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Vol 37 No 4


Brian Lewis

Philip Malone MSC

Liz Hepburn IBVM

Tom Ryan SM

Neil Pembroke

Bruce Duncan CSsR

John Ryan


Kevin Mark


The role of the Church in the formation of Christian conscience


CONSCIENCE IS commonly experienced as an ‘inner voice’, telling us that a course of action is right and should be done or wrong and not to be done. It does more than declare rightness or wrongness. It lays a moral obligation on us to heed its call. We also know from experience that it is possible not to heed the voice of conscience but that the failure to do so carries with it the painful experience of guilt.

The voice of conscience is not just personal opinion or even conviction. In the Catholic moral tradition a mature conscience is identified as the judgment of reason about the moral quality and obligatory character of an action contemplated or being done or already carried out.

Everyone naturally desires good, but to be able to judge what good should be chosen requires a certain level of maturity of conscience. A mature conscience is expected to be an informed conscience in the sense of theoretical knowledge and a grasp of moral principles, but even more it must be a formed conscience. This requires that there be a sort of instinctive harmony between the person and genuine moral values. Such harmony is rooted in and develops through the growth of virtuous attitudes. The formation of conscience means the development of this harmonious relationship of the person to what is true and good, an ongoing, indeed a life-long, task. We will discuss this first under the heading of formation of conscience, leaving the question of the information of conscience to the section on mature conscience.

The Formation of Individual Conscience
It is impossible to separate the evolution of conscience from the moral development of the person. Understanding conscience as a judgment is not meant to reduce conscience to a purely intellectual exercise, as though it were something cold and impersonal. The judgment of conscience is an action of the whole person, mind and heart and even body. As Walter Conn puts it, ‘while conscience manifests itself in a judgment of what the subject should do in a particular situation, it is always a judgment of the whole person, integrally cognitive and affective’ (Conn 1981,94).

Overemphasis on the intellectual aspect of conscience risks distorting, even stunting, moral development. This happens when the educator’s task in forming the child’s conscience focuses too narrowly on the making of principled choices and the skills required for this. In more recent times greater emphasis has been placed on the character of the person who makes the choices, for the kind of person one is disposes one to see things in a certain way, to hold certain values dear, to adopt typical patterns of acting and so to develop particular good or bad habits. The goal of moral development is the formation of character. Character, even more than rational principles, determines the choices one makes, whether good or bad, and in turn the choices that are made qualify and confirm the character of the person who makes them.

Initially and of necessity the child’s conscience is authoritarian, a ‘must-conscience’, which evolves out of parental directives and prohibitions, often accompanied by promise of reward or threat of punishment. The child learns to obey without necessarily knowing why some things are to be done and others avoided, simply acquiescing in face of the parent’s competence and knowledge. The child is taught to live according to moral values, from early stages enforced by obedience, but then needs to be encouraged to form its own beliefs and convictions, to recognize and respond to moral values for their own sake, and to begin in this way to develop good habits. This is how character begins to be shaped and formed. The first ten years or so of a child’s life are a struggle to differentiate from its parents, psychologically, sexually and morally, to move from an authoritarian to an authentic conscience, where choices are made out of one’s own internalized beliefs and convictions. Authentic conscience has to be discovered under the tyranny of what Freud called the ‘superego’, the repository of demands arising from parents and society, that makes use of guilt and shame to repress instinctual drives and reinforce conventional morality.

A person’s outlook on life and, underlying this, one’s character are shaped more by the example of significant people in a child’s life, by the stories heard as a child and by the images to which these give rise than by rules and regulations. In this imagination plays a central role (Gula 1989, 145-145). Everyone knows, especially teachers, how powerful stories and images are in stimulating the imagination. Imagination pieces together diverse images into a meaningful whole, to which we can respond appropriately. It determines what we see and so influences the response that we make.

Images and stories and typical ways of doing things come especially from the communities in which we grow up, with their beliefs, values, loyalties and practices. The more one participates in the stories and practices of an important community to which one belongs the more one begins to assimilate its way of seeking and doing things and so the more one’s character is shaped by it. Over time one belongs to many communities: family, school, church, as well as to other overlapping communities, such as friends, professional associations, sports and entertainment clubs, all of which in different ways and varying degrees influence one’s outlook and ultimately one’s character.

