What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (2022)

The Modern Misunderstanding of Conscience

The Catholic Church teaches that the conscience is a natural facility of our reason that directs us to do good and avoid evil; that makes judgments about the good and evil of particular acts; and that bears witness after the fact to the good or evil that we have done, such as what we call “having a guilty conscience.”1

A fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the human conscience lies at the root of many of the problems in the Catholic Church today. Very few Catholics even know what that role actually is. When pressed, many will say something along the lines of “If my conscience tells me that a particular action is all right, I can do it.”

This is just another way of saying “If it feels good, do it.” If an improperly-formed conscience leads a person to accept something as right and good based simply on his or her uninformed opinions and feelings, that person will fall into grave errors for which there is no good excuse before God:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 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, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-15)

Many Catholics erroneously believe that the conscience is a teacher, not a pupil; that it is the source of morality. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. According to the Church, the conscience is a witness to the moral law authored by God. Each Catholic is required to obey that moral law in all things. The conscience, if properly formed, calls him to obey that moral law and helps him to understand how to apply it in particular cases.

This is why the cultivation of the cardinal virtue of prudence is essential. As the Catechism teaches, “Man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts” (¶1788).

What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (1)

Result: A Deformed Belief System

The belief that the conscience is a moral authority in its own right has resulted in Catholics supporting and promoting many intrinsic evils, including contraception, sterilization, abortion, homosexual activity, pornography and euthanasia.

Many organizations vigorously promote this false understanding of the human conscience in order to gain more support from Catholic laity. One of these groups is “Catholics” for Choice (CFC), whose mission consists of attempting to convince people that they can be pro-abortion and still be “good Catholics.” In its quarterly magazine, ironically entitled Conscience, CFC attempts to legitimize the obvious paradox that “Church law affirms both the right and the responsibility of a Catholic to follow his or her conscience, even when it conflicts with church teaching2 (emphasis added).

CFC also alleges:

The Catholic Church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme. If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you are not committing a sin. Therefore, you are not excommunicated. Nor need you tell it in confession, since, in your case, abortion is not a sin.3

(Video) The Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making •

It is easy to demonstrate that CFC does not really believe this principle itself. For example, would it concede that it was legitimate for someone to “carefully examine their conscience” and then decide that torching an abortion clinic in the middle of the night was “the most moral act they could do at this time?”

Obviously not.

This is a fundamental error, and are many examples of how it naturally carries over into other moral issues. Teresa Kelly, a member of Toronto’s Catholic school board, recently said that being part of a gay-straight alliance whose purpose is to disseminate homophile propaganda in the schools is “the embodiment of a perfectly-formed Catholic conscience.” She dismissed her critics, who quoted actual Church teachings on homosexuality, as “archaic.”4

What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (2)

Personal Judgement vs. Objective Standards

How does conscience relate to morality?

In order for a person’s conscience to be conditioned to accept evil, it must first decisively turn away from God’s teachings and decide that it can determine for itself what is right and wrong, ignoring all external and objective standards if necessary in order to reach the desired conclusion.

This means that dissenters must justify their claims by assuming that there is no fixed morality that is binding on all persons. The only source of morality is the conscience of each individual. One phrase that is coming into common usage among the self-appointed elite is “This is my truth.”

However, the intrinsic flaw with that understanding is the fact that every human being is naturally attuned to their own subjective view of the world. This subjective view exists in order to promote the highest good of the individual. However, if that view is not held to an objective standard, it is easy for the individual to consider not what is morally good (i.e., virtuous) but rather what is personally good (i.e., convenient).

This type of thinking leads many to justify actions that no moral law would permit.

What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (3)

Catholics and Church Teaching

It is one thing for a person to say “I disagree with the Church’s teaching on abortion.” It is another thing entirely to say “The Church teaches that abortion is permissible, so long as my conscience allows it.” This statement is false, and can only be uttered by one who is grossly ignorant of Church teaching or who deliberately lies about such teaching.

(Video) Ethical Decision Making: Your Moral Conscience

Ignorance is certainly no excuse for committing sin because every Catholic has the duty to know what is evil and what is not, and, further, they should know why certain activities are evil. Secular courts enforce the general rule that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and everyone accepts this principle; why should it be any different for the eternal law?

