Third in a series on an essential, often misunderstood element of the moral life
The moral theologian asked the seminarians: “These are really rather difficult questions—and who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?” After an awkward silence, one seminarian responded: “I am! It is my duty to say what is right and what is wrong. I am a rational being, a recipient of grace, and heir to a moral code I am sworn to hand on. And some day I will have to walk into a confessional, a pulpit or a class room, and I have to offer the souls there entrusted to my care something more than just a shrug of the shoulders. So let’s not give up so easily on knowing moral truth!”
Knowing moral truth, then judging and acting accordingly, is the work of conscience. In the first two columns of this series (HERE and HERE) we looked at the misunderstanding and misuse of conscience. In particular, we looked at how contemporary culture holds that an appeal to conscience is used as an excuse rather than as a guide. (“I get to do whatever the hell I want—because conscience!”) In other words, my conscience guarantees my morality, and no one else may say anything about it.
That’s just wrong. Yes, there is a subjective dimension to conscience (it’s my conscience) and there’s an objective dimension to conscience (my conscience must conform to universal moral law.) A conscience properly trained readily conforms its judgments (and the actions/inactions following from them) to the moral standards knowable by reason, as well as those revealed to the Church.
It’s popular (and correct) to say that one must follow one’s conscience. Less well known (and likely to be much less popular) are the true functions of conscience, and the objective standards that conscience must look to in order to function properly. Conscience is the interior guide to moral conduct. It is an intellectual ability to make moral judgments. It is a process of deductive reasoning, applying general principles to particular situations. It is a practical conclusion, the final evaluative judgment about the moral quality of an act.
Natural law is the exterior guide to moral conduct. It is the account of what must be good or evil because of who we are as humans, and who God is as our final goal and satisfaction. It is expressed in principles that we can’t deny (e.g., “Do good and avoid evil”) or that we can’t not know (e.g., “Murder is wrong”; “Care for your offspring”). One lacks moral maturity if one does not know these truths, or is unwilling to accept that one is obliged by these truths.
Our morally significant knowledge of God and man is completed by Christ’s revelation to his Church. This includes the Ten Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, and the Sins that Cry Out to Heaven. A Catholic conscience is not well formed if one does not know these truths, and a Catholic’s character is deficient if there is not a desire to live according to these truths.
Let’s pause for an objection: “But Father, if all this is so obvious, so very black-and-white, why is there so much moral disagreement in the world?” That’s a good question—but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, morality must include the “black-and-white” (i.e., some actions are always forbidden, some always required), otherwise there’d be no morality; and there is also legitimate moral gray—those points about which honorable people may disagree.
For example: 1) Do good and avoid evil; 2) Care for your offspring; 3) Provide for their education—these are moral truths that can’t reasonably be argued against. They’re “black-and-white.” But, the question, “How shall we educate our children this year?” is a legitimately “gray” question, about which honorable people may disagree—there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question. One of your children may be best served by homeschooling, another by a Classical Academy, the other by the local parochial school. You ought to know your situation and your children best, and no one may fault you for your judgments in this case—because the matter is legitimately gray, an occasion of honest moral disagreement. If you failed to provide for the education of your children at all, you would rightly be held blameworthy, because that is a “black-and-white” moral matter, something that morally sound people can’t not know.
Far from being the universal excuse for all behavior, conscience is our moral compass that must be harmonized by universal moral truths, reinforced by the virtuous love of God, self and neighbor, illumined by revelation and strengthened by grace. Conscience is our constant companion, leading us to Heaven or Hell. We have an absolute obligation, therefore, to ensure that our conscience, and that of our children, is properly formed.
When I write next, I will continue our discussion of conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
[You can hear Fr. McTeigue discuss this column with John Harper of the “Morning Air” radio program, here. Ed.]