Our conscience alone is not justification for our choices but rather the voice of reason calling out in recognition of something within us that conflicts with what we know to be righteous in our heart. When there is no question as to right or wrong and no desire to choose what we know to be wrong it remains silent and without conflict. Its voice is louder or softer as it has been nourished or deprived offering guidance prior to our final decision. It is an urging to abide by what we know is right according to human dignity providing us recognition of conflict that we may further seek to determine what moral or faithful choices we should make; but we are not forced to follow it. Our conscience is not the final determination. If our conscience is not properly nourished and well formed, it is weak and easier to convince our self to push it aside.
A simple fictional example; “Susan” has a good friend “Betty” who is married and has two children. Both women consider themselves to be Christian in faith. “Betty” has chosen to have an extramarital affair against her better judgment and in doing so she desperately attempts to ignore her conscience. Susan does not wish to upset or interfere with her friend’s choice so Susan avoids offering any guidance in opposition to Betty’s plan even though knowing Betty to be making a serious mistake in judgment that could critically alter the lives of many of those around her. Susan, although knowing in conscience she should make an effort to offer her friend guidance, eases her own conscience by convincing herself her silence is justified because “it is not her business” or “Betty is not happy with her current husband”, or some other self-determined “reason” (excuse). Perhaps Susan even finds Betty’s affair somewhat suspenseful. Yet, if Susan were to learn of Betty abusing drugs or about to drive while intoxicated with the children in the car she may be more inclined to intercede even though each instance is Betty’s “business” in relation to Susan. In each case, each choice would have a substantially harmful affect on Betty’s life and the lives of those around her. In each case, each instance is self destructive, one potentially no less detrimental than the other, and each are highly personal in nature. Our conscience knows this to be wrong but rather than follow it one may seek to convince one’s self otherwise in order to push it aside. We must rely on our conscience if well formed in matters of moral judgment. It is every person’s right and obligation to discern choices based on their urging of conscience but we must not forget that our choices may be righteous in dignity and trust in God our Creator or wrong unintentionally or deliberately, but in all cases leading to an outcome both here and in our eternal life.
The voice of conscience comes from that inherent moral code which we have naturally received in our hearts in the likeness of God. The development of a well formed conscience must continually be nourished by the teachings of our faith strengthening our morality in order that we may be righteous in our choices. We have the free will to choose but our choices are not free from consequences.
We have as individuals and as a society proven without doubt that the further we get away from practicing our faith and a relationship with God, the more decrepit our self respect and our respect for others becomes until society as a whole has turned perverse lacking true dignity at its foundation. This is reflected in the parallels between our society today and that of the society of Caligula during its brief existence. There is no denying every person has a conscience no matter how efficient or poorly formed, tainted or dormant it may become during life. Where there is no conscience there can be no soul and where there is no soul there is no life, hence each living person has a soul and a conscience...
In relying on a good or a well formed conscience, those issues we are not absolutely certain of in regard to our relationship in faith and each other dictate the absolute necessity to seek the appropriate answers in order to properly decide what is of good judgment before making our choices. We may question an issue conflicting within us lacking the existence of a specific code to be guided by or we may question the validity of a code itself. Either way, a well formed conscience will urge us to seek the truthful answer to what is questioned and decide accordingly even though that decision may not be what we prefer (see 1 Timothy CH1; 18-19).
To further distinguish the difference between a good or well formed conscience and a conscience stifled or ignored, let us consider the receiving of the Eucharist. The same Holy Bible that tells us the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ provided us for our salvation tells us that without exception we are NOT to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, lest we “…will answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians CH11; 27-29). Disregarding due attendance at Mass (worshipping on “the Day of the Lord”) or selectively defying the teachings of Christ through the Church He established to guide and teach us most certainly remands one to a state of unworthiness. Of course even if in an unworthy state we are required to attend Mass and this is by far better than disregarding Mass completely. But it is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (see John CH20; 22-23) that one may return to that worthiness and rightfully approach and receive the Eucharist.
