Forming a moral conscience

conscience-aheadIt is a common refrain: the “Vatican” and “bishops” are out of touch with the people of the United States. It rises to the surface whenever the bishops, in their role as teachers of the faith, offer moral guidance – and every four years in our presidential election cycle. Such proclamations often include some veiled reference to Catholics being required to have slavish adherence to every pronouncement. Actually the Church’s position is quite surprising to the “experts” and Catholic alike. I believe the Church’s position on the formation of a moral conscience is one of the better kept secrets of Catholic life.

As a parish priest, I suspect a part of every day is spent in addressing questions from parishioners about questions that reside in the moral realm of life. If you think about it, a far greater percent of our daily decisions are there, but we don’t often think about them that way. And that may be because we have already formed our conscience on the matter, or we haven’t thought about it, or we are just too busy. What I have begun to suspect is that people are less clear about the distinctions between an “opinion,” a “conscience,” and a “informed conscience.” It is the latter that the Church hopes to imbue in each one of the faithful as it beautifully expresses in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1783-1785. Two key points are:

  • The formation of one’s conscience is a lifelong task.
  • It includes the act to “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.”

Do we take the time to “educate our conscience” with the Word of God, prayer, petitions to the Holy Spirit for Wisdom, talking to someone in our faith community who might have wisdom on the subject, to someone who might hold a position in contradistinction from the Church, and do we listen and plumb “the authoritative teaching of the Church?” All of those things go into the stew of our contemplation and pondering. And then simmer for a while. And a while longer.

In the betwix-and-between of all this considering, the Church would ask you to follow its teaching while you form your conscience. But in the end, one makes a decision based on the informed conscience as best as one can. From the Catechism:

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [informed] conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

The Catechism goes on to describe the situation if one reaches a conclusion different from the Church at the end of one’s sincere efforts to form one’s conscience – and I would suggest you read those paragraphs on erroneous judgment. Then again consider the responsibility the Church asks of you: to “obey the certain judgement” of your formed conscience. Weighty stuff.

The 2016 elections are upon us. Will our choices be the fruit of the lifelong moral reflection, or will it be more influenced by the current tides and winds of political hurricanes? What we can offer for your consideration is the guidance of the US Bishops and some reflections from the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province on key moral issues we face as an electorate. Take some time this week and consider these reflections as part of your ongoing formation of the moral conscience. You can find the information on our website at

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