Aren’t I Supposed to Follow my Conscience?

     The word conscience is frequently thrown around by Catholics in discussions about morality, yet very few Catholics actually have a proper understanding of what a conscience is and one’s obligation towards it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines conscience 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.”(CCC 1778) In other words our conscience is our last best judgment about a moral good or evil.
St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews that God says “I will give my laws in their hearts, and on their minds will I write them.” (Heb 10:16) God has written His law on every human heart. Our conscience, when properly formed, then reveals that law. While not all people are able to come to a proper understanding of the totality of the law, all people have some understanding of the law. For example, most people, even atheists, realize that they should not kill an innocent person.
Many Catholics use the term conscience to justify actions that are immoral. They appeal to their conscience saying that they must follow their conscience. They are certainly correct in saying that they must follow their conscience. As the Catechism puts it man is “obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.” (CCC 1776) In the most basic terms “good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided.” (ST 1-2 q. 94 a. 2) Since our conscience is our last best judgment we are bound to follow our conscience even if it leads us into error.
The Second Vatican Council Document Gaudium et Spes further teaches the importance and sacredness of conscience saying “to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.” The document, however, also notes that our consciences frequently errs from invincible ignorance. In erring due to invincible ignorance one is not culpable, but frequently one errs not due to ignorance but rather because he has either not sought out the truth or has lived a life so clouded by sin that the truth is hidden from him. Those who should know the truth but do not are put in a catch 22 because for those who should know the truth ignorance of the truth is no excuse not to follow the truth.
The Church becomes the safe haven for the formation of our conscience. When a Catholic comes to the conviction that the Holy Spirit guides the Church the only possible response is submission to the teachings of the Church. A Catholic thus begins his conscience formation with an assent to Church teaching trusting in the promise of Christ to send His Holy Spirit upon His Church.
The most fundamental judgment of reason for a man is his conscience. Our conscience is what helps us navigate the messy waters of life. Appealing to one’s conscience does not give him a license to do whatever he wishes rather it calls him to education and assent to the teachings of Holy Mother Church. A Catholic comes to see the Church as the harbor where he can find the safety to navigate the stormy waters of life choosing to do the good and avoiding evil.

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