Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 63(4) November 2013

What is Conscience?

Fr Thomas Crean OP

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The topic of ‘conscience’ is a complex and important one, and especially in recent decades, one on which people are often confused. ‘My conscience tells me to do it’ can be the noble response of the Christian martyr to his persecutors; but it can also be a pretext for someone who wishes to be free of all laws that are not to his taste. What do the Church and her theologians have to say about conscience?

What conscience is

By ‘conscience’, some people understand a special, moral faculty, whose province is the making of moral judgements. However, we need not believe in the existence of such a faculty. St Thomas Aquinas did not: he considered that it is one faculty, the intellect, that has insight, at least potentially, into truths of any kind, whether ‘moral’ or ‘non-moral’ truths. It is the intellect that sees, for example, both ‘that is someone else’s money’ and also ‘I should not take that money’. However, though it is an interesting question whether or not there exists a special moral faculty, it is irrelevant for our purposes. For by ‘conscience’, conscientia in Latin, moral theologians traditionally mean not a faculty but a certain kind of judgement, namely a judgement about the moral quality of one’s own action. The modern Catechism also uses the word in this way: ‘Conscience is a judgement... whereby the human person recognises the moral quality of a given act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing or has already completed’ (CCC 1778). It is the judgement that this action is good or bad, obligatory, forbidden or optional.

Conscience is fallible

Such a judgement can be either correct or erroneous, since we are no more infallible in moral judgements than in any other kind of judgement. True, we cannot help seeing the very general principle that ‘good should be done and evil should be avoided’. There are also some less general principles that we have a natural awareness of, for example, the duty to protect the innocent or not to betray one’s friends. However even our awareness of such general principles can be impaired, for example by a bad upbringing or by depraved surroundings. And when we come to the complexity of actual choices, with all their infinite variety of circumstances, where it may not be immediately clear, for example, who is innocent or what counts as betraying one’s friends, then our judgement about what is and is not to be done can certainly be incorrect.

Conscience is binding

Yet although conscience is fallible, it is nonetheless binding. In other words, the man who deliberately does what he is convinced is wrong, or fails to do what he is convinced is obligatory, sins. This is true whether or not the act in question really possesses the moral quality which he supposes it to possess. For example, someone supposes, erroneously, that blood transfusions are against the law of God. If he nevertheless chooses to have a blood transfusion, then he sins by acting against his conscience. Although what he is doing is right, abstractly considered, it is wrong considered as the act of this man. St Thomas Aquinas explains this by saying that the object of one’s will is not simply ‘this or that action’ but ‘this or that action as grasped by one’s intellect’. Thus if one’s intellect conceives of a certain good action, such as a blood transfusion, as bad, one’s will becomes bad by choosing the action. In other words, to act against one’s conscience, even against an erroneous conscience, is bad.

Erroneous consciences

However, the opposite doesn’t necessarily follow: that is, to act in accordance with an erroneous conscience is not necessarily good and praiseworthy. It depends on what led one to have an erroneous conscience in the first place. The error itself could be culpable, in which case the actions that flow from it will also be culpable. For example, a doctor thinks that women who ask for abortions should be given them, and so in accordance with this principle he arranges for an abortion for a patient. Here he is acting in accordance with his conscience, but his conscience is gravely in error. What is more, his error is culpable, since it bears on a precept of natural law that everyone can and should know, namely, that innocent human beings are not to be killed. He acts ‘in accordance with his conscience’ as it is there and then; but since he has already falsified his conscience, his action is not only bad in itself, but also imputable to him as bad.

On the other extreme, there could be a conscience that was involuntarily in error about a simple matter of fact. A bottle of medicine has been incorrectly labelled by the supplier; a chemist thinks that it contains drugs that will cure a patient when in fact it contains drugs that will kill him. In giving the bottle to the patient, his practical judgement, ‘I should hand over this bottle’ is wrong, yet the wrongness of it is obviously not imputable to the chemist.

Between these two extremes, of course, lie many other possible cases of erroneous conscience. The general moral principle is that when error is truly involuntary, then the one who acts in accordance with the erroneous conscience has no guilt, although, as the Catechism points out, the action itself, such as giving someone strychnine in place of aspirin, is still a ‘disorder’ (CCC 1793). If the error is voluntary, either because someone has never taken the trouble to find out something which he should have known, or because he has ‘darkened’ his own conscience by previous sinful actions, then the agent is guilty when he acts in accordance with his erroneous conscience.

