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A Recent Study Affirms that Conscience is innate and present even in the youngest children.

March 30, 2014

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I have written before on the blog that I think that our fundamental conscience, a sense of basic right and wrong, is innate. That is to say, it is something with which we come equipped, rather than something we learn from social convention. As a believer, I would argue that this basic moral sense, our conscience, is explained by the fact that God has written his law upon our hearts.

It is my experience that deep down inside, most people know exactly what they are doing. It is true that the voice of one’s conscience can be intentionally suppressed and that competing voices can vie for our attention. But still, under all the layers of denial, suppression, and contrary voices that may occur, we know well the basics of right and wrong. Here are some examples from pastoral experience:

  1. I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples that are either cohabiting or fornicating. And despite all the stinking thinking of the world that such behavior is fine, despite whatever attempts they may have made to tell themselves it really is OK, despite trying not to think about it, despite all attempts to call it something else…despite it all, when I speak frankly with them about it, they know what they are doing, and they know it’s wrong. They know.
  2. I have walked the streets of Southeast Washington and talked with the “boys in the hood.” And when in conversation I tell them that they ought to stop selling, and using, and stealing, and get themselves into God’s house, I realized that they too know what they are doing; they know what they are doing is wrong and that they ought to get to God’s house. They know!
  3. I have become quite convinced that a lot of the intense anger directed against the Church whenever we speak out against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity, homosexual marriage, etc., is due to the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong, and that what we are saying is true. Attempts to suppress our conscience are not usually all that successful, and when someone endangers the zone of insulation we attempt to erect around ourselves, we can easily get mad. But deep down inside, we know the Church and the Scriptures are right. We know.
  4. I would argue and have experienced, that even the youngest of children seem to have a basic understanding of right and wrong.

And thus, while some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine, deep down inside, they know better. They know.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the following about our conscience:

For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience; there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection.… (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1776, 1779)

Notice therefore that “conscience” is the innate sense of the law of God in each one of us. The conscience exists because God has written his law in everyone’s heart. His voice echoes in our soul, and we must learn to listen to it, and reflectively ponder its voice. It is there, and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it, though many try.

Scripture, too, affirms the fundamental presence of conscience and the law of God within every individual. Here are but a couple of examples:

When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, or at times even defending them (Romans 2:14-15).

By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every one’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)

That conscience is infused or innately present in the human person seems affirmed by recent studies showing that even the youngest children have a basic sense of right and wrong. I have already observed this in my experience. Even two-year-olds seem to know when they have “done wrong,” and also when something done to them or to others is wrong.

The video at the bottom of the page is CNN coverage of the study. Here are a few excerpts from the accompanying article by Paul Bloom of Yale University. The full Article is here: Do Babies Know Right from Wrong? 

Most adults have a sense of right and wrong. With the intriguing exception of some psychopaths, people are appalled by acts of cruelty, such as the rape of a child, and uplifted by acts of kindness, such as those heroes who jump onto subways tracks to rescue fallen strangers from oncoming trains.

There is a universal urge to help those in need and to punish wrongdoers and there are universal emotional responses that revolve around morality—anger when we are wronged, pride when we do the right thing and guilt when we transgress.

In “Just Babies,” I argue that much of this is the product of biological evolution. Humans are born with a hard-wired morality, a sense of good and evil is bred in the bone. I know this claim might sound outlandish, but it’s supported now by research in several laboratories. Babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel compassion, guilt and righteous anger.

Many people believe we are born selfish and amoral—that we start off as pint-sized psychopaths…. [this is ] mistaken.

We are naturally moral beings, but our environments can enhance—or, sadly, degrade—this innate moral sense.

I would differ with Professor Bloom that our moral sense is merely the result of biological evolution. As I have stated, I think our conscience is bestowed by God, who writes his name on our hearts. Conscience surely has biological components, since our brain is involved, but science can only note evidence of the existence of the conscience; it cannot really assert its origin. Thus, I think Bloom overstates what science can show. But otherwise, he presents valuable confirmation of the Christian and biblical teaching on conscience. Take time to watch the video below.

We who teach and try to hand on the faith, need to rediscover the fact of the conscience and never lose heart when we teach. Ultimately, we are appealing to things that people already know inside. This is so at least in terms of fundamental morality. There may be certain advanced topics that require informed discourse, but as to the basics, they are written in all of our hearts. All the protesting and anger are not necessarily signs that we have failed. In fact, it may be just the opposite. We may have struck more than a nerve; we may have touched the conscience. Don’t lose heart!

It remains true that conscience must be formed and reinforced. While we have a basic and innate sense of right and wrong, which God has written in our hearts, we are reminded in the Catechism that, due to sin, we must be open to having our conscience formed and its judgments refined.

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God…and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty…The human mind…is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. That is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation about…religious and moral truths…so that they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC #s 37-38).

