Apr 23, 2016
On April 12, 2016, the Pew Research Center published the results of its survey entitled “Religion in Everyday Life.” The survey reports that three-quarters of Catholics say that they decide what is right or wrong on the basis of their own conscience. Only twenty-one percent of Catholics say that they look to the teaching of the Church for guidance in making moral decisions. And, an even fewer eleven percent look to the Pope.
Those who reject Church teaching often say, “I am following my own conscience.” This statement evidences some confusion on exactly what it means to follow one’s own conscience. Does it simply mean deciding on one’s own what is best for oneself? What exactly is conscience?
A captain sailing a great ship across the high seas cannot simply determine on his own where north, south, east and west are. These are fixed points. From ancient times, navigators looked to the position of the sun and the stars to guide them safely to their directions. So also our conscience cannot simply decide on its own what is right or wrong.
Our individual conscience is no more the source of what is good or evil than a captain’s personal decision of where north or south should be. Rather, our conscience is our reason looking to the objective truth found in natural law and in divine revelation and then making a judgment that a particular choice leads us in the direction of our ultimate destination, God himself, the source of all goodness. Our conscience does not make a particular act good or bad simply by what we decide. It simply recognizes the moral quality of a particular act (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778).
In each of us, God has inscribed the law to do good and to avoid evil (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 16). We must apply to any given situation that basic law in light of sound moral principles that come from both reason and revelation. Conscience is not a matter of feeling or individual preferences. In forming our conscience, we need to think, to reason and to judge what is objectively good. This is why Pope John Paul II called the process of forming our conscience “an interior dialogue of man with himself” (Veritatis Splendor, 57-58). And, since the moral rightness of every choice finds its source within God himself, the Pope also referred to conscience as “a dialog of man with God” (Veritatis Splendor, 60).