At the gathering of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015, church leaders discussed a wide range of challenges facing modern families, including—though not limited to—sensitive questions around Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, contraception and same-sex marriage. In their final report, the bishops noted that in cases where a marriage has broken down, “Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations” (No. 85). And in his final address to the synod, Pope Francis noted that “apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s Magisterium…what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”
To clear away some of this confusion, it is helpful to turn to the Bible and the tradition of the church, which provide widely applicable insights on the topic. Here let me offer four of the major contributions to the church’s understanding of conscience today.
First, in the Hebrew Bible, the term most analogous to conscience is “heart”—lebab in Hebrew, kardia in Greek. There are literally hundreds of references to heart in the Bible. In fact, while the Protestant editions of the Bible translate most of these instances as “conscience,” the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version insists on keeping the specific word heart.
Often enough, heart is that which God judges. In Sir 42:18, God “searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets.” In these instances, heart is not identified with conscience, because the former simply refers to one’s deep, personal interests: Knowing one’s heart is like knowing where one’s true commitments are. Other times, however, Scripture suggests that God’s examination of the heart empowers it to become what today we would call a person’s conscience, as in Jer 17:10: “I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”
Occasionally the heart is where one recognizes one’s guilt. We call this a judicial conscience because it judges our past actions. In 1 Sm 24:5, we read that “afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak.” Here the heart is a conscience convicting the self, the fruit of an examined conscience.
Today we distinguish between a judicial conscience that looks back and a legislative conscience that guides future courses of action; there are a few instances of the latter in the Hebrew Bible. There conscience is not the heart but a voice, a voice that accompanies us. This notion of a voice being with us captures the con of conscience, a word that means “knowing with.” In Is 30:21, we read: “And your ears shall hear a word behind you: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or the left.” This voice directs our lives. Still, heart also occasionally becomes the guiding conscience that needs to be formed, as in 2 Mc 2:3: “And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.”
In short, conscience in the Hebrew Bible is found primarily as a matter of the heart. Though many instances of heart are no more than that which God examines to reveal our preferences, still other instances of heart are identifiably related to an active conscience, through which one turns to God, judges one’s past, guides one’s future and looks to be shaped by the law of God.
Listening to the Truth
As we turn to Greek and Roman philosophy, we discover that from Democritus on, conscience has a singular feature: It is judicial. Unlike the Hebrew notion of the passive heart that can be judged, this version of conscience does the judging. In fact, most often it disturbs as it judges. Though Cicero’s own conscience judged him well, in most of ancient philosophy the function of conscience is to cause us distress over our wrongdoing.
The Greek and Roman notion of conscience is found in everyone, but always as judge; like Yahweh, it judges each person. It does not dwell quietly in anyone when evil is done; it awakens the wrongdoer with pangs. Conscience forces us to recognize our own misdeeds. In that rude awakening, many encounter conscience for the first time. To have a conscience is to recognize one’s own guilt.
A guilty conscience is precisely one that recognizes a lack of connection between what we thought was acceptable and the guilt we feel afterward. Its pangs not only awaken us to our misdeeds; they awaken us to conscience itself. When we are awakened, we suddenly realize that we have within us a moral sense that does not like to be disturbed. By these pangs we begin to realize that we carry within ourselves a moral beacon that troubles us when we are wrong and validates us when we are right. That is what ancient philosophy gives us: the birth of conscience, the experience, like that of Isaiah, of a voice that we can hear. Conscience becomes a new form of understanding and a new form of listening to the truth.
Speaking the Truth of Christ
When we turn to the New Testament, St. Paul leads the way. First, he places his conscience in the light of faith and under the governance of the Holy Spirit. “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 9:1). On trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul states, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1; see 2 Cor 1:12).
There is a humility to his conscience, however. For all his reliance on following his conscience, he still acknowledges the outstanding judgment of God: “I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:4). God’s impending judgment does not replace one’s conscience, however; until the judgment comes, it is conscience that we have as a moral guide: “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (1 Cor 13:5).
According to Paul, we are called “to hold faith in God and a good conscience” (1 Tm 1:19; 3:9). Paul is mindful of the Gentiles, too. While they might not have the law, the law is written in their hearts and they have consciences that witness to them; and, like all, on the last day they will be judged (Rom 2:14–18).
Finally, Paul believes that it is through conscience that we grow, both the weak and the strong, together. In his discussion about idol meat, he considers those with unformed consciences who, on seeing their fellow Christians eating meat that has been offered to the idols, think that these Christians are participating in idol worship (1 Corinthians 8). Paul warns his fellow Christians that although they are strong in their consciences, they should be mindful of the confusion that they might be causing in others. In this bit of casuistry, Paul teaches Christians that loving one’s neighbor means helping and not scandalizing. With Paul, then, we have conscience as our moral judge and guide, with the realization that for all Christians, both the weak and the strong, there is always more to learn until we arrive at the day of judgment.
Finally, Thomas Aquinas offers a further development on conscience. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks whether an erring conscience binds. He answers that “absolutely speaking” every variance with conscience, “whether right or erring, is always evil.” Aquinas explains that though the error is not from God, the dictate of an erring conscience “puts forward its judgment as true, and consequently as being derived from God” (I-II, q. 19 a.1); therefore, when erring conscience “proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God.” For Aquinas, conscience is what God gives us to discern the right, and therefore we must always obey it.
Nonetheless, as Paul teaches, even though we must follow our consciences, we might still be in error. Immediately after the question of whether we can ever reject the dictate of conscience, he asks whether the will is good when it follows an erring conscience (I-II, q. 19 a. 6). Here, Aquinas determines whether we are responsible for the erring conscience and writes that if we could have known the truth and avoided the error, then we are not excused from the wrongdoing; if we could not have known otherwise, then we are excused.
If we want to know what our tradition today holds about conscience, nothing could surpass the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” Having seen the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek and Roman philosophers, St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe we can understand why the council used words like heart, law, voice, error, dignity etc. The text that we hold today rightly embodies the sources that produced it (No. 16). Let us read it anew:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.
In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems that arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.
Many Catholics today think of conscience primarily as that which gives us the right to dissent from teaching. That opinion, unfortunately, is a truncated notion of conscience. Any right to dissent derives first from the responsibilities we have to conscience—that is, to examine our own conduct, to form and inform our consciences daily and to determine the right direction of our lives. The language of conscience is not so much the language of a right, therefore, but of a duty always to act in conscience—that is, the obligation to find and to follow what we understand to be God’s will.