Vol 37 No 4
CONSCIENCE OUR GUIDE
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN THE FORMATION OF CHRISTIAN CONSCIENCE
Philip Malone MSC
THE COMPLETE IDIOTíS GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING MORAL THEOLOGY
Liz Hepburn IBVM
THE CULTIVATION OF CONSCIENCE
Tom Ryan SM
IN GODíS IMAGE: TOWARDS A THEOLOGY OF OUR EMOTIONS
JUNG AND THE MORAL SELF
Bruce Duncan CSsR
A SCHIZOPHRENIC PROCESS IN THE CHURCH? THE CONSERVATIVE RETREAT FROM THE
SOCIAL DIMENSION OF THE GOSPEL
PRAYER - ANSWERED?
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
cultivation of conscience
LIZ HEPBURN IBVM
IN 1968, AS AN interested bystander, I purchased a copy of the documents
of Vatican II in the Monash University Bookshop. I read them from cover
to cover and could not believe that what I was reading was the result
of the meeting of Catholic churchmen in Romeit seemed so liberal,
and yet there was a clear concern to demonstrate continuity with the tradition.
The other thing which struck me, was the clarity and beauty of the language
employed. So began my journey to incorporation into the Catholic church.
The document, Gaudium et Spes,1 I found particularly interesting and in
later life, when called upon to speak on bioethical matters, I have used
a phrase, which to my mind captures what I take to be the traditional
understanding of the operation of conscience. The document says: Conscience
is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with
God, whose voice echoes in his depths (n.16). I am sure the term
man can be understood to mean man embracing woman.
What I aim to do is explore the notion of conscience and to suggest some
means by which its development might be stimulated.
The Notion of Conscience
The Catechism2 has a good deal to say on the distinction between good
and evil and how it is possible for a person to make judgments on these
matters. It makes it quite clear that the morality of an action must be
considered in terms of both its ends (outcomes) and the situation of the
agent. It says: A morally good act requires the goodness of the
object, of the end and of the circumstances together. (n. 1755)
Thus, consequentialism is seen as partial, in that it only takes into
account the outcome of the act in assessing the morality of the action.
The Catechism also affirms the Thomistic insight that circumstances alter
Further, although the judgment is made through the exercise of reason,
it is important that the judgment reflects the inner disposition of the
agent. This is expressed in the following way: The perfection of
the moral good consists in mans being moved to the good not only
by his will but also by his heart. (n. 1775) In short, we are supposed
to be guided by a conscience which reflects our capacity for analysis
and discernment, and this process is holistic. We might term this head
and heart, and the church teaches that these should be in
harmony. This unity is referred to as the voice of conscience. All of
which suggests that the formation of conscience is likely to be a lifelong
endeavour for all of us.
We need also to see what this means for persons of faith in approaching
critical questions. For the person of faith is committed to asking: What
is the meaning of this action, within the plan of God as I understand
it? This is quite different from asking; What should be done
in this instance? It means coming to terms with my status as an
intelligent, active, participant in my own world and accepting the reality
of my creaturehood.
The demands of this marriage of heart and mind in forming moral judgments
are quite exacting and require the cultivation of a reflective stance
throughout life. The Catechism puts it this way:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself
in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement
of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from
any reflection, self-examination or introspection. (n. 1779)
There is the recognition that interiority is not high on the
agenda for most people and yet the widespread interest in spirituality
seems to point to a deep human need to undertake the journey inward, to
consult ones deepest self in these matters.
The Catechism is quite vehement on the independence of conscience and
Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally
to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his
conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience,
especially in religious matters. (n.1782)
This has echoes of conscience as a sanctuary, a place where
God and the person meet most intimately. It is to be respected and never
violated. The role of counsellor in these matters is to preserve the sacred
meeting place at all costs, even if the person may seem to be misguided.
Finally, in offering guidance to confessors the Catechism says:
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects moral responsibility
and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective
immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological
or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability. (n.
In other words, the moral growth which occurs through exposure to life,
must be taken into account. Often, people attending my lectures will agree
with me, that moral decisions taken as a teenager might be found wanting
by them now; not that they would be different necessarily, but the reasons
for choosing a course of action would now be different. In short, it makes
sense that we become progressively better moral judges through experiencing
life, and reflecting on that experience.
