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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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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Conscience: The Truth Shall Set You Free

Conscience is a wonderful gift, one whereby God reveals to us what is right and wrong in the secret of our heart. As St. Paul tells us:

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they… show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when… God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16).

Because each one has a conscience that accuses and excuses, Christ can say: “If you continue in my word… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). True knowledge of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, gives us the freedom needed to choose the good.

Our Personal Moral Guide

We all have a sense of a moral conscience, of that voice telling us that we have done wrong, or that we should or should not do this or that. But what is the conscience?

The conscience is simply the intellect—that spiritual faculty that judges the truth or falsity of something. The conscience judges how a past, present, or future action is right or wrong, by how it impacts our relationship with God and others. As the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

CCCC 372. What is the moral conscience?

Moral conscience, present in the heart of the person, is a judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins him to do good and to avoid evil. Thanks to moral conscience, the human person perceives the moral quality of an act to be done or which has already been done, permitting him to assume responsibility for the act. When attentive to moral conscience, the prudent person can hear the voice of God who speaks to him or her.

The conscience doesn’t create moral laws, but bears witness to the truth of those laws and judges how they apply to “particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil” (CCC 1778). This is why the Catechism says that:

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776, quoting Gaudium et Spes 16).

The conscience discovers God’s call to enter a loving relationship with him and with all his children. It discovers how our actions affect those relationships, either as a loving response that affirms and deepens—or a selfish response that denies and rejects—those relationships.

As we go through life, our conscience acquires intuitive knowledge and awareness of the goodness or evil of our actions. We also can learn right and wrong from our parents and from the formation we receive at church, school, and in society. True knowledge is essential for the true freedom needed for morality, to live in the truth.

If we just live by our feelings—by “if it feels good, do it”—then our feelings will control and manipulate us—there is no freedom in manipulation. If we listen to our conscience and let it direct our feelings and emotions toward the good, it will tell us how a particular action will hurt or deepen our relationship with God and with others. Only then will we be free to choose the good and reject the bad; only then will we be free to love.


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.

All our free actions have a message that is either good or evil, never indifferent. For the message of our action to be good, it must have a good object, intention and circumstances together.

Fr. John R. Waiss


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The Object: Our Action’s Message

Let us return to our consideration of the Catholic teaching on morality that we left off a few weeks ago.

The Object: Our Action’s Message

We classify an action by its objective dimension, which is called the object. When an action’s object is evil—such as murder, the killing of an innocent human being—it is morally evil to do it. A particular choice can also be evil in its subjective dimension (motive or intention) or when objective circumstances make the choice evil. For a choice to be good, its object, motive, and circumstances all must be good.

The object of a human action—its objective dimension or nature—is what a particular action objectively “says” or does especially in relationship to the persons we love. If I point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, even if the gun doesn’t fire, I “say” something evil to that person (doing so as a joke with an obviously toy gun is not the same as doing so with a real gun that just doesn’t fire). It is not so much what physically happens that determines the object but the objective message that is being communicated to God and to the other person: “I wish you were dead… I consider your life as an obstacle to my happiness and personal fulfillment.”

As one can see, the action’s intention, the motive behind the message, is very important. This is the action’s subjective dimension, what one wills or desires (CCC 1752-53). The object of a kiss is to communicate and express one’s love—something good—but Judas intended to use a kiss to betray Jesus and hand him over to those who would kill him (see Mark 14:44). Judas’ evil motive made the good object into an evil act. Likewise, a politician may go to church and receive Holy Communion to look good and win votes, while supporting abortion and other evils. Here the intention desecrates the holiest of actions we can perform. So the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “An added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil, that in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving)” (CCC 1753).

How do we know our motive is good? St. John Paul II tells us: “An intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end” (Veritatis Splendor). In other words, when the action’s motive is to help others get to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ and to help them get to heaven.

Some actions (objects) are intrinsically evil by their very nature and so can never be justified, such as abortion, adultery, deliberately killing innocent life, euthanasia, slavery, etc. As the Catechism says:

“There are some concrete acts—such as fornication—that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (CCC 1755).