In this process of development the important part played by emotions must not be overlooked. Education of a child’s affectivity, not cognitive growth alone, is crucial for healthy moral development, because emotions enable the child to know and love and care about the good in ways that enhance full development as moral beings, and the formation of a truly mature conscience must include not just the capacity to think clearly, but the passion and commitment to act well (Callahan 1991, 193). Through the patience, care and constant love, especially of parents, children develop emotional responses that will affect their judgment and their choices during all their life. In recent times studies have shown that racism, for example, is for the most part rooted in the affective side of human sensitivity. Such wounds of a badly educated affectivity are more difficult to change than it is to modify an intelligent person’s convictions.

As the child matures and approaches adulthood, authoritarian conscience is meant to evolve gradually into an authentic adult conscience, which arises from personal conviction of the inner value of the course of action to be followed or shunned. The free and deliberate choices the young person makes in interacting with the social environment and the development of good habits help to shape both moral identity and conscience. As the child develops towards adulthood, emphasis thus shifts from the family and the communities in which the child grows to personal responsibility for what is done or not done. The directives and values learnt from others now become part of the person’s own inner attitude and conviction. Internalized attitudes, convictions and beliefs, and especially good moral habits, will lead to right judgments of conscience. ‘We make our decisions more out of the beliefs we live by and the habits we have formed than out of the principles we have learned’ (Gula 1989, 141).

The transition from an authoritarian to a mature authentic conscience is not always of course successfully made. Genetic make-up, misguided parental training, the inculcation of false moral values, may inhibit moral development and the growth of a mature conscience. Some remain all their lives under the domination of an authoritarian conscience. Social pressure, whether of the whole culture or of peer groups, may also be very influential in either leading to an awareness and a love of moral values or imprinting unconscious prejudices and moral blind spots that can distort or falsify practical judgment of conscience.

The Role of the Church in the Formation of Conscience
The development of Christian character is coloured and shaped by faith. Faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whose gentle power it grows to maturity, but it is a gift mediated by the Church as sanctifier, teacher and ruler. In this mediating role of the Church teaching plays a most important part, for, as St. Paul reminds us, ‘faith comes from what is heard’ (Romans 10:17).

In saying that faith is mediated by the teaching of the Church, it is well to correct the impression many have that this refers to the teaching of the hierarchy alone, an idea that has grown up particularly since the first Vatican Council and that the second Vatican Council attempted to correct by making clear that the Church is first and foremost a community, in which no member has exclusive access to truths about God and the mysteries of religion. Although the bishops in communion with the Pope are the only official teachers in the Church, authoritative teaching is not limited to them alone but is tied up with the nature of the Church as the People of God, formed by the Word of God and shaped by apostolic tradition.

The child’s first teachers of faith in the community of the Church are its parents, grand parents and other members of the family, catechists, schoolteachers, local clergy, who are charged with the task of forming the child in the likeness of Christ. For faith to be meaningful as a way of life, the child must learn what are the genuinely good things in life that must be sought and valued and chosen in order to become a good person and a Christian formed in the likeness of Christ.

To the extent they are themselves faith-centred persons, teachers and educators form the child’s Christian character first by the example of their own Christian lives, which bear witness, as did Jesus in his life and through his parables, exhortations and miracles, to the truth of how one ought to live as a Christian, secondly by teaching the child the Gospel stories, which powerfully unpack for the child’s imagination and affectivity the living and lived faith of the Church. For faith is itself a story to be told, a story made up of many stories, stories of creation, of redemption, of new life, of love, of patience, of courage, all of which centre on Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who was born, suffered, died and was raised for our salvation and whom as Christians we are called to follow. These Gospel stories and images portray and describe goodness in human and Christian moral life as attractive and desirable. A third and important element in Christian character formation is involvement in the liturgical and spiritual practices of the Church, the Mass, prayer, devotions, which with the works of mercy are realistic expressions of living and lived faith for individuals and communities.
Faith in God’s Word, nourished by the sacraments and truly lived by the Christian led by the Spirit of Christ, imparts a distinctive vision of the world and of one’s place in it. It sheds light on the true meaning of life. It enlightens the believer about the meaning and importance of genuine human and Christian values and so encourages the desire for and development of these goods and values, such as compassion, truthfulness, honesty and respect for persons that are not the exclusive preserve of Christians and also those like taking up one’s cross and following Christ that are.

