This is the second in a series of editorials, designed to correspond with the Why Catholic? process, now taking place in our parishes, about Catholic moral and social teaching.
Little Sebastian peeked around the corner as his mother headed for the basement. Sebastian is going toward a big, forbidden cookie jar. Ducking under the kitchen table, he glances all around before scampering to the forbidden treasure. Even though his mother said no, Sebastian wanted a cookie, and his actions show that he knows he is doing wrong. Sebastian is on the journey of forming his young conscience. At this age, his conscience is formed by authority figures in his life.
As we grow in knowledge and faith, we begin to understand what conscience is and what it is not. It is not justification for doing whatever we want.
Nor is it a “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Ultimately, conscience is being true to what we are: children of God who acknowledge responsibility for actions (thought, words, and deeds) and accept the consequences of such effort.
Conscience is the voice of God addressing the human heart (Rom. 1:32), alluring us toward the good, advising us against evil, urging us toward moral judgments that support and contribute to the common good. Conscience is the “proximate norm of morality,” which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “ … 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” (1778). So influential and powerful is conscience that we are obliged to act according to its dictates.
How is conscience developed? Like our natural parents, God and Mother Church offer sources of morality in the formation of a proper conscience.
The holy Scriptures tell us not so much “what” to do but “why” good Christians act as they do. The basic command of the Scriptures is that we love God and one another. Conscience formation is based on this great command, which affirms the necessity of doing good and avoiding evil. Following the command of love results in the necessity to form our consciences and the obligation to form good consciences. This is a lifetime process, and, here, Mother Church comes to our aid.
Through its magisterial tradition, the church presents moral principles and teachings to assist us and has a prime role in the formation of conscience.
Vatican Council II states that “… the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself …” (Vatican Council II Dignitatis Humanae, 14).
As he matures, young Sebastian, will expand his moral knowledge beyond parental influence and authority figures. Proper conscience development occurs when the individual accepts responsibility for his/her own thoughts, words, feelings and actions. In this lived experience, the Scriptures and magisterial tradition enable the Christian to understand God’s law. Strengthened in accord with human reason and verified by the teaching of the church, conscience is described as our true selves choosing good over evil.
For young Sebastian and all children of God, development of a good moral conscience, presupposes a personal desire for the good and the true; an ability to examine the facts of moral choices; and, after prayerful refection, the readiness to engage in proper Christian action. The development of a true moral conscience requires contemplation of the sources of morality; it means accepting the counsel of spiritual authorities; and ultimately, it means remaining open to the work of the Holy Spirit.
What is the purpose of conscience? How we act, what we say, even our thoughts, are energized and promoted by our conscience, properly formed. The basic connectedness of human life challenges our consciences and requires us to act in the most fitting ways in all aspects of communal and personal life. True conscience development leads always toward the good of others and to portraying a concern for others.
Unlike young Sebastian, most of us have had a few years to develop good moral consciences, that is, we act correctly and do right as children of God, not just to avoid punishment (e.g., the loss of heaven). In our journey of life, let us continue to avail ourselves of the wisdom offered from our parents (both human and divine). Let us accept all the support and aid available to help us form correct consciences so as to live good Christian lives.
For in depth information on conscience and its formation, review the Catechism, numbers 1776-1802.
The Reverend Thomas A. Smith is pastor of St. Lawrence Church.