entitled "A View from the Vatican")
No wonder that Parents worry about where their children go to school, about the friends they make, the Television Shows they watch,
the Books and Magazines they read. They know full-well that the Inner Spirit and
Soul of their children are shaped by the company they keep.
Pope John Paul II, however, has never been Pessimistic about Young People:
"Young people today are buffeted in every direction by loud and competing claims upon their
attention and allegiance. From around the world they hear daily messages of Conflict and Hostility, of Greed and Turmoil, of
Poverty and Despair. Amid this Social Turmoil, young people are eager to find Solid and Enduring Values which can give Meaning and
Purpose to their lives". (Newfoundland, Sept 12, 1984)
Not only for youngsters, but for all of us of any Age and all Conditions, the Education
of Conscience is a Lifelong Task that is certainly
worth the effort. As the
Catechism puts it,
"the Education of Conscience guarantees Freedom and engenders Peace of Heart"
(CCC, n. 1784). Best of all, it prepares us for the
Ultimate Joy and Rewards of
- End of Treatise by Bishop Keating -
Short Audio Clip on
Formation of Conscience
by Monsignor William B. Smith, STD
Professor of Moral Theology
An excellent 8 Minute Treatise on our Personal Responsibility
to form our Catholic Conscience during our Whole Lifetime.
We will be Judged by God during our own Particular Judgment
on our Success or Lack of it in this Matter.
|Responsibility for Formation of Conscience belongs to: