I am suspicious enough of the Disney empire to feel skeptical that it will prove an ally in the moral education of my new son. Take Disney’s Pinocchio. In this version of the classic Italian children’s tale, Jiminy Cricket advises the puppet Pinocchio who aspires to become a real boy: Always let your conscience be your guide. As an ethicist and parent, what quarrel could I have with this advice?
For one thing, once anointed as Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy is not very reliable. His first day on the job he oversleeps, allowing the unwitting Pinocchio to fall in with a scheming pair who promptly sell him to a puppeteer. Why always follow conscience, if conscience is unreliable?
There is another thing about Disney’s Pinocchio that bothers me. When the Blue Fairy animates Pinocchio, she tells him that to become a real boy he must be brave, truthful, and unselfish. Jiminy Cricket proceeds to instruct Pinocchio on how to do that by stressing the importance of resisting temptation. This instruction assumes that temptation is the basic challenge of the moral life. It seems to me that just as often, if not more so, the challenge we face is moral confusion. If temptation is the phenomenon of attraction to what we know is wrong, hasn’t conscience already done its work? Isn’t the rest left to deciding—to the will? Moral confusion, though, is exactly the arena of conscience. Conscience is meant to dispel the confusion and determine the morally best thing to do. Now, temptation and moral confusion are really not so distinct, because attraction to what is not good is itself a kind of confusion. That is why the prospect of an unreliable conscience is so unsettling and the duty to form a good one so pressing.
The prevalence of moral subjectivism is an important challenge today to the formation of conscience. Moral subjectivism holds that individuals determine for themselves what is good or evil, right or wrong. As my students often say, we should not “impose our beliefs” on others. In this view, conscience formation seems to consist of developing a personal moral code that is faithful to...well, what? Because there is nothing outside of the self that grounds morality, “Always let your conscience be your guide” becomes a version of “Be true to yourself.” This is not necessarily bad advice. But unless one would be so bold as to say (as the logic of subjectivism holds) that an individual can never be morally mistaken, since the individual is the source of morality, then subjectivism offers no way beyond moral confusion and heightens the unreliability of conscience. Moreover, if “always let your conscience be your guide” means “be true to yourself,” one’s own goodness is the goal of the moral life, a notion at odds with Christian faith.
An alternative may be, then, to develop conscience according to some external moral authority, like the church. The church is indeed an indispensable help in conscience formation. Yet, given human finitude and sin, the problems of reliability and moral confusion remain. What’s more, to revise Jiminy’s advice to “always let the church be your guide” misses the fundamentally personal (and hence subjective) character of conscience. Forming conscience rightly does not mean blind obedience to the moral teaching of any community, including the church, for blind obedience does not include a personal appropriation of moral conviction in freedom and with understanding. In short, blind obedience cheats conscience of its dignity.
So what’s a wooden boy to do? A look at the meaning of conscience in Catholic moral tradition will clarify what is at stake in objective and subjective accounts of conscience and point to requirements for forming conscience well.
A Brief History of Conscience
The term conscience means, etymologically, “with knowing.” It generally refers to human knowledge of right and wrong, and thus encompasses our moral consciousness, process of moral decision making, and settled moral judgments or decisions. This range is broad enough to permit disagreement, varied emphases, and considerable ambiguity among particular ethical accounts of conscience. The word conscience derives from the Latin conscientia, which is itself a translation of the Greek syneidesis. Ancient and biblical texts also described moral knowledge by employing metaphorical references, such as the heart: “In the secret of my heart teach me wisdom” (Ps 51). Conscience appears mainly in a judicial role, judging actions we have already done. Ethicists identify this operation of conscience as the consequent conscience. Feelings of guilt and remorse over a misdeed, for example, are the “pangs of conscience.” Not until St. Paul’s letters do we begin to see textual acknowledgment of a more future-oriented work of conscience in coming to moral decisions about what actions to do or to avoid. Paul gestures at this function of conscience—the antecedent conscience—in his discussion of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). He urges Christians who are strong in their faith to exercise their freedom in ways that will not scandalize their neighbors. Conscience thus works not only in a judicial role assessing actions already performed; it works legislatively as well, discerning the morally good course of action in view of responsibility to others.
