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Getting conscience right: Here’s what to reject, and what to accept

CONTEMPLATE

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 12/08/20

Let's clear away the errors and find the truth about conscience: A summary of our series.

Excuse me professor—my brain is full!

That’s the text for one of my favorite of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons. I would think of that cartoon especially when I sensed that my students were overwhelmed by what I was teaching; it seemed that anything else I said would just bubble up and spill out, like a bathwater flooding onto the bathroom floor. I think of those overwhelmed students as I write this final installment in our series on how to read the (conscience) manual.

See Part 1 on the conscience manual here;
Part 2 on conscience and feelings here;
Part 3 on kinds of conscience here;
Part 4 on moral certainty here;
Part 5 on doubtful consciences here;
Part 6 on moral probabilities here.

So I thought we would do well to walk through a summary of what we’ve been discussing these past weeks. But first, I want to reflect on why I wrote this series in the first place. Over the years, I have written columns about conscience for Aleteia—either intermittently or in a series. I have lectured about conscience to undergraduate and graduate students, to seminarians, congregations, religious, doctors and lawyers. What more could I have to say about conscience?

Well, a few months ago, I found myself overhearing or participating in conversations—especially about Catholics and voting—that concerned me greatly. People whom I had expected to know better said things about conscience that were frightfully off the mark. So, in response, I’d write a column, get that concern off my chest, and then go back to thinking and writing about something else. Then I’d catch another bit of conversation that was even more disturbing and disappointing, and a few weeks later write another column about conscience. Finally, in exasperation and desperation (and perhaps even hope—at least that’s what my better angels tell me) I decided to walk us through the “manual” of conscience, that is, the basic outlines of classical and Catholic heritage regarding conscience.

What’s the takeaway from these reflections? What do I want the readers of these columns to remember about conscience, about classical and Catholic morality, and about the terrible distortions of these that are all too common today? I think we would do well to retrace within ourselves three specific “rejectings” and three specific “acceptings.”

REJECTINGS

  1. Reject any notion that conscience is a feeling (however strong);

  2. Reject any notion that conscience is an endorsement of moral relativism;

  3. Reject any notion that conscience is a playground or a torture chamber for the scrupulous or pedantic.

ACCEPTINGS

  1. Accept that conscience is primarily an exercise of reason;

  2. Accept that conscience deals especially with evidence and not emotions;

  3. Accept that conscience binds us to the demands of the moral law rather than excuses us from the moral law.

The “rejectings” might be difficult for many people because they likely have been taught, almost constantly, that conscience is a feeling (located in heart or guts, depending upon whom you ask) and that as such can give immediate and infallible guidance. This error is especially scandalous not only because of how wrong and harmful it is, but because it has been so taught by people who have the obligation to know better.

The “acceptings” might be difficult for many people because they have not been taught the truth about conscience (quite the opposite in fact), and so far have had not heard the truth from the very people who should have been teaching them the truth all along. The “acceptings” might also be difficult for some people to accept because these truths make clear that growing into moral maturity takes work, study, humility and prayer—and these are not always very popular or promoted these days.

The conscience is what God has made it to be, not what popular culture and common academics have made it out to be. Cardinal John Henry Newman observed long ago:

[We] may silence [our conscience] in particular cases or directions, [we] may distort its enunciations … [we] can disobey it, [we] may refuse to use it; but it remains.

Conscience, in other words, is our constant companion, reliably leading us to Heaven or Hell, depending upon how we use it. Let’s be sure to learn its proper use, and then act accordingly.

And let’s keep each other in prayer.

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