The Role of Story in the Forming of Conscience
The role of story in the development of consciousness of the world around
has been scoring quite a bit of attention of late. In nearly every journal
I peruse, there is some article dealing with the importance of stories
in the cultivation of sensitivity to what might be thought of as the underlying
causes of human behaviour. Martha Nussbaum3 refers to this as the
narrative imagination, and what she means by this is that stories
can provide the key to unlock the meaning of what is going on around us.
Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different
with more than a casual tourists interestwith involvement
and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our societys refusals
of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those
who share with us some general goals and projects; and we see that circumstances
shape not only peoples possibilities for action, but also their
aspirations and desires, hopes and fears.4
As our moral judgments must frequently take into account not only our
actions but the effect of our commerce in the world, the window that narrative
can provide is clearly a helpful and educative resource. By taking us
out of our day-to-day world and placing us in an imaginative world we
become freed to put ourselves alongside the characters in the story. Not
only freed to do so but, in a sense, forced into putting ourselves in
the place of several characters, serially, in order to make sense of the
The process of putting ourselves imaginatively into the story also lets
us see aspects of ourselves which would otherwise remain closed to us.
Thus reading becomes a source of personal insight. This is why St Ignatius
was so keen to encourage the practice of reflection on the Gospel, and
it explains his insistence on the composition of place in
the discernment process. The process of placing oneself in the story shows
immediately where we stand in relation to the various characters, and
so casts light on our motivations and desires. In short, we begin to see
what counts for us in the situation and thus are drawn to own certain
attitudes and dispositions in ourselves.
The telling of stories to children begins the educative process. We inculcate
in them a capacity for wonder, curiosity, hope, fear and so on. As the
stories and the children become more sophisticated these capacities become
habits of mind and it is this sort of habit of mind which the Catechism
refers to as interiority and speaks of as indispensable to
the operation of conscience. Nussbaum puts it this way:
The habits of wonder promoted by storytelling thus define the other
person as spacious and deep, with qualitative differences from oneself
and hidden places worthy of respect. In these various ways, narrative
imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction.5
Her point is that reading involves the exercise of narrative imagination
and that this is important both for understanding the moral parameters
which limit behaviour and in turn help to set the standards for ones
own conduct, and further, that this is what warrants respect. Thus the
gaining of a sense of self as different from others, is developed as we
watch and learn from them, and so decide what is important to us. It is
about defining what matters to me, and this learning takes time and reflection
and demands respect from others who are also respected as members of a
moral community. It is an essential habit of mind which defines us as
part of that whole we call humanity and it has to be actively
The Role of Play in the Development of Conscience
In western society the role of play in learning how we can be is seen
as a normal adjunct to the learning which occurs in the classroom. In
many societies play seems to be the normal training ground for adult behaviours.
Children act out heroic adventures, pretend to be sporting stars, play
mothers and fathers. The more sophisticated the children become the more
complex their patterns of play grow. The children can try out what it
would feel like to be the victor in a war, the thief who is caught red-handed
and so on.
It seems obvious to say that such learning takes the vicarious appropriation
of behaviour in literature a step further and the feelings and responses
to situations encountered in play assume a significance we can only guess
at. Playing must have its own rewards as children return to the same games
time and time again. It seems that an aspect of play involves acquiring
the capacity to see other points of view and gaining an appreciation of
what actions mean and how that is dependent on circumstances.
The utility of play is seen in countless adult learning settings where
people are encouraged to act out roles foreign to them, in the hope of
gaining some insight into group dynamics. The possibility of seeing things
differently through the experience of interacting with others imaginatively
is powerful, surprisingly so.
It makes one wonder what will happen to those communities torn apart by
civil war, where childs play is a thing of the past, children who
step into adulthood without the benefit of playing.
