Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What is an “informed conscience”?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

As with many important human endeavors, we have to educate ourselves against error and erroneous belief and inform our conscience about God’s law. As the Catechism states, “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the Creator” (CCC 1783). An informed conscience is one that has been shaped by the moral doctrine of the new Law of Christ. While many people claim to be listening to their conscience when they dissent from Church teaching and engage in behavior the Church says is immoral, what they are really doing is listening to their preferences or predilections. Conscience is not the voice of your instincts telling you what you would like to be true but the informed voice one gains through instruction, teaching what you ought to do. Prudence helps us to understand where our own fallibility lies and urges us to seek guidance from the Church and from those wiser than us.[i] If we do not seek guidance through the Church, we can be led astray by the predominant opinion of the times or the whims of culture.

We as Christians are obligated to follow our consciences in all moral decisions. Going against our conscience, whether we do so for an erroneous reason or not, is sinful. However, we can be more or less culpable depending on whether our erroneous judgment is based on honest error or whether we have neglected to educate ourselves. If we make a moral error after a good-faith attempt to inform our conscience, we may be invincibly ignorant. However, if we neglect to study the moral teachings of the Church believing our conscience to be the supreme guide, and we then err morally, we can be culpably ignorant (CCC 1791). We are responsible because we neglected to follow the sure guidance of the Church. Failure to inform our conscience is itself sinful and can be a form of spiritual sloth or pride. The Navarre Bible commentary for the book of Sirach notes verse 18:19: “Before you speak, learn” and adds that this verse underscores the importance of formation before action.[ii]

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 5B—Lesson Ten,” International Catholic University, 18 March 2010, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00310.htm.
ii. “Sirach,” The Navarre Bible: Wisdom Books, (New York: Scepter Publishers, Inc., 2004) 446.
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