An Affirmative View of Conscience

The word “conscience” has been used so many times and in so many ways that many of us no longer know what it really means.  Let me take a practical example from everyday life. I have two cousins, both of whom divorced and remarried cradle Catholics, who have been advised to—and decided to—use their “conscience” in completely different ways. One cousin, stating the Church’s injunctions, her confessor’s exhortation, and her own conscience, decided to refrain from Communion. The other cousin in the same situation, however, decided to receive Communion anyway, because both her confessor and “conscience” told her to do so. In fact, some parishioners have resorted to “priest-shopping” in such circumstances (i.e. confessing to a priest whom one believes would be more sympathetic to one’s predicament and point of view). Confronted with such situations, one cannot help but wonder, “What exactly is the difference between one’s ‘conscience’ and one’s own preference or opinion? Is there any difference at all between ‘the voice of conscience’ and the so-called ‘voice of the heart’ or our gut feeling about something?”

The Church describes conscience as “the witness of God Himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate [our souls].”[1] The Catechism describes beautifully that we have in our hearts “a law inscribed by God.”[2] As children, we probably had “our first brush with conscience” when we stole someone else’s cookie or lied to our parents, or when we ourselves were lied to or stolen from. In both of these instances (lying and stealing), whether we be the perpetrator or victim, our conscience proclaims to us that these acts are injurious to the fellowship and harmonious relationship between human beings. Our conscience tells us that human beings are meant to live lovingly, trustfully and harmoniously with one another, and that any deviation from this ideal is harmful; it is like a malaise that has to be rectified or endured. In other words, our conscience bears witness to a higher truth: to the way things ought to be, the way God meant them to be. Thus conscience does not create its own standards of good and evil (e.g. I cannot make my conscience tell me that lying or stealing is good); it merely bears witness to the law that God has inscribed in our hearts.

A problem often arises, however, as we grow older. Many of us, doubtless influenced by the poor life examples of various figures of authority, develop a notion of God as a harsh and tyrannical judge who keeps reminding us, through our consciences, of how much we’ve fallen short of his lofty standards. According to this understanding, conscience functions merely as a constant and unforgiving reminder of how much we’ve failed to live up to God’s law and commandments. This notion of God and conscience leads undoubtedly to spiritual malaise and discontent: it seems that no matter how much we’ve tried, we’re never good enough. This malaise often leads to frustration and even envy; as a friend of mine puts it, “If I had lived in America, it would’ve been much easier for me to get an annulment! But I live in the diocese of X, where the bishop doesn’t care about this issue, so I have to make do with what I have here.” Is this understanding of conscience accurate, however? Does conscience simply function as a reminder of what we have failed to do?

In fact, conscience doesn’t just bear witness to God’s law. Conscience also bears witness to who we truly are as God’s children; it bears witness to who we’re meant to be, to our lofty calling and destiny. It also bears witness to God’s great love for us. As St. John once marveled, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”[3] Indeed, it is the God of Love[4] who is calling us through our consciences: He calls us to share His mind, heart, attitude and character,[5] His joys and sorrows, and yes, His everlasting glory in Heaven. Indeed, the real function of conscience is the complete opposite of what many think it to be: rather than reminding us of what huge failures we are, conscience reminds us of how great we are meant to be, of how great we can be (and will be, with God’s help)!

Now let us return to our original example. Everyone who gets married wants his or her love to last forever. This desire for true and everlasting love is universally inscribed in our hearts; in fact, the multitude of heartbreakingly beautiful love stories in various cultures testify to this universal ideal. The problem arises when multiple challenges in our journey convince us that this ideal is unattainable, and that therefore we must settle with a compromise. But God, whose essence is Love itself, testifies in our conscience that His Love is greater than all, that no power in heaven or earth can separate us from it, and that His Love is able to conquer all adversity.[6] Or, as St. John Paul II put it, “[A heart that loves] is ready to live out the loftiest challenges.”[7] Indeed, our human heart naturally aspires toward greatness: who wants to be second best if he can be great? Indeed, who has persuaded us that greatness and true love are unattainable? Is such a voice trustworthy? Instead of trusting that false voice of “conscience” that constantly tells us about how much we’ve failed and how impossible our goal is, why not trust the voice of the One who created us in Love, calls us to Love and is ready to journey together with us in Love? Let me conclude this essay with an exhortation from St. Paul: May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance (2 Th 3:5).

[1] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #58.

[2] CCC 1776

[3] 1 John 3:1

[4] Indeed, “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16).

[5] Cf. Eph 5:1-2, 1 Cor 2:16, 2 Cor 3:18, Phil 2:5.

[6] Rm 8:37-39

[7] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #15