In Catholicism, the conscience is the supreme authority for the individual. Not the Pope, not bishops, not Church law, not even Scripture, except where all of these inform and form the conscience. In a manner of speaking, the buck stops at the conscience, in Catholicism. Having revealed that, you knew this was coming didn’t you, (Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, Patroness of Lake Wobegon, MN, pray for us!) therein lies the obligation to form one’s conscience the best one possibly can.
In this fictional, but all too realistic and abbreviated account, our protagonist, Tom, let’s call him, is in a profound moral quandary. Ill-catechized, and what’s more, having consciously and incorrectly chosen heresy, probably due to his faulty/too, too limited catechesis, his moral decision making is faulty, at best, especially for the real life challenges we all face, and our fictional protagonist now faces, in particular. This unfortunate circumstance will inevitably lead Tom to incorrect conclusions/sin. Bad thinking leads to bad action. Just ask the victims of the Nazis, or the Communists, or the Khmer Rouge.
“…According to St. Thomas (Aquinas), this other Tom finds himself in an eminently unenviable position. On the one hand, his conscience, formed by faulty reasoning, does oblige him to act. Our decisions are based upon our knowledge, even our objectively faulty knowledge and ways of thinking. To decide against one’s knowledge and reasoning process would constitute an internal contradiction of the self. If Tom believes that the situation calls for him to order his mother’s death by lethal injection, then his conscience binds him to this action. Aquinas says his will would be evil—he would be sinning—if it acted against his conscience, though it may objectively be malformed. His bad conscience binds him to sign his mother’s life away.
On the other hand, Aquinas teaches that though the bad conscience may bind, it does not excuse the person. The exception to this principle is the case where a person is morally ignorant through no fault of his or her own. Tom, however, had a Catholic education. Thus, he can be legitimately expected to know that innocent life cannot be harmed for any reason. Indeed, every person can know this truth through the natural law. Therefore, Tom sins if he abides by his bad conscience and carries out the evil action he perceives as good. An objective evil simply cannot become a good because one is under the mistaken impression that it is good.
The light of our human reason, dimmed by sin, is prone to fail. Given this fact, we have two roads set before us. The road of pride and popular relativism ignores this weakness, grasping onto the autonomy of our fragile wills. Conversely, the road of humility acknowledges, as the Angelic Doctor writes, that “the goodness of the human will depends on the Eternal Law much more than on human reason: and when human reason fails we must have recourse to the Eternal Reason” (ST I-II, q. 19, a. 4). We have a pressing need to adequately form our consciences so that they may be ever more in accord with the Eternal Law.
We can be certain of two things. First, a virtuous option always exists, even if it is difficult. Second, God will always offer us the grace to do that act of difficult virtue. In Tom’s case, if he had undertaken the difficult work and formed his conscience according to the Eternal Law, then he would not choose poorly in the sticky situation described above.
In these remaining weeks of Lent, a good practice to avoid finding ourselves in Tom’s predicament may be to seek more earnestly to educate our consciences according to the light of Sacred Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. Such an endeavor will require we undertake a killing—the death of our intellectual self-sufficiency and independent discernment of what is good and bad. As one hymn puts it:
O teach us all Thy perfect will
to understand and to fulfill.
When human insight fails give light
that will direct our steps aright.”