Cain’s Conscience – A Reflection on the Truth That We Really DO Know What We Are Doing

In today’s reading from Genesis at Mass Cain is angry, murderously angry. And God speaks to Cain in the depths of his soul. The text is from Genesis 4:

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)

One of the glories of Genesis is how descriptively it deals with primordial human realities such as our very existence, the foundation of marriage and family, the subsequent and terrible fall from grace and the struggle with sin that ensues. In this passage we see not only described the internal struggle with anger and sin in Cain, but also another primordial reality in man, the existence of our conscience.

What is the 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.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776)

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. It is there and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it, though many do try. It is this reality that is powerfully and poetically described in the Genesis account of Cain. God’s voice echoes in Cain’s depths and warns him of the demonic presence of sinful anger. God also summons Cain to hope indicating he can master it.

Tragically Cain refused to heed his conscience. He refused to heed the voice of God echoing in him. But note well, he knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong. Though Cain had a fallen nature and was living in fallen predominated by fallen angel, he still had a conscience. He still heard God’s voice echo in his soul. He still knew what he was doing.

It is common to hear today, even among some clergy, that people really don’t know any better when it comes to moral teaching. Since they have not been properly taught they cannot be expected to understand important moral concepts nor should be held very accountable for the poor moral decisions they might make. I don’t agree and think that this sort of thinking amounts to a denial of the existence of the conscience. 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 either be intentionally suppressed or 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.

The existence of the conscience clearly taught by this text from Genesis 4. There are other Scriptures that also affirm  the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within every individual. For example:

  1. 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).
  2. 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)
  3. 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).
  4. 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)
  5. 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 in us and this is the heart of our conscience. Scripture teaches that every human person has a conscience.

Towards a Rediscovery – There is little reference to the conscience today, even among 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 am only following my conscience.” But in this sense they equating their opinion or their own stinking thinking with conscience. Conscience surely accesses the intellect but it is deeper than that. It is a basic and innate sense of fundamental moral principles. Because it is so deep people will often construct elaborate rationalizations to try and suppress its voice. They will surround themselves with false teachers to tickle their ears. But in the end, deep down they know what they do is wrong.

 Consider some examples and thoughts from pastoral experience:

  1. I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples that are either co-habiting 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 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 and talked with the “boys in the hood.” And when in conversation I tell them they ought to stop selling and using and stealing and get themselves into God’s house, they too know what they are doing, they know it is wrong and that they ought to get to God’s house. They know!
  3. 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 back and often get quite verbally hostile, may attack me personally for being a priest and a man. But I can see it in their eyes and in their hyper-defensive anger that they know it really IS wrong. They do know.
  4. I have become quite convinced that a lot of the intense anger directed against the Church whenever we speak against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity and homosexual marriage is evidence that we have reached the conscience and pricked it. I am convinced that a lot of that anger comes from the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true.
  5. Attempts to suppress our conscience are not usually all that successful and when someone endangers the zone of insulation we attempt to erect, we can easily get mad. But deep down inside we know the Church and the Scriptures are right. We know.
  6. Some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine. But deep down inside, they know better. They know.

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

A few basic teachings on conscience may help since, as I have stated, I think a lot of us have neglected to meditate much on the existence of the conscience and what it really is. Here are a few teachings from Scripture and the Catechism

  1. Everyone has a 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… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776)  Conscience” is the innate sense of the law of God in each one of us. God has written his law in everyone’s heart. His voice echoes in every soul. We have seen above how Scripture also affirms this truth.
  2. We must listen carefully to our conscience for its voice can lose its proper influence if we do not take time to listenIt 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. (CCC # 1779) Ignoring the voice of our conscience does not mean it goes completely away. There can be many things that tweak our conscience and stir us to hear its voice. Some react well to these reminders, others with anger. But the point of the Catechism is that our conscience should not have to be tweaked or awakened, we should be in touch with it at all times by living a reflective life.
  3. Conscience must be formed and reinforced– It is true that we have a basic and innate sense of right and wrong and that God has written his law in our hearts. But the Catechism also reminds us that, due to sin, we must also 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 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 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.
  4. 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 to dignity of having a conscience and that even when that conscience has been suppressed or ignored, it can 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)