The Place of Conversation in the Formation
For most of us the on-going construction of the moral world is through
conversation with other adults who make up our moral community. Engelhardt6
has written extensively about this and says that in a modern community
we keep moral argument at bay by congregating with those with whom we
share values and with whom we can engage on the projects which make our
lives meaningful. This makes the necessity of rigourous debate a thing
of the past. Even if we feel uneasy in times of war or disturbed about
our treatment of refugees, we do not any longer have the capacity to venture
into the field of public debate. It has become our habit to bury our differences
and to settle for a superficial niceness, rather than upsetting
our neighbours by expressing our reservations about the things which could
I have difficulty with Engelhardts views and prefer to think that
there is broad agreement about what is conducive to human flourishing.
It is perhaps that I have a different vision of what is possible for human
communities. Moreover, I believe that the possibility for moral agreement
is foundational for democracy to flourish. Difficult as we find it we
must talk about the things that matterhow we should live and die,
who we will count as members of the electorate, whether we compel all
citizens to be available to fight for the country, and why it matters
that we tell each other the truth.
Perhaps the real difficulty is that we have failed to communicate a coherent
set of values for the next generation. For people these days have little
idea about the governance of civic affairs, and community engagement seems
on the wane. On the other hand, some projects which have started in village
communities seem to suggest that once given the tools with which to work
the development of co-operative industries and community banks are desirable
and possible7. Maybe we have reached a point at which we must begin to
re-invent such institutions.
Working with what Engelhardt calls moral strangers, and the
necessity for starting afresh in discovering what makes for a happy community
will allow us to retrieve the skills which seem to be lost. We will learn
in the building of community institutions what it is to co-operate, we
will talk about that which makes our living together preferable to going
it alone. This seems to be what the experience of the Bendigo Bank
has been, and it is forcing change on the bigger banks.
The building of new co-operative institutions will demand that we see
things from multiple perspectives, that we see the gains as bigger than
short-term, strategic goals, and that we begin to have a feeling that
we are the architects of the world in which we live. The belief in ourselves
as active agents of change and development will result in a new civic
In a small way my nephew has been involved in just such an enterprise.
It was a project conducted with a group of young people on Child Protection
and Juvenile Justice Orders and resulted in the production of a CD of
their own music. One side-benefit was the establishment of an environment
where the young people could relax and talk about what matters to them,
and provide a sounding post for others. In a way, they have formed a co-operative
to achieve something that none of them could have achieved alone, and
in doing so have become a moral community in which the expression of important
beliefs can be aired.
Countless community development projects are going on all over the country
and will bear fruit, provided there is on-going support.
The Place of Friendship in the Development
Now I turn to friendship, the last of the influences on the development
of conscience which I want to develop. In recent years there has been
a revival of interest in Aristotelian ethics. This has been referred to
as virtue ethics or natural law ethics or even
an ethic of responsibility. Basically, what this posits is
a community with a common morality arrived at through thinking about what
it means to be human and therefore taking decisions based on what seems
best directed to human flourishing.
Aristotelian ethics is directed towards grounding right action. Aristotle
believed that there are clues offered here and there, by the natural world,
as to right action and, further, that within community we can promote
the acquisition of virtues that will predispose us to act well. In short,
we can form communities which will cultivate humanity.
In speaking of excellence of character, Aristotle emphasises the value
of friendship in acquiring virtue, because he sees as central the relational
quality which pervades all judgements. In this he parts company with Plato
who thought that no true value could be relational. Aristotle asserts
that our own good is so bound to the good of others that no action can
be determined without consideration of the social good involved.8
Thus the formation of friendship so that the others point of view
can be not only appreciated but appropriated, is indispensable in the
formation of a truly virtuous character. This excellence entails the quality
of the action and its motivation which is the good of the other as well
as ones own goodthe recognition of the coincidence of the
others good with my own.
Aristotle is not so foolish as to claim that friendship will always conduce
to our good, but he is inclined to think that a good outcome is more likely
than a bad one.
RL Stevenson said: A friend is a gift we give ourselves. In
similar vein Ralph Waldo Emerson said: The only reward of virtue
is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one. I can remember
complaining to my mother, as we went to collect the mail, that I, aged
three, never got any letters. She said, You have to write letters
if you want to receive letters. The point was lost on me; I couldnt
imagine why one would write to oneself. It took me ages to work out that
that was not what she meant.
All of these are examples of people arriving at the same truth, that friendship
is generally our first experience of stepping beyond the confines of self-concern
and developing a habit of thinking of anothers welfare as well as
our own. Further, in order to do that I have to begin to appreciate the
world through the friends eyes.