“There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC 1756).

Having “good motives” doesn’t make acts with evil objects suddenly good, because it is never lawful to do evil to make good come of it (see Romans 3:8), even if one intends to promote the welfare of an individual, of a family, or of society in general. This is where some moral axioms arise, such as, the ends do not justify the means, or never do evil to do good, or one can’t rob the rich to give to the poor.

Circumstances (the who, what, when, where, why, and how) surrounding a human act also may impact its morality, as the Catechism says:

The circumstances including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good or right an action that is in itself evil (CCC 1754).

For example, cussing in church is a greater offense than cussing while driving in a car: cussing in God’s presence and in the presence of those trying to pray profanes as well as offends. Likewise, using a weapon to steal becomes armed robbery, which is more serious; working on Sunday unnecessarily may cause one to break the Sabbath rest and God’s call to worship.

All our free actions have a message that is either good or evil, never indifferent. For the message of our action to be good, it must have a good object, intention and circumstances together.

Fr. John R. Waiss


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Mercy Sunday, Pope John Paul II and St. Josemaría

Today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. This devotion was promoted by St. Faustina and promulgated by John Paul II in the year 2000, when he canonized Sr. Faustina. Yet this devotion also has profound link to St. Josemaría, the founder of Opus Dei.

St. Josemaría encouraged people to have some devotions, but not too many. As he wrote: “Have only a few private devotions, but be constant in them” (The Way, 552). One that he had—of which few people ever knew or heard—was the private devotion to the Merciful Love.

The Merciful Love was a devotion that arose during the First World War from the mystical experience of a French nun, Sister Maria Teresa Desandais. The nun had an image painted of her vision on which the devotion is based. The image shows Jesus on the Cross enveloped by the Eucharistic host; his eyes are serene and opened; his exposed heart is emanating flames that form the word, “caritas.” Sr. Maria Teresa died in during the Second World War. So did Sr. Faustina Kowalska in Poland. She also received a vision from our Lord under a similar title, that of Divine Mercy. She too had a painting commissioned. She saw our Lord standing with rays emanating from Christ’s wounded heart, the fount from which God’s mercy flow. Our Lord asked that a feast in honor of Divine Mercy be established for the Sunday after Easter, which Pope John Paul II did in the year 2000.

The Church doesn’t require Catholics to practice either of these devotions, which is likely why St. Josemaría kept his so private: it was not a required part of the spirit of Opus Dei. The chief message of both devotions is that God is rich in mercy, not a mean, exacting ogre looking for an excuse to condemn us to hell. No. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). God is the merciful father of the prodigal son (and daughter) who runs out to meet us, giving us a passionate embrace and restoring our sonship to the full (Luke 15:11-32). He shows us his infinite love for us by sending his most precious son to suffer and die on the Cross (John 3:14-21). St. John Paul II said:

“There is nothing that man needs more than Divine Mercy—that love which is benevolent, which is compassionate, which raises man above his weakness to the infinite heights of the holiness of God… It is a message that is clear and understandable for everyone. Anyone can come here, look at this image of the merciful Jesus, His Heart radiating grace…: ‘Fear nothing. I am with you always’ (Diary, 586). And if this person responds with a sincere heart: ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ he will find comfort in all his anxieties and fears… Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.”

Our Lord told Sr. Faustina that: “The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion will obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” (Diary, 699). To obtain this mercy, we too need to: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), since the unmerciful soul will not be forgiven (cf. Matthew 18:23-35). Therefore, we need to forgive all those who have hurt us in any way.

Then we can say with St. Josemaría: “Cheerfulness is a necessary consequence… of knowing that our Father God loves us with a predilect love, that he holds us up and helps us and forgives us” (The Forge, 332). Let’s encourage our friends and family to trust in the risen Lord, abandoning their anxieties to him so as to experience this Easter joy. They will not be disappointed.

Fr. John R. Waiss


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