A person is culpable for the evil he commits when he “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”5

What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (4)

The Formation of the Conscience

The conscience is a precious gift and it must be cared for by forming it with prayer and education for the duration of our lives.

The Catechism states, “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (¶1783).

A dead giveaway that a person’s conscience is improperly formed is when he or she says something like “I respect the teachings of the Church, but I follow my own conscience in matters of sexual morality.” Nancy Pelosi gave us a typical example of this deception when she claimed that she was a “practicing and respectful Catholic” but, regarding the Church’s teachings on abortion, “My faith isn’t about what their position is.”6

This means that the person’s conscience has become disconnected from the truth. This has several root causes (Catechism, ¶1792):

  • “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.”

By contrast, a properly‑formed Catholic conscience has been rigorously educated, is fully aware of the intrinsically evil nature of abortion and other evils, and is led by this knowledge to vigorously oppose them.

Failure to act is not a viable option.

It is true that Catholics must follow their consciences, but their consciences must be formed by the Word of God, which is authentically interpreted and taught by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, to which Christ entrusted His authority to teach in His Name. The conscience must be continuously schooled to recognize, not to determine, what is and is not moral activity.

As the Catechism teaches, “Objective rules of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.… It is by the judgment of conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” (¶1751, 1778).

(Video) The Authority of the Conscience In Moral Decision Making

What is the Role of Conscience in Moral Decision-Making? (5)

Conscience and Vatican II

Some appeal to an ill‑defined “Spirit of Vatican II” to support their concept of the human conscience. They use vague terms such as “renewal,” “reinvigoration” and “rejuvenation” of the Church, while consciously misrepresenting what the documents of the Council actually say. They often quote the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”) in support of their contention that people should be able to do anything their uneducated consciences do not object to.7

However, this is obviously not what the Fathers of Vatican II taught. They instead laid out very clearly the multiple dangers inherent in this line of thinking. In Gaudium et Spes, they wrote, “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin” (¶16‑17). Furthermore, the document notes that “not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience.”8

The document continues by confirming an essential principle: That the conscience must submit itself to the authority of the Church:

In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself. (¶14)

Conscience does have a very particular and necessary role given by God. As defined in Romans 2:12‑16 and Jeremiah 31:33, God imprints the natural law on the heart and soul of man, and this leads him to know whether or not an act is moral or evil.9 This means that the “natural law” is man’s instinctual knowledge of what is right and what is wrong ― his “conscience.” However, the conscience must work with the teachings of the Church, never against it.

Conscientious Objection

The Church, as demonstrated in a particularly vivid manner by Her martyrs, has always held that a person’s properly-formed conscience may never be violated. Countless men, women and even children have courageously stated, “You may kill me, but you will never force me to violate my conscience.”

This principle has more recently been recognized by secular authorities. The United Nations, in both its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

When society fails to acknowledge conscience as a human right and does not provide protections for individuals to follow their own consciences, grave conflicts inevitably result. Either people will heroically obey their consciences whatever the cost, or they will lose their moral integrity with all the devastating effects that flow from this on society at large.

There are thousands of incidents on record where conscientious objectors are severely punished, particularly in the health care profession. Many have been fined, dismissed from their jobs, and even in some cases jailed for refusing to participate in such intrinsic evils such as dispensing contraceptives and abortifacients and refusing to participate in such fundamental violations of human dignity as abortion, euthanasia, and so-called “sex-changed” surgeries.

Conclusion

Tragically, many Catholics possess a fatally flawed concept of conscience, denying the need for formation in the truth, and treating mere desire as an absolute. Conscience is indeed a decision-maker, but it must be freely submitted to the law of God, to which it is a witness, not an arbiter.

(Video) Conscience in Decision Making

The error lies not in affirming the freedom of conscience to decide, but in misinterpreting the nature of such freedom. Freedom of conscience must be at the service of moral truth but can never be its determinant.

Endnotes:

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1776; “Moral Conscience: Catholic Teaching for a Strong Faith” at http://beginningcatholic.com/conscience.

[2] Steve Askin. “Challenging the Right.” Conscience [newsletter of “Catholics” for Choice], Spring 1994, pages 65 and 66; “Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little‑Known History.” Conscience, Autumn 1996, pages 2 to 5.

[3] “Catholics” for Choice. “You Are Not Alone: Information for Catholic Women about the Abortion Decision” [Washington, D.C.: CFC], 2000 reprint.