Aristotle saw three ways by which friendship enhances virtue. First, he
says, by encouraging judgments based on the good of another as well as
my own good, friendship has the effect of developing good character, because
the process becomes habitual. Second, by engaging in pursuits which are
mutually satisfying we actually cultivate enriching ways to pass time.
Spending time doing mutually uplifting things, in turn, renders us more
acutely aware of those aspects of the world which are valuable and worthy
of preservation. The third and final way that friendship can be beneficial
to our moral development is that through friendship we tend to acquire
the virtues of our friends.
I think there are some additional ways by which friendship can help us
to become more morally sensitive and to develop a conscience, an awareness
of the world, which we can examine and interrogate. For instance, we become
more noble as we see the more admirable aspects of ourselves being the
object of not only affection but also of deep esteem on the part of the
friend. The friend mirrors us to ourselves in a way that only a few are
permitted to do. In failing to live up to my best precepts I now run the
risk of disappointing my friend as well as myself.
So much of our time with friends is spent in deep conversation. As suggested
earlier this, too, is developmental. An important aspect of friendship
is the candour with which we can express our deepest feelings; there is
understanding and trust that the other can handle the worst of myself
along with the best. Moreover, I can hear what my friends reaction
to my deepest feelings is saying to me about me and because I trust that
the friend desires what is best for me, I listen and take to heart
what she says.
John ODonohue, calls friendship a creative and subversive
force and says that it leads us on a journey [which] is a
continuous act of transfiguration.9 He speaks much more poetically
of what I believe is offered to us in friendship when he refers to the
anam cara, which is Gaelic for soul friend. He sees the friend
as one to whom we reveal the hidden intimacies of life and soul, thereby
enlarging our awareness in the telling and engaging another in our inner
The Ignatian habit of seeking spiritual direction from someone who, in
a sense, becomes a prayer companion is a specialised means of seeking
to become ever more attentive to the murmurings of our hearts. Having
a partner in the enterprise of finding our way with God, is invaluable.
It both strengthens our good impulses and helps us to guard against the
less than worthy thoughts we have. It urges us to explore these impulses
and to see which of these are merely self-serving. It also reassures us
that we are good, members of the human race, that we have our share of
strengths and failings, that we are loved in spite of ourselves. It allows
us to see that our striving is not in vain, that together we can make
the world a better place.
In reviewing some of the ways we can develop our conscience, I have touched
on what it is to be human, to have a conscience. In an essay entitled
Dr Newmans Toast, Morris West wrote:
The understanding we have to arrive at is that under the diversity
of creation, there is a oneness
This is the real meaning of private
conscience: the judgment which no-one else can deliver but which we make
with experience and goodwill. It is the judgment which we make not always
with certainty but certainly with peace of heart.10
Peace, because in the travels of life we at last come to the realisation
that conscience is that inner communion with a higher power than ourselves,
a power known in friendship, celebrated in literature and explored in
countless ways, but especially in conversation.
That power is love.
Liz Hepburn is a Loreto sister, currently
working in Canberra as Director of Ministry & Ethics for Catholic
Health Australia. This work brings together her training in clinical science,
theology, education and bioethics for which she is very grateful.
1. Abbott, WM (Ed.) (1967) The Documents of Vatican II, London: Geoffrey
2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1994) Sydney: St Pauls.
3. Nussbaum, MC (1997) Cultivating Humanity, Harvard University Press.
4. Op. cit. p. 88
5. Op. cit. p. 90
6. Engelhardt, T. (1996) The Foundations of Bioethics, 2nd ed. New York:
7. Sen, A & Nussbaum, MC (1993) The Quality of Life, London: O.U.P.
8. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, v, 1129b26ff.
9. ODonohue, J.(1999) Anam Cara, London: Bantam Books, p.15.
10. West, M (1998) Dr Newmans Toast, Eureka Street,
December, p. 28.
I am grateful to a number of friends who read this paper and made helpful
comments which have improved the original draft considerably. I would
like to thank Sr Noni Mitchell IBVM, Sr Teresita OKeeffe IBVM and
Mrs AJ Kallady for their help in the formulation of the ideas presented.