What Is Conscience?

Peter Fournier and Catherine Fournier

It was a dilemma common to many Catholics in the last 35 years. I sat weeping and exhausted in the office of my parish priest. Pregnant with my fifth child, I had reached, I thought, the end of my spiritual rope. I was there to ask him if I 'had to keep getting pregnant.'

"Well," he said carefully, "All I can tell you is that this is a matter of conscience. It is good that you are struggling with this, and whatever you decide, on the basis of your conscience, well, neither I nor the Church will condemn you for it." A matter of conscience. What a malleable, adaptable phrase. The 'cry to arms' of the liberal Church is perhaps the most misunderstood, misused word in all the Teachings of the Church.

But it is also an extremely necessary word.

God gave us Free Will. This is amply demonstrated by the amount of petty cruelty, greed, selfishness and dishonesty in the world. Since He gave us Free Will - the ability to choose - then He must also have given us the tools required to make those choices.

He did. We have our intellect to supply facts, emotions to provide energy and feelings and our conscience to evaluate the morality of a situation. Free Will allows us to choose, Conscience guides and instructs our choice.

When they were young I gave my children puzzles to teach shape matching, fine motor control, and patience. One such puzzle was a large plastic bin and lid with holes; round, square and triangular. There were also a dozen or so plastic blocks of various shapes. There was no way to bang the square block through the round hole and the triangular block would not fit, even sideways, through the square hole. (I know, because I watched them try.)

Of course, if they were frustrated, or in a hurry to finish the puzzle and move on to something else, the children 'cheated.' They avoided the work of choosing a shape and bypassed the puzzle by lifting the lid and dropping the blocks into the bin.

Everyday, we make hundreds of moral decisions. Simply deciding to get out of bed in the morning - in answer to our vocation, or our obligation to our employer - is a decision guided by morality. As are obeying speed limits, paying bills, smiling at the neighbours, abstaining from meat, dressing modestly, restraining our temper when provoked. All these are decisions made with Free Will, guided and instructed by Conscience.

But, they are also so familiar and easy to resolve that we are scarcely aware of using our Conscience. We simply drop the 'uncomplicated' shapes, the squares and circles, through their matching holes into the moral decisions bin without much thought. We become accustomed to this effortless application of conscience, this apparently natural match between conscience and inclination.

It's the difficult, uncomfortable or complicated "Do I tell the uninvolved mother of my preteen daughter's friend that her child is smoking?" or "Do I have to 'keep getting pregnant' or should I use birth control?" that make us think, makes us use our Conscience. And it's hard work.

Often, there's no familiar matching slot. Nothing in our experience or formation has prepared us to meet this situation. To solve it, we are tempted to reduce and reshape the problem into something more familiar and 'jam it through the square hole.' Or we can go in search of answers, find the correctly shaped Church Teaching and add it to our Conscience. This is the exercise of informing our Conscience.

Or, we may want a specific solution despite the promptings of our conscience. In those cases, there's a strong temptation to let our desires take precedence, to bypass conscience altogether and 'lift the lid.' We will excuse ourselves by saying that the Church is out-dated and inflexible, that our situation is unique, that no-one else had the right to dictate our personal choices. We will insist that our decision is correct and moral, because after all, the block is in the bin, but in fact the only thing we've decided is to ignore our conscience. A 'matter of conscience' becomes a matter of rebellious choice.

It's about as transparent as my children's attempts to outsmart the puzzle.

During Lent and Easter we tend to face the idea of conscience, and its associated concepts of repentance, obedience, and sacrifice a little more often and a little more immediately, that we do in "Ordinary Time." Ordinary time, is … so ordinary, and so filled with day to day ordinary details, that we need seasons like Lent and Easter to remind us that there is more to life. During Lent we learn to 'die to the world', and during Easter we live again in God.

Conscience should not be reserved for special occasions (lest it atrophy and wither), and neither should faith. Both must be lived, and used, and celebrated every day. Domestic-Church.Com is dedicated to helping families find ways to live the faith and liturgy of the Church in their daily lives, to offer information and inspiration. This issue will offer family activities centered around Lenten observances, profile some holy souls who live in and with God, and present articles and meditations about conscience, sacraments, society and building the domestic church. We hope you find what you are looking for.

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