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What is the conscience?

According to paragraph 1778 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” To understand better this definition, it is useful first of all to point out what conscience is not. It is not an emotion or feeling, even a “gut feeling,” as is often said. Rather, conscience is an action of the intellect, a judgment of reason.

That is not to say that emotions or feelings are unimportant or morally irrelevant, only that they are not to be identified with conscience itself. If they proceed from virtuous dispositions, emotions can be very helpful in assisting reason’s judgment about whether an action is morally good or bad. We can think of the person who has always observed justice in her transactions with others; her feelings about whether a proposed business deal is fair or proper could go a long way in aiding her conscience. On the other hand, unruly or vicious emotions are apt to present obstacles or hindrances to forming correct moral judgments about concrete actions. Hence, it is critical that right reason has its influence on the emotions before the emotions can be trusted to aid in the moral judgments of reason.

Also according to the definition, conscience is a judgment about the moral quality of a concrete act. This emphasis is to distinguish the moral judgment of conscience from the moral judgment in the classroom. In an ethics or moral theology class, for example, participants are making many judgments about the moral qualities of human actions, but they are generally doing so by considering those actions in the abstract and often hypothetically. We might study the conditions necessary for a just war and make judgments concerning the morality of going to war in certain imagined cases. We might even apply our learned knowledge of moral principles to make qualitative judgments about human actions performed in historically real wars or battles (e.g., involving the bombing of a certain city or village in a particular war). But none of these judgments would be about a concrete act in the way the catechism is using the term. It means concrete in the sense of an individual judging his or her own action, whether it is considered in the future, in the present, or in the past.

The judgment of the moral quality of one’s own act can take different forms, depending on whether the action is anticipated (either far into the future or even in the next moment) or already completed. A person may judge that a certain action is obligatory and must be performed; here conscience is said to be commanding. Or, he may judge that the action is sinful and therefore must be omitted; in which case conscience is said to be forbidding. Alternatively, he might judge that the action may be performed as lawful, but not necessarily; as such conscience is said to be permitting. Lastly on the anticipated side, a person may judge that an action is advisable as the better but perhaps not only lawful option; thus, conscience is said to be counseling. However, if the judgment comes after the action has been done, conscience may be either excusing, approving, or condemning, depending on various factors in the concrete.

Since conscience is an individual person’s act of moral judgment, it is not guaranteed to be infallible. Accordingly, conscience can be further distinguished into true (judging the morality of the act correctly) and false (judging incorrectly). As there are often multiple ways of being wrong, the false conscience can be either scrupulous or lax. The first happens when a person judges without sufficient reason that an action is sinful, or that there is grave sin when objectively there is venial sin only. The second involves the opposite error, when without sufficient reason a person judges himself free from real moral obligations.

Of course, while we may sometimes be mistaken even despite our best efforts, moral responsibility demands that we always endeavor to possess a true conscience. This is where both the moral principles learned through study and our concrete experiences from the past become indispensably important. Thankfully, in the natural law, supernatural revelation (found in sacred Scripture and sacred tradition), and the constant guidance of the church, God has abundantly provided the resources necessary for the lifelong task and privilege of forming our consciences according to his loving will.

Arias is an assistant professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020