Notice that the catechism does not speak of the conscience as being removed from the intellect, but rather that the intellect, influenced by sin and disordered appetites, tries to persuade us of other ways of thinking. Hence, we attempt either to suppress the truth, or at least to consider it doubtful and open to alternative interpretation. This is why we stand in need of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church to help us overcome our tendency to suppress and confuse the truth.

Thus, be encouraged! We who would speak, preach, and teach the world are not talking into a vacuum. Deep down inside, people know moral truth, despite their protests to the contrary. We do not work alone. The voice of God echoes in everyone’s heart. And thus as St. Paul says, By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to every one’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)

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Comments (8)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Monsignor, I’m glad you think I’m not just neurotic for pursuing a sex life now that my marriage has ended! On some level, it sounds appealing. But it is wrong. And I know it!
    Thank you for daring to speak the truth.

  2. Maria says:

    Good article again Msgr , thank you and God bless !

    And you are exactly right about the little ones too , one very importnat lesson that parents need to take in since there are parenting books out there , that would say things like how, if one parent said something, the child has no right to go to the other parent ; often the child has sensed and often more rightly than the rigid , overcontrolling parent , that something is not right or just , hence uses the God given wisdom, to find justice , which, in turn leave the overcontrolling parent feeling less in control , leading to harshness towards the child .

    It would be far better to pull back, to put oneself on the shoes of the other etc .

    but , often our fudamenatl struggle of idolatry , to give to oneself or other creatures what belongs to God, in control trust , time , efforts to know and love and adore Him etc plays into the problem, since such idolatry can lead to one being sort of ‘ let go ‘ by God , with the dulling of consceince , demonic wisdom of selfish ambitions instead of Godly wisdom , that helps one to have more that sense of the innate dignity of self and the other ..all of which , we have to struggle now for, afte The Fall, as The Lord seem to allude to , in the parable of the blind man; He uses mud and spittle, almost as if alluding to original sin and the need to be reborn, as you well pointed out , in the gift of baptsim .

    Baptism helpss us to know how far remoed we are from God’s nature and holiness and can lead us to hate what is evil, which , unless checked with the awarenss of God’s mercy in The Son, can lead to becoming frustrated, lukewarm and in turn with the hardening of heart and debt of watsed graces or become light of His mercy and merits and love , in HIm, to carry many others , in the heart and to Him, in word and deed too – so good to hear of your shoe leather ministry too and an inspiration .

    Thank God for Lent and such occasions when we can return , with God’s grace ..to behold The Holy Face …again, God willing ..

  3. Sandra says:

    “I have become quite convinced that a lot of the intense anger directed against the Church whenever we speak out against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity, homosexual marriage, etc., is due to the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong, and that what we are saying is true.”

    I agree.

    I feel the same way about some evangelicals (some, not all!!) who are constantly trying to tear down the Church. I don’t know any Catholics, whether IRL or online, who do the same thing.

  4. Micky Wolf says:

    Great piece, Monsignor. As a Certified Spiritual Director, I have been blessed to witness the truth of your statements–“We do not work alone; The voice of God echoes in everyone’s heart.”–be stirred into life by the Spirit in various direction sessions. While these experiences may be ‘painful’ in the moment, the outcome is often nothing less than a sincere desire for repentance and conversion. Pure joy for all involved! Thank you for your boldness in speaking this Truth in Love.

  5. Claire L. says:

    What a good article and an interesting study! I try to imagine what rabbit the toddlers would have chosen if the bad one would have offered them candies…
    I don’t believe in the myth of primitive purity that is within all small children; that they will automatically chose what is write for them. As you have written, conscience has to be formed and reinforced.

  6. John says:

    Linking it to yesterday’s gospel
    John 3:19-21

    And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,
    but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.
    For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light,
    so that his works might not be exposed.
    But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
    so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

  7. one anonymous says:

    I (sadly) believe a conscience can be “seared” and consequently absent of all the “good” it should be and is intended to be by God Who created man in His image. I think we are seeing some of that today (maybe more and more) and I think we have seen it in past History too with man’s horrible inhumanity to one another. I do agree though that there are many who DO have a conscience and KNOW they are doing wrong and WANT to follow good but are so wrapped up in the world, they are so caught up in the temptations of the devil that seduce and enslave, that they feel they have no hope (another lie of the devil). But there is ALWAYS hope in Jesus Christ Who can and will break the shackles of sin and death to make us free!!

    1 Timothy 4:1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.

  8. Lisa says:

    I also think that drugs and alcohol are conscience killers and that is why so many people can act in ways that are contrary to the laws of God. That’s why they become addicted. Because when the drugged effect wears off, the truth is waiting for them. So they drink and drug again. Also and concurrently, a constant immersion in television, music and the internet. I’ve observed many people who cannot be quiet. They keep their t.v.’s on in their house night and day, their radios (or iPods, or whatever) on in their cars constantly …. add to that a self imposed “busyness” that keeps them from having any quiet time at all — It seems to me many are actively running from that still, small voice. But it’s there, nonetheless.