Resolving Doubts and Uncertainty in our Formation
Forming our conscience responsibly includes developing the virtue of prudence, the habit of properly forming and exercising the conscience, knowing when we can trust its formation and act on its judgments. A prudent conscience is like well-exercised muscles that enable us to perform well on the sports field. We become prudent by regularly listening to God’s gentile voice we need moments of silence to pray and meditate, especially meditating on God’s Holy Word.
A lax conscience arises when we act without first forming our conscience, acting on convenience and desire, rather than on the judgment of how our action would impact our relationship with God and others. A boy’s stomach may move him to dig into the birthday cake before his sister is allowed to blow out the candles. A well-formed conscience would direct the boy to wait and enjoy the cake in thanksgiving for the life of his sister instead of hurting his relationship with his sister and with his parents.
A scrupulous conscience is one paralyzed by doubt, dreading that every decision may be a mortal sin deserving eternal punishment. Often this is rooted in self-conscious pride, trusting in oneself and not in God and in a trustworthy, well-formed spiritual guide or confessor. The scrupulous person often finds him/herself trapped in legalistic rules that are impossible to fulfill, rather than learning to give him/herself with the full freedom of love in the service of God and others.
Sometimes we have a childlike doubt and our conscience cannot decide whether an act is objectively good or bad. If the decision is important, then we need to get the formation to resolve the doubt or seek advice from someone with reliable formation. Often we can do this when going to confession, asking the priest to help us resolve our moral dilemma. We can also get clarity by reading God’s Word, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its Compendium, or some other good moral guide. In resolving doubt,
“Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: ‘Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience… you sin against Christ’ (1Cor 8:12). Therefore ‘it is right not to… do anything that makes your brother stumble’” (CCC 1789).
A daily examination of conscience is also recommended with frequent confession. This will give us an opportunity to consult our doubts in spiritual direction. Yet we can never surrender our personal responsibility for the formation of our conscience and for decisions we make, as St. Josemaría says:
“The advice of another Christian and especially a priests advice, in questions of faith or morals, is a powerful help for knowing what God wants of us in our particular circumstances. Advice, however, does not eliminate personal responsibility. In the end, it is we ourselves, each one of us on our own, who have to decide for ourselves and personally to account to God for our decisions.
“Over and above any private advice stands Gods law, which is contained in sacred Scripture, guarded and taught by the Magisterium of the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. When a particular piece of advice contradicts Gods word as taught by the Magisterium, we have to reject it decisively. God will give His grace to those who act with an upright intention. He will inspire them as to what to do and, when necessary, He will enable them to find a priest who knows how to lead their souls along pure and right paths even though at times they may be difficult ones” (Conversations, 93).
Fr. John R. Waiss
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