Moral Theology

Conscience Formation 101

I am by no means a moral theologian (The Scriptures is my thing), but with the current state of affairs we Catholics are facing, I feel it’s my mission to at least take a shot at explaining some of teachings of the Catholic Church on Conscience Formation.  Over the past two weeks, you have heard the Bishops of the United States speak of us “violating our conscience” since the Obama Administration decided that all religious institutions, specifically Catholic institutions, have to offer sterilizations, contraceptives, and abortifacients in all healthcare plans. This is in complete violation of our religious freedoms and the First Amendment.

With all that being said, I can say that there are colleagues from Franciscan that can teach and write on moral theology ten times better than me as well as friends of mine outside of Franciscan, so I am hoping that they will add to what I have said in the comment section of these next few posts so my readers will attain the most complete understanding of Conscience Formation. For the next few posts, I would like to focus on a few points: What Conscience is Not, What Conscience Is, How Conscience Works, What Leads To An Erroneous Conscience and How To Avoid One.

In today’s day and age, there is plethora of wrong ideas about what the term conscience truly means. If you were to Google search an online dictionary, more than likely you would find this as the definition of conscience: “the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to ones’ conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong.” Many, like the above definition, are in complete contradiction with the Christian idea of conscience.

For today’ post, let’s focus on what Conscience is NOT. Conscience is not…the majority opinion, a feeling, a superego, a gut-instinct, “Jiminy Cricket” and a myth. Let’s take each of these one at a time.

Conscience as majority opinion is simply doing what the crowd is doing. It must be just fine if everyone is doing it. With the majority opinion, personal responsibility is lost to what the group is doing. The right behavior is directed by whatever opinion is popular with the group. Pope Benedict XVI says, “Truth is not determined by a majority vote.” Moral decisions should not be decided by how many people or legislators vote on a given point.

Conscience as a feeling is a very popular idea today. In the 1960’s, there was a saying, “if it feels good, do it.” Since the 1980’s, there is also another saying generated from a popular athletic company – “just do it.” This view of conscience states that the individual is the epicenter of his or her morality and they only answer to themselves. Conscience as a feeling is deeply rooted in Moral Relativism. Moral Relativism is the idea that what you think is right…is right. Nobody can tell you that you are wrong. There is no objective truth in Moral Relativism! This has been a battle that Pope Benedict XVI has taken on with the secularists of the world. Furthermore, “feelings” are just that – feelings. Feelings come and go with every passing second. According to Peter Kreeft, conscience “is first of all a knowing, an awareness of the truth about good and evil.”

Conscience as superego comes from Sigmund Freud who thought that the superego conscience were rules we followed as a child that are still in our mind and we hold on to them with our subconscious. All the rules from our parents, teachers, coaches, and employers are still left over in our minds. According to Freud, the rules we followed as children were to seek love from authoritative figures. He also said we never fully understood the rules – we just walked through motions. When we would break these rules, we would feel guilty. This guilt comes from psychological conditioning and not that we have contradicted God’s love for us.  In complete opposition to this viewpoint, the Christian conscience is an answer from God’s call. The Christian’s conscience is personal and self-chosen. Conscience is based on our reason.

Conscience as gut-instinct is about how you feel at the moment. This is could be a good place to start with conscience, but it is very limited and we must seek a more mature and Christian understanding of conscience. As Christians, we must use our reason to make decisions and also hope in God’s love throughout our entire life. “The education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (CCC 1784).

Conscience as Jiminy Cricket is often portrayed in movies or television shows as the angel and demon that stands on our shoulders. It’s the “internal voice” that we listen to do either good or evil. Our guardian angels do not whisper in our ears and tell us what to do. God does not speak to us through our Smart Phones either.  God might “speak” to us in a small way, but we must train ourselves to hear it, as we would train for a competition. A coach can only teach us so much before we can take it and make it own. God respects our freedom and allows us to use our free will to make the decision. 

Conscience as myth is the complete denial that a personal conscience even exists. These doubters see conscience as a way that organized religion keeps people under control by using guilt. (This is a favorite of the people who have either left the church or have a poor understanding of conscience. These individuals use the term – “catholic guilt.” Let’s be honest – guilt is guilt! There is no such thing as “catholic guilt.” I despise that saying by people. When I do something wrong and feel guilty, it’s not “catholic guilt” that is making me feel this way, it’s my own sin. It’s mine and I need to repent of it.) When the conscience is seen as a myth, individuals think they can do whatever they want without any sort of personal responsibility to hold them accountable. They usually push others aside for their own desires. Morality dies when the conscience is denied.

Conscience Formation 102, 103, and 104 will be posted  soon. Check back in a couple of days or even better, subscribe to the blog and you will be notified when the next post is up and ready.

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