Informed, deformed, unformed, malformed, misinformed, poorly formed, well formed.
I still recall the morning in college when we walked into Father Fabian’s philosophy class to find these and a dozen more adjectives on the chalkboard surrounding a large noun — “Conscience” — in the center. From there, he took us through Catholic thought on conscience, that ever-present and universal human moral endowment that can lead us through or lead us astray, depending on the adjective that fits.
“Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins us 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. … Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete action … In all we say or do, we are obliged to follow faithfully what we know to be just and right.” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1777-78).
So, the catechism describes this gift from God in each person’s soul. While it is an imperfect analogy, conscience is something like satellite radio in your vehicle. You might have the equipment factory-installed, but without a subscription and the right channel, you will get silence, or static or perhaps programs that do not inspire to truth, beauty or goodness.
Conscience discovers moral truth; it does not create it. It applies universal truths rather than manufactures them. It measures my choices; it does not automatically justify my choices. While we must sincerely follow our conscience, sincerity alone does not guarantee an objectively correct judgment. One can be completely sincere yet profoundly mistaken. In other words, conscience alone is not infallible. It might make you sure, but it won’t necessarily make you right.
Conscience formation is influenced by many factors: education, family background, faith traditions, what we read and hear, political preferences, experiences in life, people whose voices we have come to trust. Unless formed in accord with sound moral teaching, prayer, humility and even repentance, conscience may speak with voices other than God’s.
As the individual’s most immediate moral guide, conscience is inherently bound up with personal responsibility. Conscience looks ahead at what I plan to do; it also judges what I have in fact done, or said, or deliberately chose not to do. Indeed, “regret” is perhaps the strongest word conscience speaks.
“Conscience discovers moral truth; it does not create it.”
As we face a challenging election year, the U.S. bishops again present us principled guidance in the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” This effort has long received mixed reviews, depending on what readers seek from its explanation of the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Fundamental to this teaching as the bedrock for all other goods is the life and dignity of each human person. Because we are made in the image of the triune God, implicit in that personhood is the call to family, community and participation in society. By nature social beings, we have correlative rights and responsibilities, and as Christians, we hear Christ’s words — “whatever you do for the least, you do for me” — as the need to care especially for those who are poor and vulnerable. The dignity of work and the rights of workers are rooted in being stewards called to care for the gifts of God’s creation. Solidarity is the lived conviction that we are one human family; it means that we care as much about the needs of others as we do our own.
But it is not enough to recite a list of principles. Conscience assists us in judging how they interact and apply to the complexity of interwoven social issues.
We feel today the weight of past history, even if not of our own making; we debate the various goods and harms that a pandemic affects; we seek to protect and advance what is good while knowing every decision may have unintended effects. People of good will may disagree on the best balance of these goods which in practice may come into conflict. It is thus wise to pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of wisdom as we prepare to fill out our ballots, not just as adherents of a political party or social class, but as disciples of Jesus Christ.
As I wrote four years ago: forming an authentically Catholic political conscience takes courage, honesty, prudence and the sacrifice of individual gain for the sake of the common good and the truth revealed in the person and message of Jesus. Yet, it is a challenge we cannot set aside.
As Catholic voters, we cannot be silent, by the command of the Gospel; nor do we need to be silent, by the rights granted us by the Constitution as citizens; nor ought we be silent, because we have important things to say that would otherwise be lost for ourselves and all who rely on us to speak for them.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.