Debates over objective and subjective accounts of conscience concern the antecedent conscience. What is at issue is the basis of our moral decisions and convictions. Again, St. Paul’s letters are important, especially Romans, which develops the nature of conscience. “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them” (Rom 2:14–15). Conscience is a capacity for moral knowledge that belongs to human nature. Catholic moral tradition affirms an objective moral order discernible in the inclinations, needs, capacities, and goods of human existence, a natural law that gives shape and content to the good God wills for and with us in our earthly life and for eternity. The law God gives is thus compatible with—indeed, is the condition for—human flourishing. Pinocchio illustrates this point. Being good would make him a real boy. By being bad Pinocchio was literally making a jackass of himself.
Medieval theologians systematically addressed the connection between conscience and human nature by developing a distinction found in St. Jerome between syneidesis and synderesis. The distinction was actually based on a scribal mistake, and did not originate with Jerome. Still, it became a standard feature of Catholic treatments of conscience. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that synderesis is our capacity to know the first principles of morality (such as “seek good, avoid evil”), while syneidesis (conscience) is the activity of applying these principles to particular situations, like whether or not to withhold information from another, the permissibility of making personal long-distance phone calls from your workplace, or what, if anything, you owe to starving children in Niger. For Aquinas, in apprehending and applying moral principles, human beings participate in the divine law. Conscience thus has both subjective and objective dimensions, relating as it does to our personal participation in the moral order that God establishes and will fulfill.
In the teaching manuals that dominated moral theology instruction from the sixteenth century until Vatican II, Catholic moral tradition moved to an emphasis on the objective character of conscience. The manuals were used for training priests, especially in their sacramental duties. Moral theology following the Council of Trent developed with a view toward the confession of sins. In this penitential framework, the manuals emphasized conscience as the application of general principles to particular concrete situations. The process was basically deductive; one consulted the moral laws that were relevant to one’s situation, and reasoned from them to the wrongness or permissibility of particular actions (for example, theft is wrong; making personal long-distance calls from my workplace is a kind of theft; therefore, I ought not make them). This approach to conscience privileges a form of reasoning, which, while not without merit, neglects other sources of moral insight, such as what we intuit from our emotions. It implies that morality is principally a matter of laws, which, of their nature, serve to constrain or limit our acting. In contrast to earlier understandings of conscience, the moral law now seems opposed to human freedom. It has become principally a set of rules specifying actions to avoid rather than delineating the conditions necessary for our flourishing. If the moral law God establishes is compatible with and conducive to our good, then it cannot merely be a limit to our freedom; rather, the moral law denotes those qualities of being, ways of acting, and forms of relationship necessary for our flourishing. The manualist view of conscience also tended to make the moral life seem atomistic, a series of discrete acts, rather than the total and unique life of a person. Discussion of the virtues and growth in sanctification were not absent, but they were subordinated to the legal framework that dominated the manuals.
The Meaning of Conscience Today
Vatican II invited a correction of this legalistic, act-centered approach to moral theology in favor of a more person-centered one, but the council itself offers an ambiguous portrait of conscience. According to Gaudium et spes: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience....Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” Two things are going on here. First, conscience does not create right and wrong, but witnesses to an objective moral law that confronts and obliges the person. Second, conscience is depicted as the innermost and inviolable part of the person. It is “secret,” meaning its content and workings are not fully knowable by others. As a “sanctuary,” conscience designates the person’s moral dignity as a free and responsible agent; thus, coercing the conscience of another or acting against one’s own conscience violates the person. Yet, even as a personal core and sanctuary, conscience is not simply private. Rather, Gaudium et spes describes conscience in a dialogical fashion. As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good. This means that conscience is accountable to God. Hence, a right conscience is one that discerns, and orients our acting in ways that are compatible with the moral order God establishes in the work of creation, salvation, and sanctification.
Thus on one hand, conscience refers to a moral law outside of us that we must obey, and on the other hand, it refers to the voice of God echoing in the deepest part of ourselves. This leads to some tension, since the former suggests that the work of conscience is obedient submission to moral laws that are objective and hence universally binding, while the latter suggests that conscience is the activity of discerning God’s particular will for me. This second account seems to permit more creativity in the moral life. For example, you and I find ourselves in similar situations, needing to determine how to care for an aging parent whose health and memory are failing. Given our different capacities and resources, additional obligations, relationships with our parents, and their particular needs and wishes, what is morally good for you to do (say, placing your parent in a home) may not be what is morally good for me to do.
