If you only looked at the way we use the word “conscience” in our everyday conversations, you might end up feeling a little confused.
You might hear someone use it to describe their gut instincts about a moral question or to defend themselves against advice or authority.
You might hear someone describe conscience in a way that makes it sound so malleable that it is basically synonymous with the “givens” of our culture, lacking any power to incite us to change our habits or to look critically at the society we live in.
And then to hear from your priests and spiritual mentors that you need to form your conscience might make you ask, how can we “form” something that is simply given to us, “the voice of God,” or a way of describing our gut feelings and cultural sensibilities?
As perplexing as it can sometimes be, I have gradually come to realize that I need to unpack the meaning of conscience and learn to understand it better, because being a person who lives according to my conscience is crucial to leading a Christian life.
Blessed John Henry Newman even goes so far as to say in his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” that our own conscience is the highest moral authority. This gives us both a right to follow our conscience and a responsibility to form it through prayer, study, and community.
I admit that thinking of my conscience as the highest moral authority scares me a little. What if I have done a bad job forming my conscience and my moral reasoning is leading me in the wrong direction?
It is easy to approach this responsibility with fear. But what does Newman really mean? He means that no one else can make your decisions for you, and the only meaningful choices are those that are made freely.
Conscience is the ability for human beings to freely adopt God’s will genuinely as our own. It’s not just a matter of knowing right from wrong, but of truly embracing what is good and from God, deep in our hearts.
So if conscience is so important to being able to love God, what do we make of the need to form our conscience? How can we learn to recognize the voice of our conscience and distinguish it from the many other competing voices in our complex minds? And what are the steps we can take toward having an informed conscience that helps us recognize God’s call?
Conscience and our feelings
One of my personal journeys in figuring out how to follow my conscience has been a shift in how I understand the relationship between conscience and my feelings and emotions. On the one hand, a feeling of uneasiness has often been useful for leading me away from a bad situation, or a sense of peace and security has assured me that I have made the right choice.
But I also realize the need to be careful about equating these feelings with the voice of conscience.
Sometimes I have felt sure that I made the right decision and have gone forward without even questioning my actions, but time and distance, along with moral growth, have shown me otherwise.
Living in a culture where we are often free to be totally unreflective about our patterns of consumption and the way we treat others, we need to be vigilant about the temptation to assume that having positive feelings about something means that it is really the best thing.
And on the other hand, guilty feelings or other negative emotions like shame and fear can often mislead us and distract us from the genuine pursuit of goodness.
We might assume that feeling bad about something definitely means that it is a bad thing, but those feelings may come more from cultural cues than from conscience, and worrying about them may drain the energy we should be putting toward discerning God’s will in our lives.
James Keenan SJ, a professor at Boston College, writes in Moral Wisdom that we need to be careful to distinguish between conscience and “superego,” which was Freud’s name for the part of our psyche that enforces cultural norms and “keeps us in line.”
But unlike the superego, which produces shame and guilt when we go against the cultural grain, conscience exposes the ugliness of our sins while also showing us that we can trust in God’s mercy and turn toward things that will help us get better.
Guilt makes us want to hide; conscience urges us to run to God with the confidence that we will be received with mercy.
Forming conscience by listening
Maybe the most surprising aspect of conscience is that it is the most true and authentic when we’ve let in other voices to help us become informed. Though “following your conscience” may sound like asserting your independence and ability to make decisions on your own, the capacity to make informed moral choices improves the more you listen.
The first and most important form of listening is prayer. Spend time reading scripture and puzzling over it, allowing yourself to be challenged.
Find out if a parish near you offers adoration, and spend time there asking Jesus how your heart needs to be changed. Take up the Ignatian practice of a daily examen, reviewing the events of the day in your imagination and asking God to shed light on your actions and decisions.
Reading is another great way to open yourself to change and inform your conscience. Read pastoral letters from your bishop, encyclicals, and other documents that the Church puts forward for our guidance, and find a saint whose writings challenge and encourage you.
We also inform our conscience by seeking input from possible mentors: priests and religious sisters and brothers, lay persons in pastoral ministry, teachers and family members. I have found it invaluable to have input from my peers.
See if your parish has a young adult ministry that will put you in touch with others your age who can be a good example and another resource when you are facing a tough moral decision.
Each of these actions can serve as a starting point for growing in moral wisdom and figuring out how to hear the voice of our conscience. It’s a long journey for everyone, but it starts in prayer, informing ourselves with reading and listening, and reaching out to find trusted mentors and friends.