In my online class on the Catechism (for the Institute of Catholic Culture), we recently discussed conscience. Many today confuse conscience with their opinion or what they “feel” is right or wrong. However, the Catechism has this to say: Conscience is 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. … It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778). Conscience interacts with our innate sense of fundamental moral principles (St. Jerome and later St. Thomas Aquinas call this synderesis).
I have written more technically on the definition and understanding of conscience here: The True Meaning of Conscience. In today’s post I’d like to write about it more from the standpoint of experience.
Let’s start with an early text from Genesis:
The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen. So the LORD said to Cain: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen. If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Gen 4:4-7).
In this passage we see Cain’s internal struggle with anger and sin, but also another primordial reality in man: the existence of conscience and our experience of its “voice.”
What is the voice of conscience? The Catechism describes it this way:
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776).
Notice that the conscience hears the voice of God and interacts with our innate sense of the law of God. The conscience exists because God has written His law into every heart. It is there, and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it, though many try to do so. It is this reality that is powerfully and poetically described in the Genesis account of Cain. God’s voice echoes within Cain and warns him of the demonic presence of sinful anger. He also summons Cain to hope, indicating that he is capable of mastering it.
Tragically, Cain refused to heed his conscience. He refused to heed the voice of God echoing in him. Make no mistake, Cain knew that what he was doing was wrong. Though Cain had a fallen nature and was living in fallen world influenced by fallen angel, he still had a conscience; he still heard God’s voice in his soul.
It is common to hear today, even among the clergy, that people really don’t know any better when it comes to moral teaching. They then claim that because people have not been properly taught they cannot be expected to understand important moral concepts nor should they be held accountable for their poor moral decisions. I do not agree; this sort of thinking amounts to a denial of the existence of the conscience and synderesis. In my experience, most people know very well that what they are doing is wrong. It is true that the voice of our conscience can err and that competing voices can distract or mislead us, but underneath all the layers of denial, suppression, and contrary voices, we know quite well the basics of right and wrong. For example, we don’t like being lied to; we know that lying is wrong. We don’t like to have things stolen from us; we know that stealing is wrong. We don’t like to be sexually exploited; we know that it is wrong to do so to others.
The existence of the conscience clearly taught in this text from Genesis. Here are some other Scripture passages that affirm the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within everyone:
- 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).
- We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and trust it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).
- And thy ears shall hear the voice of one admonishing thee behind thy back: This is the way, walk ye in it: and go not aside neither to the right hand, nor to the left (Is. 30:21).
- See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him (Ex 23-20-21).
Yes, the voice of God echoes within us and is in the very heart of our conscience.
Towards a Rediscovery – There is little reference to the conscience today, even among the clergy. I suppose this is because the word was misused a great deal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many people would misuse the term to justify sinful behavior, saying, “I’m only following my conscience.” In making such a statement they are equating their opinion with conscience. Conscience implies an act of judgment and so surely accesses the intellect, but it is deeper than that. It interacts with our innate sense of fundamental moral principles (synderesis).
Because the work of the conscience is so deep, people will often construct elaborate rationalizations to try to suppress its voice. They surround themselves with false teachers who will “tickle their ears.” Deep down, though, they know that what they are doing is wrong.
Consider some examples and thoughts from pastoral experience:
- I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples who are fornicating and sometimes cohabiting as well. Despite the modern world’s claim that such behavior is fine, despite the couple’s attempts to convince themselves that it’s really OK, despite their attempts to not think about it, when I speak frankly with them about it, it’s clear that they know what they are doing is wrong.
- I have walked the streets of Southeast Washington, D.C. and talked with “boys in the hood.” When in conversation I tell them that they ought to stop selling and using and stealing and instead get themselves to God’s house, it’s clear that they know what they are doing is wrong.
- I have spoken with pro-choice demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court and told them directly that they know in their heart that abortion is wrong. They argue with me and often get quite hostile, sometimes attacking me personally for being a man and a priest, but I can see in their eyes and in their overly defensive anger that they know it really is
- I have become quite convinced that much of the intense anger directed at the Church whenever we speak out against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity, and homosexual “marriage” is in fact evidence that we have reached the conscience and pricked it. The anger comes from the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true.
- Attempts to suppress the conscience are not usually very successful. When someone violates the zone of insulation we attempt to erect around ourselves, we can easily get angry. Deep down inside, though, we know that the Church and the Scriptures are right.
- Some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine. Deep down inside, though, they know better.
While each of us has an innate sense of right and wrong, and God has written His law in our hearts, the Catechism reminds us 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. This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation … about … religious and moral truths … so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC 37-38).
We who try to teach and hand on the faith need to remember the fact of the conscience and never lose heart. We are ultimately appealing to things that people already know. This is so at least in terms of fundamental morality. There may be certain advanced topics that require informed discourse, but the basics are written in our hearts. The fact that there we get angry responses does not necessarily mean that we have failed; it may be just the opposite. We may have struck more than a nerve; we may have touched the conscience. Don’t lose heart.
What, then should the pastor, catechist, teacher, parent, and evangelizer do? Speak the truth in love. Speak it with confidence, knowing that every person has a conscience, and even when it has been suppressed or ignored, it can still be reached. St. Paul gave good advice to Timothy in this regard:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).