Duty to form conscience

Since conscience is both binding and fallible, it is clear that there is a duty to educate, or ‘form’, one’s conscience. This is not simply a matter of learning moral principles such as the ten commandments, although this is indispensable, but also a matter of acquiring virtues. For although the commandments make clear some things that we must never do, they do not of themselves suffice to show us in particular circumstances exactly what we must do. For example, there is a commandment not to lie: that sets a barrier that we must not cross, but it doesn’t show us how much of some painful truth should be told, or to whom or when it should be told. Or again, there is a commandment to honour one’s parents: but this does not in itself tell someone what to do for his elderly parents, as this will depend on many different factors. So as well as learning moral principles, one also forms one’s conscience by acquiring the virtues that allow one as it were to ‘sense’ what is good or bad in some set of circumstances. The Catechism says that ‘when he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking’ (1777), and by a ‘prudent man’ it means one who has both the correct moral principles and the virtues that enable him to see how they apply to his situation.

The Catholic, of course, has a great advantage here. First of all, we have not only our natural light to help us to grasp the moral law, but also God’s revelation in Christ, handed on by the apostles and taught with authority by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. The Church’s power to teach extends not only to mysteries of the faith such as the Holy Trinity, but also to matters of natural law. So the first Vatican Council teaches that the pope enjoys infallibility when he defines a doctrine of faith or morals. Secondly, we have the sacraments, in particular those of Holy Communion and Penance, which help us to gain the virtues that we need not only to act well but even to see where moral good and evil lie a in a particular situations. These sacraments purify our heart and calm the passions that can otherwise distort our moral judgements.

Conscience against the Church?

The question arises, can there be a conflict between a well-formed conscience and the Church? If by ‘the Church’ we mean the clear teachings of the Church about what kinds of actions are in accordance with God’s law or in opposition to it, teachings which are found, for example, in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church, or in the 16th Century Catechism of the Council of Trent, or in papal declarations meant for all the faithful, then there cannot be a conflict. Otherwise, God would be contradicting Himself, saying one thing through our conscience and another through the Church which He has promised to be with always. So if a Catholic has, by his personal study and reflection, come to an opinion about some moral question which contradicts the teaching of the Church, then his duty is to change his opinion. As St Thomas puts it, ‘if a man should know that his human reason is putting forward something which is contrary to a commandment of God, he is not then bound to follow his reason’. By changing his mind in accordance with the Church’s teaching, such a man would not be violating his own conscience, but rather forming it by a higher principle than his own native wit.
 This does not, of course, mean that a Catholic is dispensed from all the hard work of moral reflection. As we have seen, while the commandments show us clearly what we must not do, they do not always show us clearly what we must do. Someone suffering from an incurable disease must not take his own life, for example, but he will need to reflect about how much treatment he needs to accept, weighing up its likely benefits and drawbacks. In such circumstances, a prudent man will seek light in prayer, and perhaps seek advice from others, but in the end he must make his own conscientious decision about the matter. It is in this sense that we can say that ‘conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary... [where] he is alone with God’ (CCC 1795).

Conscience and particular commands

It is, however, possible that there could be a conflict between a well-formed conscience and the command of a given superior within the Church, just as there can be conflict between such a conscience and a secular superior. A junior doctor who is told by a senior doctor to participate in or even facilitate an abortion is obliged to refuse. In the same way, if a parish priest were to tell an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to throw away the contents of the chalice after Mass, he would be obliged to refuse.

One can only refuse to obey the command of a superior if one is sure that he has not the right to command as he does. If there is a doubt, the superior should be given the benefit of it. John Henry Newman’s rule in such matters was that unless a man can say, as being in the presence of God, ‘I dare not obey’, he is obliged to obey.

It is important to bear in mind this distinction between the law of God as taught by the Church and particular commands of people with authority within the Church. In the first case, since we believe that the Church teaches moral truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we form our conscience by this teaching, and so it makes no sense to invoke conscience against this teaching. In the second case, of obedience to some particular command, we judge the command in the light of the Church’s teaching and such virtues as we may possess, and we obey it unless it is clearly seen in this light to contradict some duty that is incumbent upon us.

Fr Thomas Crean OP is a dominican currently based at the Priory of the Holy Cross Leicester. He works as an assistant parish priest and as Catholic chaplain to the Leicester Royal Infirmary. He is also a part-time tutor for the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham