Forming a Catholic Conscience

"In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1785)

When we hear of conscience these days, it often concerns the violation of conscience. There are laws requiring pharmacists to dispense the "morning after” pill with its abortafacient properties. Medical interns can be required to cooperate in abortions. Corporations providing health care are required to provide birth control coverage for employees. Catholic hospitals in some states are required to administer emergency contraception without even a test for pregnancy.

On the other extreme, we hear that morality is subjective and that any choice is justified if the person has acted according to his conscience. The common declaration, "This is the right choice for me,” serves to remove objective principles from moral discussions. The word "conscience” is often used to mean desire, feeling, or opinion. People go so far as to elevate their opinions over the teachings of the Church under the banner of conscience. This sometimes is referred to as primacy of conscience.

We also hear, especially in an election year, of voting our conscience. The document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, does not tell Catholics how to vote, but to vote according to a well-formed conscience. In this statement we find the response that clears the clouds from discussion of conscience. A well-formed conscience can feel violated when legislation decrees a person act in defiance of God’s law. A well-formed conscience compels one to act rightly, in spite of desire, feeling, or opinion. A well-formed conscience leads us to the candidate who best expresses an understanding of the common good.

Inscribed by God

What then is a well-formed conscience? And how does one go about forming a conscience well?

"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.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16)

A well-formed conscience has a voice that tells us how to conform our will to God’s will. God’s will is divine law, revealed to us through Scripture, tradition, and Holy Mother Church. Thus, a well-formed conscience is formed by study of the teachings of the Church. This is brought home by the U.S. bishops in "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." Four sentences are given about forming consciences, while fourteen pages are dedicated to Catholic social teaching and its application to the issues facing voters.

The Rule of Faith

In the early 5th century, St. Vincent of Lerins, writing under the pseudonym of Peregrinus, defines a "rule of faith” for determining what the faithful are to believe. He states that the Catholic faith is "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” This rule of faith is always exercised in union and fidelity to the Church and the hierarchy. St. Vincent maintains that "to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.”

In fact, St. Vincent is teaching about the sense of the faithful (Sensus Fidelium), but in speaking of Divine Law and Tradition he might also have been teaching about the ongoing formation of conscience. Conscience is an interior voice that speaks the Divine Law; conscience is formed in accordance with Sacred Tradition.

By Tradition, St Vincent means the transmission of the entirety of the Word of God, including Sacred Scripture. In fact the Church places the study of Scripture first in the formation of conscience (cf., Catechism, no. 1785). "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, no. 9).

The connection between Sacred Scripture and the formation of conscience is illustrated in the traditional examination of conscience. Guides to the Sacrament of Penance typically employ the Ten Commandments as a meditation on the divine law. In this way the penitent is brought into the presence of the Divine Law and, reflecting on his actions and omissions, determines whether he has lived seeking the good in love of God and neighbor.

Gifts of the Spirit

Bestowed on us in Baptism and strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit assist us in the formation of our conscience. The seven gifts are Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, Piety, Counsel, Fortitude, and Fear of the Lord (Wonder and Awe). While we are perhaps more comfortable or familiar with one or another of these, all of the gifts assist us and are worth tapping into through prayer. For example, in prayer we can receive the gift of Counsel through the confessional, the Word of God, spiritual direction, and the writings of the saints.

It must be stressed that the formation of conscience is ongoing. It assumes a driving desire for goodness and truth. It also assumes a sacramental life, especially the Eucharist, "the source and summit of Christian life,” and Penance, which brings "peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.”



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