Often, I hear people talk about conscience. I have to admit that I don’t really have an adult level understanding of what conscience really is. Any help would be appreciated.
When people ask about conscience, they usually assume that it is just a set of rules somehow imbedded within us. Saint Thomas Aquinas sets us on the right path when he points out that conscience not only involves a set of norms or “rules,” but also a consistent life pattern of making practical decisions according to these norms. Conscience, then, is an active ability for making correct judgments upon sound principles.
One might ask how norms become part of our lives. Often when we know a person, we say we not only know their name and face, but also that we know the way that person thinks and how he or she will act. In somewhat the same way, because we are created in the image and likeness of God and because we share in a special relationship of God’s grace, we not only have knowledge of God but also knowledge about God, that is, God’s plan and expectations of us. It seems that is why Saint Paul can say we know “the mind of the Lord” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Our knowledge of God through Sacred Scripture and human experience provides a clear picture of the way in which God expects us to live. The Church, therefore, teaches that conscience is of tremendous importance. In fact, it tells us that we are bound to obey one which is correctly formed. 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 and part of that process is what we call “forming” one’s conscience.
Conscience never functions well in isolation. While the insights of others are helpful, the teaching office of the Church brings to us the lived experience of many centuries of believers. Carefully listening to this experience is an indispensable means of forming one’s conscience.
Modern men and women accuse people of conscience as being narrow. But the opposite is true. People who do not admit to a conscience make decisions because they personally feel good about them. People of conscience make decisions from wider horizons. Not only do they consider how they feel about what they intend to do, but they also consider the principles which underlie the action and how it will affect others. Having carefully weighed all of these internal and external factors, a person of conscience then proceeds to act based on the rightness of that action.
Conscience, then, is not simply “doing what you’re told.” Neither is it doing what you want or what feels good. Rather, it is performing an action based upon an inner conviction of the correctness of that action. That conviction is the result of listening to the principles within us in dialogue with God’s Word and its living tradition within the Church. Conscience, far from being one of life’s terrible burdens, is really one of God’s greatest gifts.
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