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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Question D: How does each Christian’s conscience function in forming his or her unique life?

1. A Catholic conscience should conform absolutely to the Church’s teaching (23‑G). However, this teaching is not sufficient by itself to settle any question about precisely what one should do. The Church does propose some norms which absolutely exclude certain kinds of action, such as killing the innocent. Moreover, the Church firmly teaches that one must live one’s faith by faithfully carrying out one’s vocational commitments. But the Church does not assign her members their personal vocations and cannot teach anyone which precise actions are required day by day to carry out vocational commitments. The specific, affirmative norms the Church proposes—either to all the faithful or to certain groups—can help one to find one’s vocation and to make the judgments of conscience required to carry it out. But these affirmative norms are necessarily nonabsolute, for they are never so fully specified that they can provide the immediate basis for any judgment of conscience.

As Vatican II teaches, the pastors of the Church do not have concrete solutions to every problem of conscience which arises, nor is that their mission. The laity are to make conscientious judgments of their own, enlightened by Christian wisdom and paying close attention to the Church’s pastors (see GS 43).

2. For instance, the Church’s teaching indicates many duties which are serious and normally inescapable, but it points out no specific positive duty which might not under some conditions yield to some other responsibility. Moreover, a positive duty which is required in a general way—say, the duty of parents to educate their children in the faith—must be carried out in some specific way, and this way must be chosen in accord with a norm of Christian judgment more specific than any the Church can teach. One must be able to conclude: This is what I should do to carry out my commitment of faith and the vocational commitments I have made to implement it.

3. Thus, a Christian of mature conscience is not satisfied with knowing that one possibility is forbidden and another permitted. He or she looks for the right choice: what is holy, pleasing to God, and perfect. The Christian’s conscience is no mere negative norm or monitor, leaving the positive determination of behavior to nonmoral inclination. This is so because the point of Christian life is not just to avoid sin but to cooperate in redemptive work, and to do this affirmatively according to one’s unique personal vocation.

If an individual reaches moral maturity shortly before or around the time he or she makes major vocational commitments, his or her conscience seems to be working a good part of the time. “What ought I to be and to do?” becomes an engrossing question. Once one has made one’s commitments and settled into the life they require, conscience is less busy.

Superego and social convention extend to only a selected part of one’s behavior. At these immature stages, much of life remains in a “free area,” in the sense that morality is not felt to apply to it and one considers oneself at liberty to do as one pleases. Even when the third level of conscience begins to emerge, it does not develop all at once and extend to the whole range of one’s choices. Thus, for some time (perhaps for many people for the whole of their lives) many choices are without moral significance for good or ill.

This situation is not changed at once by the fact that one has Christian faith. The boundaries of the area of liberty seem different for Christians, but many people with genuine faith sincerely assume that there is no moral or religious stake in many choices.

4. Thus, whenever a Christian really wonders, “What should I do?” no preexisting norm will be specific enough to give the answer. An adequate norm must embody but further specify one or more preexisting norms, so that all the intelligible aspects of the possibility will be taken into consideration. In many actual judgments the affirmative norm, “This is what I should do,” is very complex, because of the intelligible complexity of the options under consideration. Although such a norm remains universal (it would apply to any exactly similar case), it may be that there never has been nor will be another case to which the norm applies, and the norm will have to be developed to fit this sole instance.

5. Moreover, even when a sufficiently specific norm is found or developed to fit the options under consideration, conscience still has its proper task to perform. This task is not to bring into play some incommunicable and mysterious moral determinant. The only factors which determine the moral character of choices are the intelligible relationships between the willing involved in available options and the human goods proposed actions would bear on. A sufficiently specified norm takes all these moral determinants into account (10‑D).

6. In reaching the judgment, “This is what I should do,” conscience directs the choice referred to by “this” as an instance of the kind referred to by “what.” This kind of action has been morally characterized by the specific norm one takes to be adequate for the case. If one is conscientious in taking a norm to be adequate, prudence is required to make two prior judgments: (1) that one has reflected far enough in reaching the specific norm; and (2) that of the options considered good at the end of moral reflection one is to be preferred.

7. Even in making these two prudential judgments, a Catholic’s conscience receives valuable assistance. By identifying certain kinds of actions and omissions—those inconsistent with faithfulness to one’s Christian commitments—as grave matter, the Church’s teaching facilitates the judgment that one has reflected adequately in reaching the specific norm one is about to follow. For if reflection has established that choice of a certain kind of action would not be a mortal sin, and if a norm commends it as good, then one can act on the norm with prudent certainty. Even if further reflection would bring to light additional morally relevant features of the situation, these would not detract from faithfulness in following Jesus according to one’s personal vocation.

8. Also, the Church’s indications as to what might be more perfect facilitate the judgment of personal preference. This is the prudential judgment among options which still appear good after all relevant moral determinants have been rationally examined. Because human action involves the whole person, at this point preference for one option is rightly settled by nonrational inclination. One who not only has the mind of Jesus but also his heart will be affected by his nonbinding wishes—such as the counsels of perfection—and by preferences indicated by the Church.

9. If it seems that there is no good option rather than too many good options, a mature Christian conscience will not at once define the issue by the possibilities which first present themselves. Since conscience is governed by the basic commitment of faith (specified by a personal vocational commitment), it must search out or invent ways to carry out the commitment. The person of mature conscience seeks additional information and thinks of fresh possibilities. The source of moral ingenuity or creativity thus lies in commitment; love looks for and finds a way to serve the good to which the Christian is dedicated.