What if the situation we share is the imminent and painful death of a parent because of a terminal illness? May we say that the decision to wait on natural death or to actively bring it about is similarly a matter of discerning what is right in your situation and what is right in mine? Put baldly, can assisting in euthanasia be wrong for you but right for me? The church teaches that active euthanasia is always wrong. But what if my conscience tells me, after considerable prayer, discussion, and deliberation, that my case is an exception to this rule, or that the rule itself is wrong? The magisterium asserts that the person must always act according to her conscience. Yet what are we to make of those instances when the subjective verdict of an individual’s conscience is contrary to what the church teaches as being always objectively wrong?
This tension between objective and subjective dimensions of conscience is the crux of current debates in Catholic moral theology. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II criticized some moral theologians for advocating a “creative” model of conscience. A creative model of conscience postulates that our dignity as persons is tied to our moral responsibility, which we can exercise only by assuming the gift and burden of freedom in the concrete circumstances of our lives. This approach needn’t deny an objective moral order, but it is unlikely to view it as static, or as including very specific moral rules. Advocates for this approach construe objective moral norms as general guidelines that cannot in themselves account for the moral complexity of particular cases that individuals confront. They suggest that the magisterium’s categorical rejection of certain sorts of action, like active euthanasia, may actually inhibit and unnecessarily trouble the individual’s freedom of conscience. John Paul argued that these theologians misconstrue the relation of personal freedom and the moral law: freedom of conscience, he said, is upheld and protected not by setting it in opposition to the objective moral order—one authentically interpreted by the magisterium—but by enabling our free choices to conform to the moral law. Whatever creativity befits the work of conscience, it does not render conscience itself the source of right and wrong. For the pope and the magisterium, the conscience of a person who determines that active euthanasia is good—even if rarely—is mistaken.
Still, since there are so many types of issues that fall across the moral spectrum, a conscience that dissents from church teaching on a particular question is not necessarily wrong ipso facto. Catholic moral teachings are not equally settled, specific, or authoritative, and some particular teachings change. Consider, for example, the complex matter of caring for persons in a persistent vegetative stave (PVS), as Terri Schiavo was for fifteen years. Granting the church’s teaching that active euthanasia is always wrong, how are we morally to understand the decision to finally disconnect Schiavo’s feeding tube?
Some commentators have pointed to an address by Pope John Paul II to a group of medical professionals in which he stated that artificially providing nutrition and hydration to PVS patients is an ordinary and proportionate form of care, and, as such, is morally obligatory. The authoritative status of the address in question is unclear. Respectful consideration of it requires placing it within John Paul II’s full teaching on human life and the Catholic moral tradition’s rich, nuanced approach to end-of-life care. The latter includes resources to warrant the judgment that in some cases it is morally permissible to withhold nutrition and hydration.
The urgency occasioned by the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube requires careful attention to the complexity of our tradition. Furthermore, discomfort in dealing with morally confusing issues shouldn’t prompt us to cut short the church’s process of moral reflection. In fact, the Schiavo case alerted us to the productive possibilities of “moral confusion” in the formation of conscience. It heightened reflection on the medical issues involved in PVS and other medical conditions, raised issues related to living wills and substituted judgment, and threw light on the relationship between morality and civil law. But the Schiavo case also challenged our consciences about broader concerns: What is the moral significance of feeding as a form of human care? What claims and obligations do parents have with regard to their adult, married children? Wherein lies the dignity of human life? How are our answers to these questions shaped by our own fear of death, of incapacitation, of our dependency on others, and their dependency on us?
Since human beings are, as our faith teaches, a unity of body and soul, how do we care for human bodies when they live apparently without the characteristics we associate with our ensoulment—consciousness, freedom, responsibility? What does it mean, concretely, to honor our body-soul unity in a culture that values some kinds of bodies but not others, that glorifies autonomy and self-sufficiency? Such questions are vital for educating our consciences, given the powerful ways our needs, historical circumstances, and cultural processes shape our moral sensibilities.
