Conscience 101

I think that one of the hardest things about being a Mom is the realization that I am no longer only responsible for my own soul. I am also accountable for my children’s souls as well. I have to teach them right from wrong and how to make good decisions. I need to teach them how to pray and how to lean on God always. I must show them what is important in life. I also need to help them know what to do when they make a mistake.

My sons are young (nearly nine and seven), but are growing up quickly. These are their prime formative years. They are like little sponges, absorbing everything they are exposed to. They are very concerned with what is good and bad, and what is “medium” – their term for something moral-neutral. They both have made their 1st confessions and now attend that sacrament on a regular basis. They are concerned about sin and doing what is right. I never thought that I would be called upon to make a moral determination about almost every action they make throughout the course of a day. Some days, it is truly exhausting. Yet, I realize the importance of it. If they are going to have a well-formed conscience, it is up to me to help make it that way.

One of my friends commented recently that the only thing she got from attending Catholic school was a conscience. I told her that wasn’t a bad thing to get. Yes, sometimes having a highly-formed conscience can seem like a burden. Wouldn’t doing what we want without those feelings of guilt make life so much easier? It seems like that is how most of the world operates. Aren’t they the ones who are truly free, the ones who get to enjoy life? No, it only seems that way. It is evil’s illusion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (CCC 1784). We will be happier in the long run if we both learn and do what is right. The choices aren’t always easy. The guilt when we act in error can be huge and long-lasting. Yet, it is much better than the alternative — living without a moral compass.

How, then, is a good conscience formed? Divine law must always be the first consideration. What do the Ten Commandments dictate? They are our guidelines for living in right relationship with God and neighbor. Sometimes there are situations where the decisions are not easy, but a person “must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law” (CCC 1787). One may need to seek the “advice of competent people, and the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts” (CCC 1788). The Catechism also offers three rules that must be followed in all cases: “One may never do evil so that good may result from it; the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them;’ and ‘charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience’” (CCC 1789).

Forming conscience is a long-term project. My children will not know what to do in every case by the age of ten, or fifteen, or even twenty. Yet, I must do my best to give them the tools to make the best decisions they can in light of God’s direction. It is the same thing I strive to do in my own life (while acknowledging that I sometimes fail). It is an awesome task, but one that every Catholic parent must take on.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

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Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur writes from western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two sons. A Senior Editor with Catholic Lane.com, she blogs at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com

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