There is much said today about conscience. Some of this originates in the recent debates about marriage, divorce and Holy Communion. There are some who believe that the Church should respect the consciences of people, even if that means that they live in opposition to or distant from her teachings. Exactly what “respect” means in this context is debatable, but too often it means affirming people in their erroneous conclusions.

The Church exists to teach the truth and to dispel error. Our work is not to affirm modern or popular notions. It is not to reflect the views of the age. Our work is to proclaim the teachings of our head and founder, Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said, Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent (Rev 3:19). We all need constant teaching and ongoing correction so that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:2). The way that the Church respects those with consciences that lead them astray is by teaching them with love and patience.

A more serious concern than the meaning of “respect” is the rather vague understanding and use of the word “conscience.” While words that have a strict theological meaning are often used in a broader and less precise way in common parlance, we in the Church need to be clearer than we currently are when we speak of conscience.

Too many people today have reduced the conscience to a mere “sense” of what is right or wrong. Even worse, some believe that whatever they think or feel is directed by their conscience. Thus, a person might say, “My conscience tells me that what the Scriptures or the Church solemnly teaches on ‘X’ is wrong or is outdated and no longer applies.” In so doing he acts as if his conscience is an authority that can overrule even Divine Law.

None of this is even close to what conscience really is in the Christian and Catholic understanding. While theologians may differ in the technicalities of what is meant by the conscience, I would like to present here some teachings from the Scholastic Tradition that can both clarify what conscience is and refute some common errors and misunderstandings.

I have drawn these from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (I, q. 79), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1776-1794), Moral Theology: A Complete Course by John McHugh, O.P. and Charles Callan, O.P., and several other moral treatises.

Definition. Conscience is an act of judgment of our practical reason whereby we assess the moral quality of a particular act by inference from general principles. Because laws and principles are most often of a general nature it is important that they be applied to each act by the practical reason; this is what conscience does (see CCC 1778).

Some Distinctions

  • As an act of judgment, conscience differs from moral knowledge or intellectual virtues that are enduring, not transitory as is an act.
  • Conscience is more than a sense of general moral principles. There is, to be sure, a basic moral sense that human beings have about right and wrong. St. Thomas calls this sort of moral understanding “synderesis.” It is the natural perception of general and self-evident principles, fundamental truths of morality, and axioms of Natural Law. But synderesis along with moral study and reflection occur prior to and in preparation for an act of conscience; they are not conscience itself. Conscience makes use of such knowledge, draws conclusions, and applies it by way of judgment to a particular situation.
  • Conscience is not its own law. It resides in the reason and is thus a subjective guide. In contrast, the law is objective. Conscience must refer to the law in order to reach proper judgments.
  • Conscience also differs from prudence and the gift of counsel. Both of those ponder what is right based on our ultimate goal. But conscience is an act of judgment, a decision that directs the will to a particular action in a particular set of circumstances.
  • So, conscience is in the practical reason, and its decisions concern particular actions.

Conscience is true or false insofar as it agrees with or falls short of Divine Law, Natural Law, and human law that is just and in conformity with Divine Law. A false conscience judges what is unlawful to be lawful or what is lawful to be unlawful.

Conscience can err in two ways: in regard to the will or the intellect.

  • In terms of the will, conscience should proceed from an intention that desires the good of self and others in conformity with rights and duties. However, an act of conscience that is rooted inordinately in pleasing oneself or that stubbornly prefers evil to good is erroneous.
  • In terms of the intellect, conscience may err by failing to reflect on Divine and Natural Law or by remaining vincibly ignorant of moral norms.

While it is true that one must follow the judgment of ones’ conscience, the authority of conscience is not unlimited. Conscience is not a final and unchanging authority; it is more student than teacher. One is obliged to form one’s conscience through both study and experience.

Conscience is not independent of Divine Law nor of just law and legitimate authority. It is not private inspiration or interpretation. It is not a law unto itself. Conscience does not establish law. The role of conscience is to apply what is taught by God, through Natural Law, Revelation, and the Church to particular situations. The aim of conscience cannot be to resist such law but rather to receive and apply it.

Conscience is not to be equated with sentiment or emotion and surely not merely with one’s desires. Instead it must seek evidence in what is revealed by objective sources such as Divine law, Natural Law, and the certain doctrinal teachings of the Church.

The goal for acts of conscience must always be that they are rooted in what is good and true.

Acts of conscience must also be certain. They should not be sentiments, hunches or guesses as to what should be done. They are to be well thought out and rooted in revealed and natural truth. On this their certainty rests, not on what one wants or finds expedient.

While it is taught that a man may follow his conscience even if it be erroneous, this does not make the conclusions of an erroneous conscience true or worthy of respect. Jesus Himself once said, The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God (John 16:2). This is a truly horrifying case of an erroneous conscience. In speaking of it, Jesus does not affirm that it is good. It is certainly evil to kill the innocent and to martyr Christians! And even if their erroneous consciences may lessen their culpability, Jesus does not leave them free of any role in their deformed consciences. Thus, He adds, They will do these things because they have not known the Father or Me (John 16:3).

So, the Church’s response to an erroneous conscience should not be to affirm it or to pronounce it worthy of respect. While we want to respect that some people are sincerely wrong and wish to treat them with dignity, we must continue to insist that those who have erroneous consciences are wrong. We must teach both them and others what is true and why.

Ultimately our role is to respond to the ever-present call initiated by Jesus: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To “repent” (metanoiete), in its most literal sense, means to come to a new mind, a new understanding, a new way of thinking. This new mind is what ushers in the transformative truth of the Gospel.

I present this short treatise on conscience in hopes of clarifying and encouraging greater caution when using the word “conscience.” While not everyone accepts all the details of the Scholastic perspective presented here, we ought to be careful not to reduce conscience to personal judgments, as if they were authoritative. Conscience cannot and should not be set in opposition to Divine Law, Natural Law or revealed truth. Conscience is not the master of these; it is their servant, applying their truth to particular circumstances.

“Respecting” the consciences of those who live in open opposition to revealed truth cannot include affirming them as if they were not in error. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. Either a person’s judgment is in conformity with God’s revealed truth and is thus correct, or it is not in conformity and is thus in error.

True respect for the conscience of all human beings is shown by affirming the right judgments of their consciences and seeking to correct erroneous judgments. This is in accord with human dignity. The Church asserts that the human person is a moral agent, capable of knowing the truth and living in accord with it. I will conclude by quoting again from the Catechism (1780-1781):

The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis); their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and finally judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. We call that man prudent who chooses in conformity with this judgment. Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed.