Lead Your Conscience

November 29, 2008 § 3 Comments

I don’t know how often I’ve seen or heard someone say something to the effect that “at the end of the day, I have to follow my conscience”.

I could not possibly disagree more. At the end of the day we do not stand before our own judgment. We stand before the judgment of truth.

Now it is true that in the very moment in which we act we ought to follow our consciences, properly understood — that is, our consciences properly understood as an interior witness to the truth, often set against our desires, impulses, rationalizations, and comfortable self-affirming biases. But the notion of conscience, and the sincere following of conscience, as the ultimate arbiter and justifier of our behavior, could not possibly be more wrong. Instead of elaborating on this in more detail in my own words, I’ll leave you with some explanation from the authoritative Magisterium of the Church:

To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment [that one acts rightly] is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment. …

[T]here is [an erroneous] tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. …

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”. …

Conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error. As the Council puts it, “not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin”. In these brief words the Council sums up the doctrine which the Church down the centuries has developed with regard to the erroneous conscience. …

In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a “subjective” error about moral good with the “objective” truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. …

The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good. …

… because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth …

I repeat the admonition: do not follow your conscience. Lead it; lead it to the truth. The reason we have a conscience, a fallen and often erroneous conscience, is to help guide us to prepare and be ready for the day when we stand fully naked before the Truth, with no excuses: no excuses including the excuse “I was following my conscience”.

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§ 3 Responses to Lead Your Conscience

  • Obpoet says:

    The obvious question is how does one know when one’s conscience and the truth are one in the same?

  • JohnMcG says:

    One way is to reflect on what is informing your conscience.

  • Anonymous says:

    One practical way, I have found applies some of the time, is whether one is willing to, or skittish about, asking someone that ought to be a trustworthy source of judgment – like a sound theologian. Suppose your friend says to you “hey, if you don’t think I’m right, fine – go ask Fr. Aquinas.” And if your first emotional response is “I really rather would not” then you ought to be very, very wary of yourself at that point. Of course, this test does nothing at all for the person who is really and truly invincibly ignorant, whose ignorance is totally not due to being willingly blinded. But they are not really the problem, are they?

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