[4] Patrick B. Craine. “Toronto Catholic Teacher: Joining Gay Club is ‘Embodiment of a Perfectly-Formed Catholic Conscience.’” LifeSite Daily News, May 27, 2013.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1791; Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes [“On the Church in the Modern World”], ¶16.

[6] John Jalsevac. “Pelosi Laughs Off Priest’s Letter Challenging Abortion Views, Says He Was ‘Acting Hysterically.’” LifeSite Daily News, June 25, 2013.

[7] As one example, Frances Kissling says, “In its approach to the [abortion] issue, the organization [“Catholics” for Choice] relied on the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of the separation of church and state, pluralism, and the primacy of conscience” [Frances Kissling, in “CFFC Notebook: A Mouse that Roars Turns 20.” Conscience, Spring/Summer 1993, page 54].

[8] Dignitatis Humanae, ¶8. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of this document, anticipated this kind of dishonesty. He stated in a footnote to the Abbott‑Gallagher edition of the Council texts:

The Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on “freedom of conscience.” Nowhere does this phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is a perilous theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism ― the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not the objective truth, which determines what is right and wrong, true or false.

Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, quoted in Russell Shaw. “Answers.” National Catholic Register, September 13, 1992, page 4.

(Video) Fundamentals of Catholic Morality - Conscience

[9] The Bible contains many references to the human conscience. It describes the fate of someone who does not guard or “keep” his conscience (Hebrews 9:14 and 1 Peter 3:16), and who allows his conscience to become “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). The Bible also speaks of a “weak conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:7), a “wounded conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:12), a “good” and “perfect” conscience (Hebrews 9:9 and 13:18; 1 Peter 3:21; and 1 Timothy 1:5,19); a “clear” or blameless conscience (Acts 24:16 and 1 Timothy 3:9), and a conscience that is “evil” or defiled (Titus 1:15).

FAQs

What is the role of conscience in making decisions? ›

The moral conscience is considered the proximate norm of conduct because it is the immediate source of information guiding human actions. It directs human actions so that a person can transcend his animal instincts and human inclinations.

What is the role of the conscience? ›

Conscience is the “highest authority" and evaluates information to determine the quality of an action: good or evil, fair or unfair and so on. Consequently, conscience ranks higher than consciousness and, in addition, has the ability and the authority to decide how information will be used, either for good or for evil.

How is morality related to conscience? ›

'A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. ' This is true despite the fact that 'conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments'. Your conscience can be wrong, in which case you are still responsible, but it is still the foundation of morality.

What does it mean to make moral decision? ›

Moral decision making is the ability to produce a reasonable and defensible answer to an ethical question.

How do you develop moral conscience? ›

Developing a Conscience: Knowing the Difference Between Right and Wrong
  1. Cleaning up after myself — physically and emotionally, (littering was a big no-no).
  2. Being kind. ...
  3. Thinking through to outcome. ...
  4. Talking to strangers. ...
  5. Being responsible. ...
  6. Don't take what isn't yours. ...
  7. Non-violence. ...
  8. Charity.
2 Mar 2018

What are the 3 roles of the conscience? ›

Abstract: Conscience is a unique eternal faculty enabling us by using reason to feel the difference between right and wrong. Three functions of conscience are (1) feelings of what we ought to do, (2) feelings of self-approval when we do it, and (3) feelings of remorse when we don't.

What it means to have a conscience? ›

The noun conscience refers to a state of awareness or a sense that one's actions or intentions are either morally right or wrong, along with a feeling of obligation to do the right thing.

What is conscience example? ›

The definition of conscience is a personal awareness of right and wrong that you use to guide your actions to do right. An example of conscience is the personal ethics that keep you from cheating on an exam.

What is the meaning of moral conscience? ›

Clearing the Ground-Definitions. Morality has to do with questions of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. Consciousness means knowledge. Therefore, moral consciousness is about a knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil.

Why do we consider conscience as the subjective norm of morality? ›

Conscience is the subjective norm of morality in which we trace the moral authority inside the individual. It is not something that directs from outside. Conscience is an 'inner voice' as described by Mahatma Gandhi which directs one by telling what to do or what not to do.

How do you use conscience in a sentence? ›

He wanted to clear his conscience before he dies. They are displaying an alarming lack of social conscience. More like to blot out his guilty conscience.

