A Conscientious Attempt to Get a Handle on Conscience

Cardinal Pell is notorious for wanting to ditch the doctrine of “the primacy of conscience” (see for eg. here and here). I have recently read two articles on the matter: Bishop Anthony Fisher’s (which was helpful) and Fr Frank Brennan SJ’s (which was even more helpful in that it was so obviously in error that I was forced to do some hard work to determine exactly where it erred).

Not being a trained philosopher, and having a theological training that specialised in scripture rather than scholastic theology, I have to admit to being a bit muddled when it comes to the issue of conscience. But I think–from simply paying close attention to my own experience–I have managed to sift things out to make some sort of sense. And in fact it is all very simple.

My conscience is one thing and one thing only: it is the inner voice which constantly speaks to me saying: “Do good, seek truth, avoid evil.” It is a rather monotonous voice, like a stuck record, because this is all it ever says.

When I obey it, I have a “good conscience”. When I don’t, I have a “bad conscience”.

In actual fact, I believe that my conscience never errs. The reasons for this is the only way that my conscience could err is if it were to say to me: “Do wrong, seek falsehood, seek evil.” But it never says this. It just keeps on saying: “Do good, seek truth, avoid evil.”

My conscience has “primacy” in that I know that I must obey it in all circumstances. That is, I must “do good, seek the truth, and avoid evil” ALWAYS.

On its own, however, my conscience is not very helpful. It does not, of itself, actually tell me what is “good, true, or evil”. It does not, of itself, enable me to “do good, seek the truth, and avoid evil.” It does not, of itself, direct me to authorities that will help me to know what is “good, true, or evil.”

I have other faculties that assist me on that score.

There is my HEART. With my heart I identify those authorities and sources of knowledge of truth, good and evil in which I can place my TRUST. One of these authorities (the primary one) is God’s Word. I hear God’s Word speaking to me from the Scriptures and from the Tradition of the Church authoritatively and reliably interpreted by the Living Magisterium (including the Pope and the Bishops). My TRUST in God’s Word spoken by the Church is thus absolute. I trust that it never NEVER ERRS (here I part company from Fr Brennan who does not share this level of trust). Other sources of authority are my own experience, the experience of others, philosophy, history, literature and all manner of fields of scientific endeavour. I have differing levels of TRUST in these various sources, because these sources DO ERR to varying degrees.

Then there is my MIND. With my mind, I REASON. I form rational and logical arguments on the basis of knowledge which I have received from my accepted authorities. My arguments also have been known to ERR–although not as often as many of those who leave comments on this blog would like to think. Nevertheless, when I have investigated an issue as thoroughly as I can, and have drawn a conclusion, I need to act upon this conclusion.

Thus, I use my MIND and my HEART to determine what is “good, true or evil”. My determination may have erred, nevertheless my CONSCIENCE binds me to DO that which I have determined is good, to SEEK that which I have determined is true, and AVOID that which I have determined is evil. Otherwise I will have a “bad conscience”. In this way, if by following my conscience faithfully I do something which is not good, or end up embracing falsehood, or fail to avoid evil, it is not because my conscience has erred, but either because I have put my TRUST in a faulty authority or my REASON is faulty. Or both.

Finally, even when my HEART, MIND and CONSCIENCE have led me thus far, I require still the effort of the WILL to do that which my CONSCIENCE, MIND and HEART have directed me to do. If I fail to do so, I am culpable, and will have a “bad conscience”. I am not culpable–or at least my culpability is greatly lessened–if I apply my WILL to following my CONSCIENCE to do a thing which is wrong because my underlying REASON (the thinking of my MIND) is in error.

When we talk about “forming conscience” we are usually talking about forming our thinking which underlies our conscience. An “unformed conscience” is, in fact, an unformed faculty of reasoning, or an unformed knowledge of the authorities upon which my reasoning should be based. It is a duty of every human being to “form their conscience” in this sense.

However, I also believe that, according to Christian doctrine, I am culpable if, by following my CONSCIENCE, I do what is wrong because I have failed to put my complete TRUST in the absolute authority of the Word of God as taught (with Christ’s own authority) by the Church. I may not have a “bad conscience” about this, but I have been “unfaithful”, and “unfaithfulness” cannot be excused before God by saying “I followed my conscience”. Here again, I part company with our Jesuit friend, who I think comes dangerously close to encouraging “unfaithfulness” in the name of “conscientiousness”.

Thus, in my experience, my HEART/TRUST, MIND/REASON, CONSCIENCE, and WILL all interact as I seek to live the moral life. Many times I end up with a bad conscience because I err in the final quarter. Sometimes I err in the second quarter–and even in the first. But my CONSCIENCE NEVER ERRS. That stuck record just keeps on saying:

“Do good, seek the truth, avoid evil. Do good, seek the truth, avoid evil. Do good, seek the truth, avoid evil. Do good, seek…”

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2 Responses to A Conscientious Attempt to Get a Handle on Conscience

  1. Marco Vervoorst says:


    Is conscience static? Or is it a process by which we arrive at a decision? Or is it both?

    Thanks for the post.


  2. Schütz says:

    I don’t know what you mean by “static”. Again, all I can say is that in my experience conscience is “constant”: It constantly reminds me to do what is right and not to do what is wrong. Conscience is only on part of the process which determines our action. The decision about what is right or wrong is reached through the exercise of REASON on the basis of AUTHORITIES and then deciding whether or not to follow one’s CONSCIENCE and act upon the conclusion thus reached. Even making a decision is not yet an action–the WILL has to put the decision into action.

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