When it comes to a relationship with God, what is our understanding of a “moral conscience?” If you and I had never been told about the moral law, we would still have an idea of what is right and what is wrong in regards to how we live our lives and how we are to treat other people. This is what is known as the “natural law written on our hearts.” It is the law God has given each person and it is found in the depths of our being. The Second Vatican Council put it this way, “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘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 (cf. Rom 2:14-16)” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 16).
So, even if we had never heard of moral law, we would instinctively know that it is wrong to kill my neighbor, or steal from him, or lie to him, etc. The relationship between God’s law and man’s freedom is lived out in the “heart” of a person, in his moral conscience. Our moral conscience is based on God’s truth.
According to St. Paul, our conscience is a witness for man. This witness helps us to respond to the moral law, whether that be the law written on our hearts or written down. “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them (Rom 2:14-15).” Conscience makes himself known to each person and, in turn, only that person knows what his response will be with regard to voice of his conscience.
The inner conversation between a man and his conscience, is in the same way, a conversation between God and man. St. Bonaventure taught, “…conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force” (In II Librum Sentent., dist. 39, a. 1, q. 3, conclusion; Ed. Ad Claras Aquas, II 907b). Our conscience is a witness to God himself. It opens us up to hear his voice.
Our conscience judges an action in a practical way. It applies the judgment of an act or situation, in a way that seeks to love and to do good and to avoid evil. Because God is “Truth,” we are to seek what is true and good. In order to have a “good conscience,” we must make a judgment in accordance with that same truth. St. Paul speaks about how our conscience must be “conformed to the Holy Spirit” (cf Romans 9:1). But, he also warns Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).”
Our conscience though, can be prone to make mistakes, because it “is not an infallible judge.” But, in order to seek what is true and good, we as Christians are to continue to inform our conscience. We do that by seeking the truth of the Church and her Magisterium. We are to seek truth through the reading of Sacred Scripture and adhering to Sacred Tradition. We are to continually seek the will of Christ and his teachings. The Second Vatican Council states; “…the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself” (Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, 14).
The Church herself doesn’t undermine the freedom of a Christian’s conscience, but helps bring to light the truths that we already posses. The Church helps our conscience avoid being tossed around by every doctrine proposed by individuals who are inclined to deceit. It helps us not to turn away from what is true and good, especially in the more difficult questions, but to help acquire the truth so that we can live it out.
Until next time, God bless.