What is Conscience?

In the United States it is a presidential election year, which means the word conscience will be thrown around in Catholic circles and in the culture. At times the use will be correct and other times it will be wrong as individuals fall victim to a desire for the subjective and an abandonment of objective truth. Conscience is an ontological reality for human beings, which means that conscience is part of our experience and nature. God has given us an intellect and a will. Our conscience gets information and processes it through the intellect and then decides on a course of action, which is the will. It’s important for us to understand precisely what conscience is and is not, our responsibilities in conscience, and our conscience as it relates to God and the Magisterium. I do not have time to give a thorough account, many books have been written on the subject and the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the topic, but I want to briefly explain this much maligned word and aspect of our nature.

The West has fallen prey to a “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls it. Conscience has become a catch-phrase and excuse for all sorts of behavior including intrinsic evil. It is up to the individual to set truth according to the clarion call of relativism. The problem, besides the obvious moral chaos that ensues, is that this subjectivism ignores the ontological reality of mankind. God made human beings for goodness and truth. Internally within the very depths of our being, we are ordered to love God, choose goodness, and live in truth. That truth is set by God as the Creator of the universe and of all human beings. He has placed that truth within us, even as we battle concupiscence.

In his book, Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed a series of essays on the state of the world. He devotes an entire section to the topic of conscience which has taken a prime of place in moral theology. He explains and clarifies what conscience means and what it does not because he sees a great danger of relativism even within the Church. He gives a stunning and beautiful portrayal of the two levels of conscience. He refers to them as: anamnesis and conscientia. Anamnesis is the ontological level of conscience, Benedict XVI writes:

Accordingly, the first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon “conscience” means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is constitutively in keeping with God, is not a knowledge of articulated concepts, a treasure store of retrievable contents. It is an inner space, a capacity for recognition, in such a way that the one addressed recognizes himself an echo of what is said to him. If he does not hide from his own self, he comes to the insight: this is the goal toward which my whole being tends, this is where I want to go.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 92.

Since we were made by and for God, there dwells deep within us the desire to live our lives in conformity to the good which is God. We are able to recognize what is from God and our own eschatological goal of Heaven. This of course can become blinded by sin, confusion, error, and our own will, but this interior reality is always present and the consequences are grave when we ignore this part of ourselves.

Conscientia is the act in response to a judgment in relation to the desire for good within us. According to St. Thomas Aquinas this act occurs in three stages: recognition (recognoscere), bearing witness (testificari), and judgment (iudicare). It is possible for an individual to not recognize a moral decision and to block their own will to the truth. The risks of doing this are great, as is evidenced by a history full of debauchery, violence, blood, and war. At times it is ignorance or disorder that leads a person to error and this can be corrected through a proper formation of their conscience and a realigning to God. A mistake in judgment is much easier to resolve than a person who has deadened themselves to their own ontological orientation to goodness.

What is the Church’s role in conscience?

Since human beings already have the natural capacity to do good within themselves, Jesus Christ the Logos, came to further clarify the truth which can be disordered within us by sin. As material and spiritual beings, we needed God to reach down on our level to fully teach us and guide us to Him. The danger of error is an ever present reality for mankind. We easily deceive ourselves and it is through Christ and His Church that we are given the clarity we need, so that we can always be pointed towards our eschatological end and our ontological desire for goodness. The conscience itself must find truth and dwell in goodness in order to retain its dignity. The Church guides us in the proper formation of our conscience. Truth is freedom.

…a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good. In the same vein, Saint Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom 12:2). It is the “heart” converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is certainly essential is a sort of “connaturality” between man and the true good.

Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 64.

In order for our conscience to make proper judgments it must be formed and informed by truth. We cannot arrive at objective truth fully on our own. A truth we decide for ourselves without the help of God or the Church is subjective and often in error or at least disordered in some manner. The desire for goodness is within us, but we need a guide in ordering our consciences properly to God. The Church helps us to recognize the “echo” of God within us, to borrow from Benedict XVI’s quote above. The Church is a living organism animated by the Holy Spirit. Her infallible teachings come from God. As Catholics, we must form our consciences based on her teachings, not on our own desires, inclinations, or the world. Conscience is not so much about our subjective wants, but about us living our lives ordered to goodness. When we recognize that goodness it wells up inside of us and propels us towards God.

