By Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.
How do I know whether what I am doing is right or wrong? Should I go with my gut feelings or should I investigate it a bit more? What if the Church teaches something with which I do not agree?
All of those are questions that involve our conscience. The conscience is that part of us that tells us whether something is right or wrong.
How Do We Form a Conscience?
The ability to judge right from wrong does not just happen. Granted, all human beings have an innate God-given ability to make judgements about right and wrong, but that ability must be nurtured and developed. Otherwise, our conscience might cause us to make the wrong decision.
Scripture is a revelation of who God is and what God wants of us.
So how do we train our conscience? The first thing we must do is study. We could attend adult education classes. We could consult brochures or books on the faith. We could read articles in our diocesan newspaper or a religious magazine. We could listen carefully to the homilies we hear in Church and ask questions after Mass if we did not fully understand some point. We could listen to religious radio, TV programs, or search online. There are many ways to obtain information about what is right and wrong.
Of course, one of the most important sources of information is the Bible. Scripture is a revelation of who God is and what God wants of us. The better one understands scripture, the more easily one understands what God is calling us to be.
We also must read and study the Church’s teachings on morality. It would be arrogant to believe that we can figure out everything on our own. We believe that the Holy Spirit guides the hierarchy of our Church, especially in questions of faith and morals. We need to be humble enough to realize that there is much we can learn from the Church’s pronouncements.
And then there is prayer. We must place all of this study and activity under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must pray for wisdom and insight. We pray to be able to surrender our prejudices and those things that blind us from the truth.
An Erroneous Conscience
But this does not mean that our conscience always makes the right decision. Our conscience can be in error. This is called an erroneous conscience. This can be because we either could not have known better, or we could have known better but we did not bother to learn.
An example of this is being stopped for speeding. If the speed limit was posted but hidden by a bush, then it was not our fault. If the speed limit was posted and we just did not bother to look for it, then we are at fault.
Thus, if we could not have known better, we are not guilty of having committed a sin (even if our conscience tells us to do something that is technically a sin). If, however, our ignorance is our fault because we never bothered to study the situation or we blocked the truth out of our minds, then we are guilty of having been negligent in preparing our conscience.
Scrupulous vs. Lax
There are also two extremes of how acute our consciences can be.
A scrupulous conscience is one that is always condemning us for the smallest possible infraction. One examines and reexamines an issue until one finds some possible reason for guilt. Scrupulous people can never feel right about anything. They seem to look for reasons to feel guilty.
This should be discussed with a confessor and/or a spiritual director. In its more serious forms, it requires intervention by a counselor and possible medication. It is not normal to feel guilty all the time when one is trying to do what is right.
A lax person is the exact opposite: anything goes. This could be a character flaw or, in its more serious stages, a psychological illness. Just as it is not normal to feel guilty all the time, it is also not normal never to feel guilty. We are all sinners, and there is an appropriate time to feel guilty and repent.
Doubtful, Probable and Perplexed
These are three other terms used for consciences.
A doubtful conscience is one that simply cannot determine if an action is right or wrong. In that case, we should not do it, lest what we do be wrong. An example might be whether a woman should take a drink or not when she thinks she might be pregnant. If she is to err, it must be on the side of safety.
A probable conscience is one that is fairly sure that something is right or wrong. In this case, one should try to clarify the issue if that is possible. Yet, if one must make a choice, then it is permissible to go with one’s best judgment.
Unfortunately, in the confusion of life, we often run into situations that lead to a perplexed conscience. This occurs when one tries to choose between what appears to be two bad choices. In this case, one must try to clarify the situation if one can (ask advice, pray, etc.). Yet, if a decision must be made, then one must choose the one that seems to be the lesser evil.
This does not mean that one can do something evil to bring about the good (for that is never acceptable). But with a perplexed conscience, one is simply doing the best that one can in each situation.
Only a Beginning
This reflection on the conscience only begins to touch the surface of the question. It might be good to reflect on some major decisions one has made in life and determine how they fit into this dynamic. But it is most important to learn more so that when we are faced with decisions, we can choose what is truly good, what God wants us to do.
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