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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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)