12 Replies to “Cain’s Conscience – A Reflection on the Truth That We Really DO Know What We Are Doing”

  1. Thank you Msgr. Your encouragement and clear teaching are sure ways to Jesus. The challenge for me is to stay away from judging others and pay attention to what I am doing and thinking. When I spend time with Him, I remember I am in His ocean of mercy and I can see the others with His encouragment and love. For so long I was lost in my intellect and imagination. Now I am free in Christ and He will use His gifts to me for good. I cannot.

  2. This is a very good reflection. Even children know the basic truths. I knew them too, without being told, but I fell away, accepting the cultural norms, ex. that abortion, for all history considered a horrible act, now considered okay — a choice. When I was first introduced to the notion (in my late teens), I remember being repelled by it (was this my conscience?) but then I accepted what others around me said. I did not have the moral compass I do now … but why did that little voice not speak louder? It took me years (probably in my late 20s) before I thought it was wrong, but still I didn’t do a thing to stop it. I never said to my friends (yes, in the plural) — Don’t do it. I’ll help you take care of the baby. It still hurts …

    1. I have found it true as well that Children have a basic sense of right and wrong. Even at a very young age they seem to know when they have transgressed, at least in the basic moral issues and when punishment comes they know they have it coming.

  3. Greetings Msgr.

    Homalies about the will have been tossed out along with those regarding conscience. The two go together hand in glove as the will is our response to the Lord’s prompting. So when discussing the will, it seems that adressing virtue is intimately linked (as well as vice).
    I’m 47, I can’t recall a homily in a diocese in my life in America on these topics.
    Note from the flock: Please feed us!

  4. We have a priest from Africa in our parish now who hasn’t realized yet that talking about sin is in bad taste, may drive people away and negatively affect the collection. As a result, many people are struck by the simple beauty and reality of his homilies.

    I have to say that I am very impressed with priests from Africa. They seem very at home with spiritual realities. They don’t feel obliged to talk baseball or to tell jokes, and generally seem incapable of giving a bad homily. They are serious priests.

    1. Yes, I agree, they are often freed of the Western world’s insistence that everything be “nice” and pleasing.I think Jesus himself would be very hard for most Americans to tolerate based on this same observation.

  5. First, to be controversial, I’ll point out that your quotation is mistaken. You write: “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… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776)”

    The catechism 1776 says:
    “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.”
    The quote is in fact from the second Vatican Council.

    The problem with your quotation, as I see it, is that it is important to distinguish the law inscribed on the heart (i.e. objective natural law) from conscience (subjective judgment applying the principles of natural law). As St. Paul says, conscience bears witness to the law; it is not the law itself.

    Moreover, another problem is that you seem to take conscience as a “sense.” Whatever you mean by “sense” (awareness?, feeling? – is it rational or not?) you seem to exclude the fact that traditional Catholic theology avoids calling conscience a “sense” but instead calls it a “judgment” and more precisely my judgment of what “I” must do here and now in this particular situation. This is because the traditional theology understands conscience as an act of human intelligence rather than some sort of “thing” above or quasi-independent of intellect.

    While “sense” understood as a feeling may be included as consequent on the judgment of conscience, it is not primary. And the great danger today is that people judge based on feelings or something irrational. For example, I may feel bad in scolding my wayward son, but it doesn’t mean I acted wrongly. Or I may feel good in telling a lie to cheer someone up, but it doesn’t mean I acted rightly. The danger of making conscience primarily a “sense” is that you open yourself up to the errors of Freudian pyschoanalysis where conscience can reduced to a super-ego.

    I think, and correct me if wrong, you are highlighting what St. Thomas Aquinas called synderesis in your treatment of conscience. This is the mind’s (or according to Bonaventure, the will’s) inclination toward knowledge of the general principles of natural law – before making the particular judgment here and now (which is conscience properly understood). However, synderesis is not properly conscience because it is habit not act, and a knowledge of general principles and not their application here and now.