A distinctive moral character and outlook on life stemming from faith lived in the Church lead spontaneously to judgments of conscience about behaviour that ought to be characteristic of the Christian way of life. Others who do not share the Christian story may perhaps make similar judgments and choices but they do so out of a different value system and in a different style. Christians do not have ready-made answers to moral problems but faith should colour their decisions and lead to solutions that at least are not at odds with the Gospel (Lewis 2001, 293-296).

Deeper and fuller initiation into the mystery of Christ and the truths of faith taught by the Church should go hand in hand with the continuing development of personal maturity. This is an ongoing task, which ought to ensure that the person becomes an adult not only physically and psychologically but also spiritually.

The impact of living and lived faith in the Church ought ideally to be one of the most telling influences in the lives of Christian people, but it may be negated wholly or in part by ineffectual or faulty teaching and preaching of the Word of God, by badly prepared or defectively presented liturgy or by a living witness that is anything but Christian. Added to this may be the even stronger influence of other communities to which young people belong and which nurture a climate in which faith will wither or even altogether die. As Pope John Paul II said on 4th March, 2003, ‘the powerful forces of the media and entertainment industry are aimed largely at young people, who find themselves the target of competing ideologies which seek to condition their attitudes and actions. Confusion is created as youth are beset by moral relativism and religious indifferentism’. There is only one antidote to this. ‘The saving message of Jesus Christ needs to be heard anew in all its freshness and power, so that it can be fully experienced and savoured’.

Mature Conscience and the Role of the Church
To live a moral life maturely one must be able to judge freely and responsibly what one ought to do, in other words, to take responsibility for one’s own actions and their outcomes. Not only the initial act of faith but also the whole moral and Christian life are entirely free. A mature adult conscience means then that one freely undertakes responsibility for the direction of one’s life and the choices one makes. This is the fruit of a proper formation of conscience. It does not require a highly developed speculative intelligence or an advanced education. What is required is commitment to living as a good person and the internalization of the voice of conscience, so that one is at least implicitly aware that this is truly one’s own judgment, not just the voice of somebody else, parents, society or peers.

However, to act maturely in conscience one needs to be not only formed in character but also informed adequately about the issue with which one is confronted. The human person has an innate orientation towards the good and an intuitive grasp of fundamental moral principles about living as a good person. However, the basic orientation towards moral good has to be realized, and the broad outlines of a truly human and Christian lifestyle have to be translated into practice, by choices of particular goods and values in concrete situations. This means that in facing a particular issue to be decided upon one must have sufficient knowledge to make a reasoned judgment of conscience regarding what should or should not be done.

When the moral values at stake in a particular situation are pretty clear, which is often enough the case, a morally mature person knows and judges what should or should not be done instinctively, one could say intuitively. This is what St Thomas Aquinas calls ‘knowledge by connaturality’, a kind of knowledge that comes, not by reasoning, but by a certain resonance of the whole person with the goodness involved or by a sense of revulsion in confrontation with evil. The moral value or principle shines out and lights up the mind as something to be sought here and now without further ado. There is no need for rational deliberation prior to the decision. Deliberation about reasons and principles, if there is any, comes after the decision is made.

Sometimes, however, the crucial moral values or disvalues in a concrete situation do not shine out clearly or at once. Then one has to embark upon a process of deliberation. Armed with the relevant factual information about the issue, one must reflect upon it in the light of one’s personal beliefs, convictions and moral principles, both human and Christian. It is important that one have sufficient practical life experience to be able to recognize and face up to the most probable consequences of certain types of actions, the pros and cons of which must then be weighed up. If after doing all this to the best of one’s ability a reasonable judgment cannot be made, there is still the alternative of taking counsel from wiser heads. One can and should if possible consult other people, who, because of their expertise or experience, can help one to arrive at what would seem to be a correct conscience decision.

In the teaching of the Church the Christian faithful have access to a rich heritage of moral wisdom to enlighten them in making conscience decisions. ‘In forming their consciences’ says Vatican II, ‘the Christian faithful should give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church’ (Religious Liberty, n 14). The appropriate response to the teaching of the Church on the part of the faithful is attentiveness, not obedience, a point often not understood, even by persons in authority. The Church teaches all its members not only the revealed command to love as applied to all the facets of daily living, not only the basic elements of moral life enjoying universal acceptance, for example the Ten Commandments, but also what flows from or is necessary to protect the revealed Word of God, for example, the doctrine of free will or grace. In this category of teaching can be included statements widely taken for granted by members and even non-members as characteristic of the Christian community, for example, that Christians pray together, worship fairly regularly, marry for life. All these elements describe the very character of the community and so of its members, who are expected to be attentive to and freely accept what can be called the basic tenets of the Christian community (Selling 1998, 59-60).

