Friday, February 01, 2019 - Updated: 2:53 pm
QUESTION: I often hear people talk about what they do or don’t do and sum it up by saying, “but it is really up to my conscience.” Somehow to me that translates as “doing what I want,” and I’m not comfortable with that. Where is the church on all that?
ANSWER: When people think about “conscience” they are really asking two questions: “What is conscience?” and “How does it work?”
St. Thomas Aquinas set us on the right path when he related these two questions and pointed out that conscience is not merely a set of norms, but it is a consistent life pattern of making practical decisions according to those norms. Conscience is an active method of making correct judgments upon sound principles.
Some ask about how the norms are found within us. Often, when we know a person, we say that we also know what they think and how they will act. In the same way, because we are created in the image and likeness of God and because we share in a special relationship with him, we not only have knowledge of God but knowledge of his plan and expectations for us. That is why St. Paul can say we know “the mind of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
We “know” God because of sacred Scripture and human experience. That knowledge helps us to understand what God expects of us. This “knowledge” is the context for what we know as conscience.
It is important to note that God has planted within us a set of general principles. Applying these principles to daily life is the function of conscience. The activity begins with what is called “forming” one’s conscience.
Conscience never functions in isolation. The insights of others are helpful, and especially the teaching office of the church and the lived experience of centuries of believers. Carefully listening to this experience is an indispensable means of forming one’s conscience. This step makes all the difference between doing what I want and doing what is right. Many of the difficulties experienced today in the area of our moral lives are the result of ignoring this essential step of conscience formation.
Some say that conscience narrows our perspective. But the opposite is true. People who ignore conscience make decisions because they personally feel good about what they intend to do. People of conscience make decisions from wider horizons. Not only do they consider how they feel about what they intend to do, but consider the principles within themselves and the consequences of the intended action. Having weighed all of these internal and external factors, the person of conscience then proceeds as one bound to follow the rightness of that action.
Conscience then is not merely “doing what we are told,” nor is it “doing what we want.” It is performing an action based upon an inner conviction of the correctness of that action. That conviction is the result of a “dialogue” with God’s word and its living tradition within the church. Conscience, far from being a terrible burden, is really a great gift.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.