Dear Souls and Hearts Members,
One of the areas of confusion in our modern era is around the question of conscience.
Current popular and erroneous notions of conscience
It’s really popular in our culture today to discuss sin (when it is discussed at all) as violating your own conscience. The modern world tells you that to be good and true, you have to tune in to your “inner voice” and listen to your internal moral compass. Here’s just one example of thousand on the internet, from spirituality and relationships writer Sara Regan, in which she gives this advice:
In all that you do, allowing your inner voice to guide you can help you show up as the best version of yourself. “It will help you fully discern your wisdom, guidance, and direction,” Racioppi says, “and there’s nothing more potent or powerful than trusting yourself and confidently following your truth.”
These modern thinkers and writers urge you to be “true to yourself” or to “follow your own truth.” If you go against your inner voice, you are violating your own integrity – and that’s bad. Let’s sort through these ideas.
On following your conscience…
Yes, you are supposed to follow your conscience. Our Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1779, reads as follows:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: “Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.” [Quoting St. Augustine]
But notice here – the Catechism emphasizes that each one of us needs “to be sufficiently present” to himself or herself in order to hear and follow the voice of one’s conscience. Your conscience isn’t just any voice or message or thought or impulse that floats into your conscious awareness.
That’s really important to me as a psychologist – in clinical work, I’ve seen all kinds of thoughts, voices, impulses, attitudes, thoughts, beliefs that come up that do not speak for an individual’s conscience. On one extreme, you can have delusions – beliefs that are detached from reality, such as that Russian spies have bugged your bedroom, so you need to speak in code to your spouse. Also, there can be very distorted beliefs that you feel strongly in the moment – such as that God doesn’t love you because he allowed your car to be totaled in a hit-and-run accident and you don’t know where the money is coming from to replace it. Catholic suffering from scrupulosity hear all kinds of inner messages that are not from their consciences, but they sometimes mistakenly believe they are.
You could also have a set of strongly contradictory thoughts or desires, inner voices arguing – one part of you wants to send your adolescent to a high school military academy or some other boarding school and has a long list of reasons why – another part of you is appalled at the idea, and believes it would constitute abandoning him. Another part of you worries about the expense and how your family could afford it. Another part of you remembers him as a sweet, happy little boy and dwells on how much you would miss him. Lots of inner voices here – are they all your conscience? Hardly. It takes discernment to listen to your actual voice of conscience.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila weighs in on conscience…
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver challenged the popular interpretation of conscience directly as your “inner voice” in 2013. He stated “What has happened with so many Catholics today is that they have come to understand conscience as listening to their own voice, rather than listening to the voice of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Tradition.”
Listening to the voice of God as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture and Tradition – not just to the voices within us, which often speak from ignorance of the moral principles needed to make good decisions.
What is conscience?
Let’s check in with the Catechism on this one, paragraph 1796: Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.
So conscience is a judgement of reason – it’s not just any judgement or any internal opinion. But let’s go a little deeper and flesh out what that judgement of reason entails.
According to the Catholic Dictionary, “conscience” is defined as:
The judgment of the practical intellect deciding, from general principles of faith and reason, the goodness or badness of a way of acting that a person now faces. It is an operation of the intellect and not of the feelings or even of the will. An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way. The judgment of the practical intellect deciding, from general principles of faith and reason, the goodness or badness of a way of acting that a person now faces. It is an operation of the intellect and not of the feelings or even of the will. An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way. [emphasis added].
And let’s check in with the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas:
Catholic Answers blogger Joel Heschmeyer in a November 2018 article (worth the read) writes:
St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and explores the ways that conscience
- witnesses (when we “recognize that we have done or not done something”),
- incites or binds (when “we judge that something should be done or not done”), and
- excuses, accuses, and/or torments us (when “we judge that something done is well done or ill done”).
So you can see that conscience is much more than just an inner voice or an impulse. Not every inner voice, not every impulse, not every thought, not every idea, not every desire that comes up in your consciousness is your conscience.
Forming your conscience
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provided these steps for forming your conscience in a 2012 bulletin insert:
- Begin by being open to the truth and what is right.
- Study Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church.
- Examine the facts and background information about various choices and be discerning in where we gather information.
- Prayerfully reflect to discern the will of God
- Seek the prudent advice and good example of trusted leaders and others to support and enlighten our conscience.
- Learn about the authoritative teaching of the Church.
- Pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us develop our conscience.
- Regularly partake in an examination of conscience to hear God’s voice in your life.
To those I would add, to quote Socrates, “Know thyself.”
Those “inner voices” inside you are not randomly generated. They have meaning, and they have a purpose. It is entirely possible to come to understand the different “inner voices” that speak to you from within. Different parts of you communicate in different ways – each part like a little personality within you, and each part has characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, sensing, perceiving and interpreting experience. The more that you can understand the different parts of you, each with its own voice and the more integrated they are with your innermost self, the easier it becomes to discern what your authentic conscience is, and greater internal harmony will result, and a greater sense of well-being, peace and joy.
New Interior Integration for Catholics Podcast Episode
And a deep sense of well-being, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person is what episode 94 of the IIC podcast is all about – The Primacy of Love. In this episode, I discuss the central importance of love as the marker of well-being from a Catholic perspective — our capacity to live out the two great commandments. We explore how love is the distinguishing characteristics of Christians, we detail the eight different kinds of love, and we discuss Catholic theologian Bernard Brady’s five attributes or characteristics of love — how love is affective, affirming, responsive, unitive and steadfast. We discuss what is commonly missing from philosophical and theological approaches to love, and we briefly touch in the death of love and distortions of love.
Dr. Gerry on The Nourished Soul Podcast
Check out Dr. Gerry on the Nourished Soul podcast with Dr. Kelli Ritter, where he discusses this solid relational connection with all of our parts within and how to have a harmony and peace grounded in a solid Catholic identity — the episode it titled “Revealing our True Nature.”
Resilient Catholics Community
If you like these email reflections and you resonate with the idea that we have internal parts, and especially if you like the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, come join us on the adventure of human formation, all grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person. Find out more on the Resilient Catholics Community (RCC) landing page, call me at 317.567.9594, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to see if the RCC is right for you.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,