Always Follow a Conscience Enlightened by Truth
The Church highly values and respects God’s gift of conscience. Through the conscience God lights up the pathway to doing his will with the light of truth, the truth of the goodness and evil of our actions. When we seek to follow God’s will, the light of truth shines upon the conscience. This is why we are obliged to follow its certain judgments, as the Catechism explains: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself” (CCC 1791).
The judgment of the conscience is certain when the human will can place confidence in the moral judgment, which usually comes with knowledge and experience. This is also true with other types of mental judgments. For example, when a mother is reviewing the times-table with her child and asks the child, “what is 7 times 8?” The child may make the correct judgment and say, “56…” and then look to his mother to make sure: “…that’s right, mom, is it not?” The child is uncertain about the answer, even though s/he has made the right judgment. This also happens with a child making simple judgments about right and wrong: the child lacks certainty (confidence) because s/he doesn’t yet have confidence in the judgment.
We grow in certainty in our judgments when we grow in confidence in the formation needed for true judgments. A well-formed intellect will make true and infallible judgments. Returning to our example: if a person has well-formed ideas of “seven,” “eight,” “fifty-six,” “times,” and “equal,” then his judgment, “7 times 8 equals 56” will be correct. When ideas are perfectly formed the mind’s judgment are infallible.
A child often lacks formation—is ignorant—and must learn words and concepts and thus receive formation until he can make true and certain judgments. If he receives good formation he will make good judgments; if he receives bad formation he will make bad judgments.
Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed (CCC 1791).
Suppose a child has a depraved mother who teaches the child erroneously. When the mother points to yellow objects, she tells her child it’s “red;” when she points out red objects, she says they are “blue;” and blue objects are “yellow.” If she does this in a consistent manner, the child will have erroneously formed ideas of color. Later, when the child goes to school, his teacher may hold up an apple and ask: “What color is this apple?” The boy answers as he has been formed: “It’s blue!” As the other children laugh, his teacher says, “No, Johnny, it’s red.” Johnny is confused and little by little discovers the error in his formation; eventually he should even discover the source of his erroneous formation—his mother’s depravity.
By this we see how important formation is for making right judgments of conscience. If we have good formation, our conscience will make infallible judgments about what is right and wrong. We can trust our conscience—we can be certain—to the extent we can trust our conscience’s formation. As St. Josemaría says: “With sincerity, a right intention, and a minimum of Christian formation, our conscience knows how to discover Gods will” (Conversations, 93).
We must always follow our conscience when it is certain in judging that we must do something or that we must not do something. To go against our conscience is to go against the voice of God speaking to us in the core of our being (see CCC 1790, 1800).
Man has a right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be found to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (CCC 1782). So, we ought to respect the great dignity of the faculty by which man discovers the light of truth that leads to his true good and well-being.
Fr. John R. Waiss
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