    Finally, it needs to be pointed out that one can make a judgment before an act (condemning or approving) or after an act (commanding, forbidding, or permitting). In Catholic theology, conscience properly speaking “comes before” the action. (This insight actually comes from St. Paul.) But, there is a notion of conscience that comes after the judgment and convicts us or approves us. (This notion is found in the Old Testament.) Both notions are important, but so is the distinction.

    I hope you don’t mind my friendly critique. It is a good post.

    One very final point or more of a question. You sometimes write of a “voice of God” and a “voice of conscience.” Do you see a difference between them?

    1. Yes, my audience is not scholastics or Thomists. I speak to ordinary people who do not make such fine distinctions. Hence the quote from the catechsim rather than the Summa and finer distinctions such as synderesis and what part of the intellect is engaged etc. I am not sure how I misquoted the Catechechism, I just cut and pasted the text so I am not sure where the error is but I’ll look again and try and fix it. I do not reject your critique but I often find that trained theologians (especially scholastics) will find much to parse but that ordinary believers do have all these gears turning in their brain and that to hit them with all these fine distinctions, many of them disputed among theologians, is simply to overwhelm and to become obscure. The article was quite long enough already.

      Regarding the use of the word “sense,” it is less preceise than the world of trained theologians would like. But so, I suppose, is the catechism’s use of the word “voice.” Regarding “sense” one need not presuppose feelings as you suggest or wonder. Language is a bit more flexible in this regard. For example, if somone said to me, “Come on, be a little more sensible” I would NOT presume they were telling me to be more in touch with my feelings, but rather that I should be more reasonable about something. Or again, if someone says to some one else, “Come to your senses!” I understand them to mean, “Come to your right mind.” Or again, if I were told, “Have you no sense?” I would understand them to mean, “Have you no understanding?” Or yet again, if they were to tell me, “You lack common sense.” I would understand them to mean that I lacked common intelligence, not that my feelings were off.

      Hence, while theologians may use words in a strict sense within their discipline (which is proper) ordinary people use words in more of an ordinary sense and exhibit flexibility that may alarm or unsettle a theologian. But as I say, I speak to ordinary people here and use words in ordinary ways. I was surely schooled in all the Thomistic distinctions but in 22 years of deployment on the front lines as a parish priest I have had to “go native” and speak in an ordinary way. I can promise you, no matter how many times you try and tell the people in the pew what synderesis means, they are not going to retain it because ordinary people do not use words like this or other technical distinctions such as speculative vs practical intellect, appetitive will, irascible and concupiscible etc. etc. No, I speak to ordinary people in an ordinary way using ordinary words in the usual sense, rather than the strict sense. THey speak analog not digital.

      Regarding your question of “Voice” and how I seem to use it interchageably, (Voice of conscience, and voice of God) the interchangability is intentional in that the Catechesism tends to do this as well. In 1776 above the quote speaks of the Law and its voice and speaks also of the voice of God. In so doing it does not seem to go to pains to make lengthy distinctions but more poetically speaks of a voice within us which is there because God has written his law in our hearts and also because his voice echoes in us. The point seems to be that there is a voice which is deep within us which we can hear and must obey.

  6. The concept of conscience makes me think that everyone KNOWS God exists, even if they do not actively BELIEVE it. Is this a viable opinion from a theological perspective, or am I misguided? Of course, the Catechism does speak of invincible ignorance; however, I understand this more as in application to actions distorted by a disordered will, than to the fundamental fact of our knowledge of God’s existence.
    I also loved your way of linking Cain’s anger with conscience – I had never thought of this before, but it is true that one way in which sinners who know they are in the wrong, but are deceiving themselves they are not, react to criticism, is precisely in this vitriolic manner. There are few calm objectors to geniune reproval of sin.

  7. I haven’t been whistling lately. Thanks be to God. Fear not! I know it’s coming. Give a little whistle.

Comments are closed.