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The purpose of this article is to examine the meaning of the dignity of conscience and to outline its responsibilities in forming a clear judgement.
The Meaning of Conscience
“Follow your conscience” is a popular phrase today and quoted in support of people’s decisions about complex moral questions. This can be followed by phrases like “what is right is what I feel like doing or I’m free, it is my choice”. However, when we reflect back on decisions, we know that there are times when we were misguided, made mistakes, did not know all the facts or made decisions that were wrong and harmed others. Sometimes this insight can only come from hearing the voices of victims of other’s wrongdoing. Whilst not judging a person, their actions can be judged as wrong, e.g. murder, violence. It is true that one must follow one’s conscience, but there is also the responsibility to search for the truth to make the right decision.
Conscience has great dignity, and must be followed when we believe a decision is right. It is the place where God’s voice is heard about what is to be done. The difficulty with this statement is knowing what is God’s voice. No one is born into a vacuum. Each person is born into a particular family, social setting and country. This situation teaches us values and what we know to be right and wrong. With maturity, we can become aware of prejudices, attitudes or cultural values, which have blinded our thinking and hurt others, e.g. racism, sexism. Therefore in making a decision, it is important to search for the truth and examine as many other views as possible before a decision is made with freedom and knowledge.
Christians will make decisions after reflecting on the message of Jesus and of His Church. The early Church struggled to find out what Jesus’ commandment to love meant for their attitudes to marriage, family life, and warfare, as well as its implications for Christians living in the Roman Empire. The scriptures teach us about Christian attitudes such as forgiveness, generosity, the value of human life and treatment of the poor in society. These values inform our conscience on everyday matters. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church to the truth about moral living. Throughout history, the Church has learnt more fully the meaning of Christ’s message, made mistakes and been called to conversion. In a special way, the bishops with the Pope, as leaders of the Church, are called to teach truths about the moral life. This teaching is founded on an understanding of the human person, protects human dignity and promotes moral values.
In searching for the truth, a Catholic will inform himself/herself of the Church’s teaching, attempt to understand it and live it out of personal conviction. Conscience calls the person to love and do good, and seeks the truth about what is to be done in a particular situation. It reflects on the good involved, the circumstances of the personal decision, and the way in which human dignity is promoted. Conscience makes a prayerful judgement about what is to be done. The decision of conscience is binding and when reflecting the truth, will be accompanied by a sense of peace.
“In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer, and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC, 1785)