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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 cultivation of conscience


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 Rome—it 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 cases.

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 man’s 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 one’s deepest self in these matters.

The Catechism is quite vehement on the independence of conscience and says that:
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 subject’s 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. 2352.)

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. She says:
Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist’s interest—with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s 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 people’s 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 narrative.

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 one’s 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 ‘cultivated’.

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 child’s play is a thing of the past, children who step into adulthood without the benefit of playing.

The Place of Conversation in the Formation of Conscience
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 divide us.

I have difficulty with Engelhardt’s 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 matter—how 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 pride.

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 of Conscience
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 other’s 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 one’s own good—the recognition of the coincidence of the other’s 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 couldn’t 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 another’s welfare as well as our own. Further, in order to do that I have to begin to appreciate the world through the friend’s 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 friend’s 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 O’Donohue, 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 world.

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 Newman’s 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 Chapman.
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: O.U.P.
7. Sen, A & Nussbaum, MC (1993) The Quality of Life, London: O.U.P.
8. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, v, 1129b26ff.
9. O’Donohue, J.(1999) Anam Cara, London: Bantam Books, p.15.
10. West, M (1998) ‘Dr Newman’s 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 O’Keeffe IBVM and Mrs AJ Kallady for their help in the formulation of the ideas presented.