We are called to self-emptying love. The very same love which is given to us and shown to us on the Cross. That means we must relinquish our need for control, power, and sin. We have an obligation in charity and truth to search out what is right and good, even when we struggle to understand. Our Baptism has furthered this call as we work towards conversion and to conformation (to be like) with the Blessed Trinity. The world seems to give easy answers, but they are answers which lead us from who we are and what we were made for by God. Yes, there are items which the Church leaves open to individual conscience, but our decisions must always be made with God’s will in mind not our own. “…still not my will, but yours” (Luke 22:42).

The issues of our day abortion, contraception, “same sex marriage”, divorce, etc. are moral teachings of the Church which are not up for negotiation. These are those areas where we must ask God for the grace and strength to accept the truth which He has set for us, even when we don’t understand. He made us for happiness. We must keep that in mind as we learn what our Catholic Faith asks of us, what God asks of us. We must trust God over our own frail wants. God has His reasons because He desires for us to be fully alive. It’s important to understand that our consciences must be formed by the teachings of the Church, so that we can make decisions and judgments based on objective truth. We place ourselves in opposition to our true selves and God when we place our own desires under the guise of conscience above the truth. It is even more dangerous when we deaden our own consciences for our own idea of truth. The Church is not our enemy; she is our mother. Her deepest desire is for us to see God, so she must guide us to the truth, even those truths counter to the world. Let’s remember that conscience is a part of the deepest inner workings of ourselves and is meant to be ordered to our ultimate good, not the transience or the Zeitgeist of the times.


Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Gary

    A fine article, Ms. Hull. Thank you.

  • BXVI

    I need help understanding something. It seems the position of many in the Church hierarchy is as follows: Catholics are required to believe certain things and behave in certain ways. Unless they don’t believe what the Church teaches. In that case, they must follow their conscience. And, the Church can / should impose no consequences upon them for their refusal to assent to the teaching of the Church, because the individual conscience is paramount.

    This thinking extends to the matter of what constitutes mortal sin. For sin to be mortal, it must involve a grave matter, full knowledge and complete consent. Many seem to take this to mean that if they do not believe what they are doing is a mortal sin, then it isn’t because they don’t “know” it to be a mortal sin. This gives everyone a complete escape hatch, and makes mortal sin an extreme rarity. Example: the Church says it is a grave matter to miss to Mass on Sunday without a good excuse. I do not believe it is a grave matter. So, I don’t have to go and it is not a mortal sin. It is only a mortal sin for one who believes it is a mortal sin, and yet chooses not to go.

    All of this thinking is very messed up. Some things are objectively, or inherently, evil – despite what the German bishops try to tell us. If I know what the Church teaches about missing mass and yet I skip anyway, that’s a mortal sin. That my conscience tells me what the Church teaches is true does not save me.

    Also, I have a problem with the “full knowledge” component of this. It seems one would be culpable for recklessness or gross negligence in not knowing what the Church teaches is required. For example, if I am a life-long Catholic and have not bothered to learn the basic requirements of the faith, it seems like I am culpable for that. What did Jesus say about the lukewam? That he would spit them out of his mouth like vomit?

  • douglas kraeger

    Conscience with culpability: If the priest does not teach explicitly some details of the Catholic Faith, only implicitly, “hoping” to get the message across without driving the people out of the pews, some will get it and others will not (the message will go over their heads/ in one ear and out the other). Can the priest be held accountable for those who did not get it by his implicit language, but would have if he had been explicit? Can culpability be shared?

    As an example: 2 Thes. 2:10 says “He (God) will give them a deceiving spirit because they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved” If the priest does not emphasize the essential nature of “accepting the love of truth so that they may be saved”, some will not realize the importance and not ask, what must I do to demonstrate the acceptance of true love of all truth. Their conscience is not well formed (by the priest) and they do not act as they should and this pleases the devil. Does anyone know a priest who has given an excellent sermon touching on what people do IF they have accepted the true love of all truth? If no one knows of such a sermon, is it possible that all priests are implicitly cooperating with the devil by not giving such a sermon and are implicitly culpable for many people not accepting the love of truth so that they may be saved? How do we get priests to mention this so that people’s consciences can be more properly formed and hopefully they will demonstrate the true love of all truth by their actions and thereby be better parents?

    I have an idea to help get this message across, that I believe should be supported by all ministers of all faiths so as to help all parents be better parents, on my blog at eternalvisionfarmer.blogspot.com

  • Sarah Metts

    Great piece, Constance! I think it’s really important to clarify the idea of conscience, it is so important in the small things as well as the larger issues you mentioned. I love Pope Benedict’s image of an echo inside of each of us. Thank you!