What is the most important in making a moral decision? ›

The primary skill involved in making good moral decisions is sensitivity to the moral issues involved in so many of our everyday activities. Quite often we may act in an morally questionable manner just because we were insensitive to the moral nature of the situation.

What is moral decision-making example? ›

Your daughter is a relatively strong swimmer, but her friend is struggling to keep her head above water. You think there is a 50% chance that your daughter could wait for you to return, but know her friend will drown if you leave her.

What are the important elements in making moral decisions? ›

Rest (1984), proposed that the four components underlying moral action are moral sensitivity, moral judgement, moral motivation and moral character.

What is a good conscience? ›

phrase. If you say that you cannot do something in all conscience, in good conscience, or in conscience, you mean that you cannot do it because you think it is wrong. She could not, in good conscience, back out on her deal with him.

What is conscience how can a person attain peace of mind? ›

Peace of conscience relates to your inner self and is controlled by what you personally do. Peace of conscience can come only from God through a righteous, obedient life. It cannot exist otherwise.

What is the moral conscience Catholic? ›

Conscience is fed and nourished, ordered and directed by what is presented to it in the rational ability of man to know objective moral truth — that is, to grasp what is truly good and what is truly evil. It does not exist apart from man's intellect or free will.

Is a conscious decision? ›

Conscious decisions are made with the data at hand the risks understood and the implications of the risk known with possible contingencies built into the decision. Conscious decisions are made despite the risk or at times because of the potential reward that goes with the risk.

Does conscience mean with knowledge? ›

The word conscience contains the word science, which comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning "to know" or "knowledge." You can think of your conscience as your knowledge of yourself, especially when it comes to your own morals, or your feelings about right and wrong.

What if you don't have a conscience? ›

A sociopath has no conscience. Behavioral: Someone who is a sociopath is impulsive and unreliable. As a result of these traits, the sociopath also lacks the ability to set long-term goals. Further, he can't, or won't, accept responsibility for his actions.

What is conscience in ethics essay? ›

Our conscience works as a voice in our minds that makes judgments on the moral stance of our actions, and creates our differentiation of good and evil. Through the psychoanalytical perspective, the conscience is known as a representation of your superego.

What is conscience explain the types of conscience? ›

Certain conscience means convinced without any doubt that an action is good or bad. Doubtful conscience means when you cannot choose between good and bad choices. Lax conscience means when you see no sin where there actually is sin.

Where is the conscience? ›

It is part of the Ventrolateral Frontal Cortex, a region of the brain known for over 150 years for being involved in many of the highest aspects of cognition and language. To look into which part of this region actually controls our superior decision making , scientists carried out MRI scans in both humans and monkeys.

What does it mean to have a strong conscience? ›

Think of conscience as a moral compass; a good conscience means you have a strong sense of right and wrong. A person's conscience helps them determine a point of view for moral action.

What does conscientious mean in a person? ›

Definition of conscientious

1 : meticulous, careful a conscientious listener. 2 : governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience : scrupulous a conscientious public servant.

What does the dignity of the human person imply for moral conscience? ›

The dignity of a human person requires the uprightness of a moral conscience (which is to say that it be in accord with what is just and good according to reason and the law of God).

Is virtue ethics important in making decision about morality Why? ›

The Value of Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics emphasizes the central role played by motives in moral questions. This is one reason why they can be popular and why they make an important contribution to our understanding of morality. To act from virtue is to act from some particular motivation.

What are the two important lessons to understand about using your conscience and what are two key sources for forming a good conscience? ›

Two key principles of conscience are (1) always form + inform your conscience and (2) always follow your conscience).

Why do we need to educate our conscience? ›

Good conscience is needed among all human beings. Since moral education cannot be given to all, promotion of reasonable norms and values at family, community and social level can be effective for formation of good conscience and its reflection in behaviours among others.

What does clear conscience mean? ›

Definition of clear conscience

: a knowledge or belief that one has done nothing bad or wrong At least now I can face him with a clear conscience.

What does question of conscience mean? ›

the part of you that judges how moral your own actions are and makes you feel guilty about bad things that you have done or things you feel responsible for: a guilty conscience. a question/matter of conscience. You didn't do anything wrong - you should have a clear conscience (= not feel guilty).

How do you use consciousness? ›

How to use Conscious in a sentence
  1. I wasn't even conscious of what was happening. ...
  2. I wish I wasn't so conscious of every little nuance. ...
  3. There are conscious thoughts that you're aware of and subconscious ones that you're not. ...
  4. The words themselves fascinated me; but I took no conscious account of what I read.

Does the conscience decided what is good or bad Why? ›

Your conscience is the part of your personality that helps you determine between right and wrong and keeps you from acting upon your most basic urges and desires.

When should one follow his conscience? ›

The duty to follow one's conscience is neither one specific responsibility among others nor a supreme responsibility which perhaps could conflict with and nullify others. For no matter what in particular one ought to do, one ought to follow one's conscience.

How do you strengthen your conscience? ›

Remember to keep in mind your child's level of development and tailor your activities accordingly.
  1. #1 Model Empathy. ...
  2. #2 Listen Actively. ...
  3. #3 Spend Time. ...
  4. #4 Set Limits. ...
  5. #5 Do Not Tolerate Aggression. ...
  6. #6 Teach the Golden Rule. ...
  7. #7 Allow Remorse. ...
  8. #8 Participate in Family Tasks.
20 Jul 2001

What is the idea of Thomas Aquinas about Synderesis? ›

Aquinas compares conscience and synderesis – the person's inclination shaping her understanding. Synderesis turns human nature to good and objects to evil. It gives awareness of the principles of morality to be applied to actions.

Is conscience a reliable guide for decision making? ›

Early Christian writers such as St Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome appear to sincerely agree with the idea that one's conscience is a responsible arbiter between right and wrong and is therefore reliable for making decisions.

Is a conscious decision? ›

Conscious decisions are made with the data at hand the risks understood and the implications of the risk known with possible contingencies built into the decision. Conscious decisions are made despite the risk or at times because of the potential reward that goes with the risk.

What is conscience example? ›

The definition of conscience is a personal awareness of right and wrong that you use to guide your actions to do right. An example of conscience is the personal ethics that keep you from cheating on an exam.

What if you don't have a conscience? ›

A sociopath has no conscience. Behavioral: Someone who is a sociopath is impulsive and unreliable. As a result of these traits, the sociopath also lacks the ability to set long-term goals. Further, he can't, or won't, accept responsibility for his actions.

What does follow your conscience mean? ›

To some it may mean doing the right thing whatever the cost. To others, it may mean: Don't listen to anyone: you're on your own. And to some others, it may simply mean: do as you please. I have argued that in a Catholic-Christian approach to conscience, autonomy, freedom, community and authority go hand in hand.

What are the two important lessons to understand about using your conscience and what are two key sources for forming a good conscience? ›

Two key principles of conscience are (1) always form + inform your conscience and (2) always follow your conscience).

What are the benefits of conscience? ›

Benefits of a Good Conscience
  • KNOW GOD: The conscience allows us to KNOW God who has been defined in. ...
  • LOVE: Through the conscience, God makes known to us His great and never-changing love for us personally.
  • PLAN: Through the conscience, we discover God's plan for our lives.
29 Jun 2021

What is a good conscience? ›

phrase. If you say that you cannot do something in all conscience, in good conscience, or in conscience, you mean that you cannot do it because you think it is wrong. She could not, in good conscience, back out on her deal with him.

What does it mean to have a good conscience? ›

Feel free of guilt or responsibility. For example, I have a clear conscience—I did all I could to help. This idiom is also put as one's conscience is clear or clean, as in His conscience is clean about telling the whole story.

Is conscience the highest form of justice? ›

Good Sentence appreciation - Human conscience is the highest court of justice - no sense of justice is possible without conscientious and moral strengths.

What is the role of synderesis in moral living? ›

Synderesis assures possession of the most general and universal knowledge of first principles of the moral order, whereas conscience is concerned with particular applications, i.e., with the practical reasoning that provides answers to particular moral problems.

What are the characteristics of a conscientious moral agent? ›

A moral agent is a person who has the ability to discern right from wrong and to be held accountable for his or her own actions. Moral agents have a moral responsibility not to cause unjustified harm. Traditionally, moral agency is assigned only to those who can be held responsible for their actions.

Videos

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4. Conscience and Decision Making
(RobbieBlachBabies)
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6. “The Formation of Conscience” – Moral Theology, Video 10
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