The Obligation to Form One’s Conscience

“One of the most common errors concerning conscience involves taking a half-truth (that conscience must be followed) without explaining what conscience is, or why it needs to be formed.

Pope John Paul II warned against precisely this kind of distortion: “To claim that one has a right to act according to conscience, but without at the same time acknowledging the duty to conform one’s conscience to the truth and to the law which God himself has written on our hearts, in the end means nothing more than imposing one’s limited personal opinion.”

So how do we avoid falling into that kind of distorted understanding of conscience? By ensuring that our consciences are properly formed. This is not an option, but a moral duty for all humans:

“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 1783).”

One reason conscience is at such risk of corruption is that we tend to contemplate actions that we want to do (or else, that we feel we ought to do, but are looking for excuses not to do). We’re not neutral, which is why it’s so easy for us to corrupt our consciences by (for instance) rationalizing our actions or creating one standard for ourselves and another for everyone else.

The world may say to “follow your heart” in such matters, but the Bible takes a more realistic view: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

Recognizing this, and the need for a neutral, outside authority, is the first step. But it’s only the beginning. As the Catechism points out, “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (1784). It means much more than simply reading Church documents to find out official Catholic teaching (although that can be an important part of it). It begins with parents attending to the “moral education” and “spiritual formation” of their children (CCC 2221) and includes every means by which we strive to grow in virtue.

In this process, we are “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785). When we find our own inclinations pointing in one direction, and Church teaching pointing in the opposite, it can be helpful to ask: which of us is more likely to be correct? The Church, which was promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with two thousand years of lived experience? Or me, the individual with an obvious bias in the situation at hand?

But our ultimate teacher in this area is not our parents, or even Church authorities, but God Himself. Proper formation of conscience cannot happen apart from a life of prayer, since “in the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path” and “we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (CCC 1785).”

Love & truth,