The Duty to Form One’s Conscience in the Truth

Ignorance is bliss… so think many. But they say this because they really want to do what they want to do. Ignorance only excuses a person who has invincible ignorance, which happens when a person has no possibility of knowing about the morality of an action. This is most common among children and very uneducated people.

What if an engineer said ignorance is bliss? He designed a built a beautiful bridge, a design that everyone praises. Then an earthquake strikes the city, the bridge collapses, and many lives are lost. In the enquiry after the event, the judges discover that the engineer didn’t do a seismic study of his design before building the bridge… because he didn’t know how. Would everyone excuse him for his ignorance? No, of course not. He should have known, that was his job. At least he should have hired a consultant who could have done the seismic study for him. The same is true about doctors who diagnose illnesses: it is their job to know.

To have the freedom to make good moral decisions, each is obligated to form his/her conscience well. The duty to form the conscience takes priority over the duty to follow the conscience enlightened by truth. Formation is God’s way to enlighten the conscience. As Jesus says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Truth frees our conscience.

Discovering and Overcoming Ignorance and Bad Formation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches what happens without reliable formation:

“Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct” (CCC 1792).

“If… the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience” (CCC 1793).

If a person is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the person does not bear the guilt of the evil act. Yet the act itself remains evil, and the person eventually must confront the evil and take responsibility for his acts.

per example, there was a handsome young college student who had been a good athlete in high school. His father taught him that the way you deal with women is to conquer them. This is what he did throughout high school and college.

One day this student met a girl who—as he described her—was beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside. He realized that if he were to conquer this girl he would destroy her beauty. It was at that moment that he fully discovered the erroneous formation he had received. He began to rediscover and study his faith, which totally changed his life. He learned the freedom of true love.

So, true and certain knowledge—good formation—is freedom. It allows the conscience to choose what is good. This is why it is so important to form one’s conscience well, to acquire true knowledge of what is good or evil, of what will make us free. Freedom of conscience mean freedom to follow one’s well-formed conscience, freedom to do what is right—no one should be force to act against his conscience (see CCC 1782), which is freedom to love.

Fr. John R. Waiss


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