Catholic moral theology has long addressed the problem of an erroneous conscience by distinguishing the source of conscience’s error. An invincibly ignorant conscience refers to an error of which the person is unaware and for which she is not responsible. A nurse feeds a patient, and the patient dies as a consequence. The nurse has brought about the patient’s death, but she acted with invincible ignorance because she had no way of knowing, or any reason to suspect that the patient’s relatives had poisoned his food to obtain an inheritance upon his demise. A culpably ignorant conscience, though, refers to an error for which the person is responsible. A nurse who feeds a patient a meal that causes his death is culpably ignorant if she failed to inform herself of his life-threatening allergies to certain foods. She ought to know what adequate care of her patient required.
The distinction seems simple, yet considerable controversy surrounds the moral status of the person who performs an action with an erroneous conscience. If the error arises from invincible ignorance, the action itself is objectively wrong, but the person who performs it is not subjectively guilty. May we go further and say that the person, since she strives to do what is right, is actually good? Does the action, although objectively wrong, contribute to her goodness? Theologians also debate how much of our ignorance is culpable. The euthanasia advocate’s case is more complex than the nurse’s. Does the “culture of death” John Paul discerned make us invincibly ignorant of what respect for life requires, since it infects our basic moral sensibilities? Or do its effects on us signal our culpable ignorance, a failure to examine critically pervasive social attitudes? Importantly, the fact that people can be culpably ignorant indicates that a well-formed conscience is not merely a conscience in possession of facts or information, or one armed with pat moral rationales (whether they come from the magisterium or the sound bites offered, for example, in news reports on issues like embryonic stem-cell research or welfare reform). To form conscience well it is necessary to desire the true and the good. So, avoiding both moral subjectivism and an objectivism that abdicates personal responsibility, what does it mean to form a good conscience?
The Formation of Conscience
Without resolving current debates about conscience, we may affirm several propositions. To begin, the proper formation of conscience is comprehensive. It is a lifelong process involving the total person—one’s reason, emotions, embodied and social experience, imagination, and intuition. Conscience formation is the activity of moral self-transcendence, the conscious and critical determination of those loves and loyalties that constitute who we are and that frame our knowledge of the world. So conscience formation is comprehensive in the sense that it engages the whole person in the pursuit of the true and the good, and in the sense that it is a critical reflection encompassing all the sources of and influences on our moral knowledge, including the cultural tendencies and structures that distort our moral perception and co-opt our wills.
Second, Christian conscience formation requires participation in the church. Forming conscience means coming to inhabit a moral world. For instance, when we try to teach our children it is good to share, we simultaneously affirm the importance of their personal boundaries, the interests of others, and the goods of kindness and mutuality. We thus locate them in a world where others matter, and where our own happiness and well-being are tied to theirs. For Christians, the proper formation of conscience crucially involves participation in those practices that shape the identity of the church and make Christian moral teaching intelligible—practices of breaking bread, forgiveness of sins, peacemaking, and doing justice. Furthermore, participation in the church offers an indispensable resource for challenging our complacency, removing our blindness, and sustaining us in the work of discipleship.
Finally, the proper formation of conscience requires faith. Faith here means more than assent to particular dogmas. A well-formed conscience requires a living faith, the committed and concerted cultivation of an intimate relationship with God. By steadfastly placing ourselves before God’s loving scrutiny, by accepting God’s saving self-offer, we come to know ourselves and the world truthfully, that is, in God. As we share more deeply in the life of God (including the ecclesial shape of that life), our experience of moral confusion elicits less fear, and more love. How so? Faith, and faith alone, answers the problem of conscience’s unreliability. This is not because faith guarantees the impeccable rectitude of conscience, but because faith tells us such perfection is neither possible nor necessary. Faith keeps it from scrupulosity as well as complacency. Faith keeps conscience from evading the burden of freedom through blind obedience and from abusing the gift of freedom by presuming it has no conditions. Faith may keep conscience from dissent or lead conscience to it. Whatever the case, faith keeps conscience from mistaking obedience, or freedom, or personal authenticity as its aim. That is, faith keeps us from mistaking our own goodness (however we understand it) as the direct goal of the moral life rather than an indirect outcome of it. So, here is a lesson from Pinocchio that I will share with my son: a wooden boy becomes a real one not because he is perfect, but because he gives his life in love for the father who made him.