In some cases the same can be said of those who do know their faith and Canon Law. There are some who know and practice their faith but to a point; that point being where they assume they know better than the teaching Church of 2000 years as it has been established and empowered by the Word of Christ. Although they may mean well in their decisions, they do not always follow good conscience in all their decisions of faith. For instance, those who may attend Protestant services occasionally with friends or perhaps another family member and adopt this as a fulfillment of their weekly obligation to attend Mass; or perhaps they receive the communion as offered by the Protestant congregation while attending a Protestant service knowing it to be against canon law. Attending Protestant services in it self is not wrong but it is not a substitution for attending the Mass of obligation. Receiving Protestant communion is also defiance of faith as dictated by canon law in that we are displaying an acknowledgement of and receiving a communion unconsecrated by an ordained priest and offered in denial as the true Body and Blood of Christ as He proclaimed it to be in the Eucharistic meal (see Article on “Interdenominational Communion”). Some may go so far as to promote their own judgment misleading others to believe it is OK to defy certain teachings of the faith suggesting their conscience is clear (see 1 Timothy CH4; 16). But a clear conscience is not in itself a good or well formed conscience.
Although some may quote article CCC #1782 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to justify the right and obligation to follow one’s conscience, they take this far out of context and disregarding all accompanying articles of explanation that complete what a well formed conscience consists of. For example;
CCC #1783. 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. 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.
CCC #1786. Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
CCC #1790. A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
CCC #1791. 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 #1802 The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.
Equally as serious is our disregard of good conscience in matters of abortion, birth control, casual divorce and sexual liberties in abandonment of marital commitment, supporting or participating in same-sex relationships, euthanasia, valuating human life and limiting medical attention based on monetary worth according to age, and so on.
These examples are serious errors in judgment in opposition to Christ and His teaching Church. Each are choices made either denying one’s conscience while knowing the truth to seek the more convenient choice or refusal to seek what the Faith teaches rather than be faced with the obligation to reject one’s preference. A Catholic attempting to justify his or her conscience in such choices especially knowing canon law is practicing self deception and assuming they know better than the Church and have the authority to disregard the responsibilities of Faith. Yet, in looking at these past examples, how many crises would never have confronted one if their faith had been true and their conscience followed?
When one’s conscience has been alerted there is an issue involving an inner conflict to some degree guiding us to conscious reasoning before making our choices. This conflict no matter how small reflects the need for truthful consideration that should strengthen our ability to rely on our conscience throughout our lives. When we avoid properly seeking those answers for the sake of choosing what is most personally acceptable or desirable, our decision has not been based upon a good or well formed conscience but one that has been suppressed through self deception. When one deceives oneself often enough he or she stands the risk of their conscience becoming distorted or even dormant. Certainly, without knowing for certain what choice is most morally acceptable, mistakes may be made in our decisions of conscience. But it is no mistake when our conscience tells us there is a need to seek advice or better understanding and we refuse to do so that we may reason the more attractive choice.
Each of us is one person, body, soul and intellect. There is no separation between the person we profess to be and the choices we act upon in our daily lives. If we are Christian, we are called to live accordingly, by the teachings of Jesus Christ striving toward His righteousness. Faith in Christ is not just believing He exists or that He is the Son of God, faith is believing in His word and that belief is only evident in our faithfully abiding by His teachings. One cannot be selective in what they will follow and what they choose to ignore and expect to be judged only on that which is rightfully justifiable. As Scripture attests, there is no conflict between the teachings of the Church and the teachings of Christ. The Church must be recognized for what it is in truth; the messenger of Christ’s Word and the provider of the sacraments commissioned by Jesus Himself to offer the means by which all may attain salvation and eternal life. That person who claims to be Christian yet supports immorality and defiance of those teachings, socially or politically, is one in the same person and accordingly directly defies the Word of God.
We are not expected to understand all the mysteries of faith and teachings of the Church; we are after all physical beings that by our nature relate more readily to that which our senses can confirm. But where there is confirmation or proof, faith is diminished. So it is in faith we are to trust and abide by Jesus Christ in the teachings and principles determined virtuous by His One Body, the Church. It is not by any state of conscience but by a well formed conscience we are to entrust our free will. It is a significant error in judgment to defy a guiding principle of the Church believing it is only that; a principle of the Church. The guidance of the Church in faith and morality is established in direct correlation with the teachings of Christ. To defy the Church is to defy Jesus. It is His institution.
"He that heareth you, Heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth Him that sent me." (Luke CH10; v16)