Furthermore, the moral teaching especially of the Catholic Church includes statements, concrete norms and guidelines about the field of natural morality, which for the most part the faithful can share with those who do not have the benefit of revelation. Through its official teachers in their everyday teaching ministry the Church seeks to give practical help to the faithful to understand and live the Gospel in the contemporary situation. Such teaching naturally takes place in an historical and cultural context and hence, apart from what is intimately linked with revelation—what is essential for the faith, is time-bound and subject to change. Examples would be slavery, the divine right of kings, or earlier expressions of the theory of the just war. It may be said that the more a teaching is universally accepted among the majority of the People of God over significant periods of history, the greater claim that teaching has to be accepted by the faithful. Many teachings regarding moral questions, however, are so new and so complex, for example in the field of bioethics and the stewardship of human fertility, that there can as yet be no clear consensus of this nature. The kind of behaviour appropriate to the following of Christ cannot be found in the day-to-day official teaching of the hierarchy alone. ‘In order to determine the appropriateness of human behaviour to the message of the Gospel it would seem inescapable that we need to consult those who are committed to living their lives in the faith—the People of God’ (Selling, 69).

The ordinary members of the faithful are fortunate in not normally being required to solve complex issues of conscience for themselves. The official teachers of the Church have access in resolving difficult moral problems to experts in the various moral fields and, at least these days, reach conclusions only after a great deal of study, thought and wide consultation. The Church should be a community of reflection and deliberation, for in the area of natural morality—unless there be a clear link with revelation, a teaching is as strong as the reasons supporting it. It is important that there be discussions in the public arena and that the reasons for a position be made available to all the faithful to consider and understand, so as to be able to make informed conscience decisions in their moral life. They need to know about these teachings and the reasons for them, to be attentive to them, to listen and to learn. For a Catholic to make a decision in conscience, deliberately ignoring the official teaching of the Church, would be to forfeit one’s claim to be acting as a committed Catholic and in accord with a properly informed conscience (Gula 1989, 154-155).

Although the moral teachings of the Church relating to specific aspects of daily living should be respected as a valuable contribution to living morally and gratefully accepted, they cannot possibly cover the whole gamut of the demands of moral living. Human life is too rich and too varied and too complex for this. Clearly, for instance, in a rapidly changing world, moral teachings that were considered sufficient to deal with life’s problems in the past may have little relevance to the complexities of life today. One thinks of the questions raised by the spectre of nuclear warfare, not to mention the issues raised by space age technology. Specific moral teachings about conduct deemed appropriate for the follower of Christ of necessity relate to a limited area of moral life, particularly regarding marriage and sexuality as well as important matters in relation to life and death, but there is much more that the individual person must address in making life’s journey. One might be a stickler for carrying out these directives, and yet fall far short of what is required to be a mature human and Christian person.

The reality is that much of everyday life has to be lived without specific guidelines from the Church. What should be done in the best interests of an elderly parent, not coping well at home and putting great strain on the members of the family? Would hostel accommodation or even a nursing home be the right alternative in the circumstances? What proportion of one’s time and energy should be allotted to work commitments and what to one’s family? Should a father or mother be more available for each other and for their children, when less time at work will mean they will be economically less well off? Is a spouse justified in leaving partner and children when love is dead, when there is brutality, when there is infidelity? How much freedom and personal space should be given to teenage children?

One would look in vain for specific teachings to resolve these and a myriad other daily concerns. Christians must make their own conscience decisions as they face the demands that living together in the contemporary world throws up. The great contribution the Church makes in guiding and aiding the faithful here is to be found less in offering concrete solutions than in teaching, nourishing and protecting the Revealed Word of God and helping the faithful recognize the contours of a truly Christian lifestyle for today. A Christian conscience is the conscience of a member of the People of God and in the People of God it is the Holy Spirit who is the true teacher and guide and leader. The Church is nothing more than a servant of the Word.

Brian Lewis graduated from the Alphonsian Academy of Moral Theology and the University of St Thomas in Rome. He has written much on moral issues, and is now in retirement.