The word “conscience” is sometimes used to refer to feelings and judgments which have no direct relationship with moral truth—to manifestations of the superego, which, arising from early training, give a sense of requirement and guilt at the emotional level, and to awareness of social conventions imposed by a group with which one identifies. In a full and strict sense, though, conscience is awareness of moral truth.
The Church is interested in conscience only in this latter sense. As Vatican II uses it, “conscience” refers at once to awareness of moral principles, to the process of reasoning from principles to conclusions, and to the conclusions—moral judgments on choices already made or under consideration. St. Thomas’ classic account concentrates on conscience in this last aspect, as an intellectual act of judgment. When conscience is regarded in this way, as one’s best judgment of what is right and wrong to choose, it is true by definition that one ought to follow one’s conscience; but this truism provides no specific moral guidance by itself.
Judgments of conscience can be mistaken. Although one ought to follow conscience even when it is mistaken—since it is one’s last and best judgment as to the choice one ought to make—one is not necessarily guiltless in doing so. If the error is one’s own fault, one is responsible for the wrong one does in following erroneous conscience. Thus, one’s first responsibility is to form conscience rightly so that one’s moral judgments will be true. Rationalization and self-deception can, however, produce a conscience which is voluntarily fixed in error. This is what Vatican II means in speaking of a conscience “practically sightless as a result of a practice of sinning” (GS 16).
Conscience functions best in Christians who are good, mature, and integrated. They have the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom; as a result of their established commitments, they find it easy to make moral judgments. Evidently, then, when one is in doubt, one’s prudence is not adequate to the occasion, and it is wrong to fall back on a subjective impression, calling it an “insight of prudence” or something of the sort.
The formation of conscience requires learning and thinking about three areas: the principles of natural law, practical possibilities, and the application of the principles to the facts of each situation of choice. A great deal of conscience formation, especially in children, consists simply in getting people to think about their behavior from a moral point of view and to question the reasonableness of the demands of superego and social convention.
Some people regard the Church’s moral teaching as an imposed set of social standards similar to civil law. This view is false. The act of faith is a free personal commitment by which one becomes a member of the Church. For one who makes this act, such membership is part of his or her existential self-identity. Thus, to accept what the Church teaches, including its moral teaching, is to be self-consistent. Moreover, the moral demands of the Church’s teaching are not alien to the requirements of morality which one can know naturally. Rather, they specify the moral implications of natural law, the law written in our hearts (cf. Rom 2.15). Thus the moral teaching of the Church forms conscience from within, not by external imposition.
All the same, conscience today is often confused with arbitrariness. This is expressed by such statements as, “My conscience tells me it’s all right to do this, so it is all right for me.” Such moral subjectivism rests on two confusions. First, the fact that conscience is one’s own grasp of moral truth is taken to mean that moral truth itself is whatever one makes it. Second, moral principles, which are the source of conscience’s authority, are mistaken for legal impositions, which it is the task of conscience to judge. By contrast, persons of mature conscience do not perceive objective moral norms as standing apart from personal conscience.