There has been a great of ‘conscience airing’ in the press over the past several months.

The controversy over the government requirement that insurers cover contraceptive services ignited a firestorm between those outraged over the intrusion of government into the affairs of religious institutions, and others (similarly outraged) over the intrusion of religious organizations into policy issues of public health.

One side argues in favor of religious conscience as the right to resist an imposed availability of services (that are contrary to church teaching) to employees of religiously affiliated institutions. The stand re-opens some old wounds regarding the church’s staunch opposition to any form of contraception (except natural family planning). The opposing view argues equally vehemently that family planning is a matter of ‘family conscience’.

This role of conscience goes far beyond the latest turmoil involving health insurance. Today’s church has been, and still is embroiled in a number of significant conflicts of conscience – not only at the friction points with secular society, but also within the flock of the faithful.

  • Approximately 300 priests in Austria have initiated a “Call to Disobedience” as part of a petition for church reform calling for, among other things, the ability for women to preach, ordination of married men and women. The call contends “the priests felt forced to follow their consciences for the good  of the church”.
  • Writings in argue that if a Catholic feels compelled to assist an illegal immigrant in a tangible way “his conscience should be free to do so.”
  • Some ultra-conservative Catholics strongly argue (“in conscience”), that the Norvus Ordo liturgy (Mass offered in the vernacular) is offensive to true Catholics and ought not to be celebrated by the (truly) faithful.
    Who am I listening to?

    Listening to the right voice?

So there is apparently enough conscience to go around for folks from all different political, cultural, and theological spectra. (Decisions sure would be simpler if those people from the wrong side of the argument would just stand up and proclaim a lack of conscience behind their view. Don’t think that will happen.)

But enough about other people. What I want to know is, when I have a strong feeling about some issue with my government, community, or church – how do I know I am listening to well-founded conscience, or to a voice from a darker place?

The Catholic Church’s advice on following conscience is pretty clear – rely on scripture and church teaching as the framework for knowing the difference between right and wrong.The Catholic Catechism is also specific (sort of) about the role of conscience. Some observations seem to emphasize reason, others highlight the importance of church teaching. There are nearly 30 points of discussion about conscience – but since I’d like to finish this article this month, I’ll summarize and try to faithfully highlight some of its key points verbatim:

  • Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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…. these can be the source of errors of judgment

Since I’m an executive summary kind of guy, it looks like our conscience is a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of an act. We build a framework for that judgment through our faith and what our church teaches us.

But while the guidelines seem clear, acting out of conscience still can be pretty difficult, especially when one is moved to act against the will of the majority or the teachings from an authority. That last reference from the catechism suggests that bad judgment can come from ‘rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching’.

But history tells us that truly courageous acts of conscience have always gone against some traditional authority. Whether we are talking about civil rights or colonial revolution, some of the most heroic acts of our existence have started out of disregard for authority. Likewise, some of our darkest moments of history have carried the day when authorities were considered unerring and their directives followed without question.

So all this back and forth predictably leaves my question unanswered. When I see what I perceive is a wrong being done, how do I know my conscience is pointing me to serve the greater good, or to serve me?

I often cringe at many of the catechism’s writings that often make the Book of Revelation feel like light reading, so imagine my surprise when, in the midst of its pages on conscience, I scrolled to this paragraph that gave me pause:

“Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn.”

I knew that.

I mean…the part that mentions the authority of truth and the supreme Good. In my heart, in our hearts, we can all sense when our choices show deference to this ‘authority of truth’. I even think I know a test I can apply to decide if my conscience is listening to the ‘angel’ or the ‘devil’ on my shoulders.

The next time I feel that my conscience is moving me to speak in protest against a perceived wrong or to act in support of rules that may seem inconvenient, I need to do the following:

  1. Express my opinion and the reasons why I hold them aloud (when my wife isn’t around). There is something about verbalizing feelings that forces one to identify the most important elements of an argument. If I find myself stammering and talking in circles, I will either assume it’s the effect of aging, or my conscience telling me to find something more important to talk about.
  2. Say (aloud) exactly how my stand takes the community, the government, (the church?) closer to the supreme Good. If the words don’t sound right, well, there’s probably a reason for that.
  3. Finally, if I take a stand, I have to ask, who would be helped? Who would be hurt? An honest answer to this question can help shine a bright light on the consequences of my choice.

I’m pretty certain that after I perform these three steps in considering an important act of conscience, and I listen to the words I use to explain myself, I am certain that the ‘Supreme Good to which the human person is drawn’ will either energize me, or guide me to wait for a different, more important battle yet to come.

So the next time I confront a crisis of conscience, I’ll try this recipe and let you know how it all works out.

And maybe I won’t throw the catechism away after all.

Next Month – Can’t We All Just Get Along?

References and resources: (Reference sections 54-64 on conscience)