The Catholic Conscience

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus always has some interesting things to say in his “While We’re At It” section of First Things. The tidbit below is regarding the role the conscience plays in the Catholic mind, and comes with a book recommendation. These words are forever timely as there is perhaps no other word in the English language that is more misunderstood than the word “conscience”.

Fr. Neuhaus from the January 2009 issue of FT:

You may have run into the claim that the Catholic teaching on conscience is is really quite circular: You must act according to conscience; your conscience must be rightly formed in accord with truth; the Church teaches the truth. Thus the upshot is, critics say, you must do what the Church tells you to do, and so much for all the fine talk about conscience. There is indeed much confusion about conscience. Some think of conscience as a little built-in moral regulator that scolds you when you do wrong and commends you when you do right. Much like the cute cartoons in which a little angel is seated on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. Others confuse conscience with sincerity. To act in conscience is to determine your deepest feelings on a matter and to act accordingly. Rather, conscience is a God-given capacity and desire to seek the truth and, working together with the gifts of reason and will, to act on the truth. What then is the role of the Church’s teaching? The answer has to do not so much with conscience as with faith. If one believes that, as Jesus promised, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in her teaching, the Church is an indispensable source of truth, including moral truth. If one does not believe that, one is, to that extent, not a Catholic Christian. Conscience does not establish truth—whether by automatic moral monitor or by sincerity of feelings—but enables us to discern and respond to truth. It is not simply a matter of doing what the Church tells you to do. It is a matter of acting in conscience, in the hope that one’s conscience is formed by truth. These are among the questions very deftly and persuasively treated by Fr. Thomas Williams in his new book, Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience. Reading it is time spent in good conscience


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