What Conscience Is Not

My previous article described what conscience is. But there are so many false ideas about conscience, that I decided to write an article explaining what conscience is not.

“holding to faith and good conscience, against those who, by rejecting these things, have made a shipwreck of the faith.” (1 Timothy 1:19)

Not a thing

The soul is a thing; the will is not a thing, but a faculty or ability of the soul. The hand is a part of the body, but your free will is not a part of the soul. Free will is an inherent ability exercised by the soul. Your ability to reason, likewise, is not a part of the soul, but an ability of the soul. The human person is body and soul, two things working together as one, combined so thoroughly during life as to constitute one person.

Your conscience is not a thing, but an ability of free will and reason working together as one. Your conscience is not a part of the brain, nor a part of the soul. It is not a thing that you can be born without, or have removed, or lose, such that you would literally have no conscience. When we say that one person or another “has no conscience”, it is only a figure of speech indicating that they refuse to use their conscience.

“All human persons have a conscience because all human persons have free will (the ability to choose) and reason (the ability to understand). Conscience is not separate from, nor additional to, free will and reason. Conscience is inherent to the very nature of free will and reason. Whoever possesses and is able to exercise free will and reason, necessarily also possesses and is able to exercise conscience. For conscience itself is the ability of free will and reason to attain moral truth. And the entire moral law is accessible to reason. The use of conscience is the use of free will and reason to seek moral truth. And the fruit of conscience is the understanding of moral truth obtained by that use of free will and reason.” (from my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics: A work of Roman Catholic moral theology)

Not infallible

Cardinal Ratzinger: “Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgment regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.” (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, n. 38.)

Your conscience is not infallible; it can and does err. Since your conscience is fallible, an act that your conscience determines is moral may in fact be immoral; it may be an objective sin. If your conscience — your exercise of will and intellect in the search for moral truth — tells you that an act is moral, then choosing that act is not an actual sin, UNLESS you have not exercised your conscience in a sincere and selfless search for objective moral truth.

Joseph Ratzinger: “The fact is that under the pretext of goodness, people neglect conscience. They place acceptance, the avoidance of problems, the comfortable pursuit of their existence, the good opinion of others and good-naturedness above truth in the scale of values.” (Salt of the Earth, p. 68.)

A neglected conscience cannot be used to justify an objectively immoral act. If you are seeking moral truth, sincerely and on a continuing basis, both in general and in the particular circumstances of your life, your acts done in good conscience are not sins.

Second Vatican Council: “Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. 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.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 16.)

Right reason is infallible

In a sense, reason is infallible. Whenever human reason is used correctly (this is termed ‘right reason’), it will find objective moral truth. All moral truths are accessible to reason, if the ability to reason is used correctly. In other words, moral truth is not an unreachable goal. God created the human person, with will and intellect, such that objective reality, including the realm of ethics, can be attained. For reason is a reflection of the Nature of God, who is the only eternal uncreated reality, and who created all that exists.

However, the reason of fallen human persons often errs, due to concupiscence (the tendency toward sin), personal sin, and the influence of other sinners and of sinful society. Therefore, conscience, even when used with great sincerity, may still err.

Not first

The primacy of conscience is an idea often used to justify (supposedly) the commission of an act by an individual, even though the Magisterium definitively teaches that the act is objectively immoral. The claim is made that conscience is first, and therefore it can override the teaching of the Church on morality. But this is not true.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Man is obliged to follow the moral law, which urges him ‘to do what is good and avoid what is evil’ (cf. GS 16). This law makes itself heard in his conscience.” (CCC 1713)

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” (CCC 1783)

Since conscience is formed and informed by the eternal moral law of God, conscience is not first. Since conscience is formed and informed by the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, conscience is not first.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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)

It is a mistake to think that conscience, by itself, can justify any act. A good conscience seeks objective moral truth, outside of one’s self, ultimately in the sublime Goodness that is the very Nature of our Just God. God is first, not conscience.

Not the secular definition

The dictionary definition of conscience is not correct:

“An inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.”

Emotions are often associated with acts of the conscience. We might feel good, if we struggle with a moral issue and then choose according to our sincere conscience. We might feel guilty, if we act against our conscience and therefore sin. But emotions are not conscience itself, nor are they our guide to right and wrong. Because we are all fallen sinners, influenced by a sinful world, sometimes doing the right thing will feel bad, and sometimes doing the wrong thing will feel good.

“2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.
3. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent: I’d eat another piece of pie but my conscience would bother me.”

Conscience is not a set of ethical or moral principles. The teachings of the Magisterium on morality provide us with ethical principles, in order to guide conscience. But these principles are not conscience. The search for moral truth using these principles is an exercise of conscience, but principles and conscience are not the same.

Not the final judge

[1 Corinthians]
{4:4} For I have nothing on my conscience. But I am not justified by this. For the Lord is the One who judges me.

We can never be certain if our conscience is being exercised with sufficient sincerity to justify our actions, and therefore avoid actual mortal sin. Whoever dies unrepentant from actual mortal sin will be condemned to Hell forever. Whoever dies without committing any actual mortal sins, OR having fully repented from every actual mortal sin, will be happy forever in Heaven. But God is the final Judge of our lives and our souls, not the conscience. If your conscience tells you that you are going to Heaven, it might be mistaken.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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