The Ideal Conscience: Correct and CertainFATHER KENNETH BAKER, S.J.
Conscience is the supreme subjective norm of morality.
We have already considered "law" as the basic objective norm. Today "conscience" is frequently appealed to as an absolutely autonomous principle in a person -- as something that is not supposed to be challenged or questioned by anyone, including the Church or the state. In order to deal with this situation it is important to know precisely what conscience is and what it is not.
First, what conscience is not. It is not an "inner voice" telling me what is right and what is wrong. It is not an emotional feeling produced by my parents or by toilet training or by my peer group. Finally, it is not a special faculty, distinct from my mind and my will, that tells me what to do and what to avoid.
According to constant Catholic tradition, especially as it was elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas, "conscience" is a function of the human intellect making moral judgments. To be more specific, when the mind judges, on the basis of general principles (such as "Thou shall not steal"), that a particular action should be done or avoided, here and now, then the practical judgment of the mind is called "conscience". Through reason and revelation the mind is conscious of many general, abstract principles, such as the Ten Commandments or the most general moral principle of all, "Do good and avoid evil." Since man lives in time and space and must make decisions all day long in the here and now, he is constantly applying those general principles to concrete situations. The application of the mind of those general principles to concrete cases is what Catholic moralists mean by "conscience".
Conscience both precedes and follows concrete moral actions. Antecedently, conscience will urge me to do some good action or to avoid some evil action. The judgment of conscience following an action is either approving (when the action is good) or condemning (when the action was bad); the latter is said to be a "bad conscience" and is accompanied with a sense of guilt.
Since conscience involves a judgment, it is said to be correct when the judgment corresponds with the objective norms of morality.; it is said to be erroneous when it is not. Subjectively, a conscience is said to be certain if an individual has no doubts about the morality of what he is doing; it is said to be doubtful if a person is undecided what to do. The ideal conscience, the one that is to be striven for, is a conscience that is both correct and certain.
"Let your conscience be your guide," we say. That is true. The ultimate guide for each person in his moral decisions is his conscience. We must follow the dictates of a certain conscience -- even if it is erroneous. However, we may never act with a doubtful conscience. To do so would be equivalent to affirming that we are willing to do something evil. If we are in doubt, therefore, we must either refrain from acting or resolve the doubt. Doubts can be resolved by reflection, by consulting knowledgeable persons like confessors or teachers, by consulting reliable books. Since each person must follow his or her own conscience, it is crucial that one's conscience must be correctly formed.
What I want to stress here is the importance of the formation of conscience. Conscience does not just happen -- it is formed by parents, peer group, school, church, media. In previous ages the principal agents in the formation of conscience of youth were the family, the Church and the school. That is not the case any more. They are still a factor, but it seems to me that, in this electronic, permissive age, the peer group and the media are more effective in the formation of conscience than are the family and the Church.
Since man is fallible and prone to error, it follows that he can err in the matter of conscience. A person may think that he is justified in perpetrating an act of terrorism, he might even be sincere, but that does not make terror and murder good. Today, due to philosophical currents of subjectivism and relativism, many persons tend to absolutize the individual conscience. They neglect the objective principles of morality and claim that an action is good or bad simply because they think it is good or bad. Some of the results of this mentality are a breakdown in public morality, increased violence in our streets, premarital sex, shoplifting, and so forth.
Let me conclude by saying that as Catholics we should cultivate not only a good moral conscience, but also a Christian conscience -- which is something much more. In addition to reason, we have the added advantage of grace -- personal grace, revelation, the teaching of the Church and the good example of the saints. We should learn to judge all things in the light of salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ. He is the model and examplar, for he is "the way and the truth and the life".
See the index of chapters from Fundamentals of Catholicism
Kenneth Baker, S.J. "The Ideal Conscience: Correct and Certain." In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 132-135.
Reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Rev. Kenneth Baker, S.J., has served for the past thirty years as editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University and in 1971 became editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology.
Copyright © 1995 Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
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