How do you make decisions in your everyday life?
Whose 'voice' guides you?
Many people know the old children’s story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy. Disney’s animated film of this tale adds some special songs to highlight the plot and teach little ones about choices in life. In one of the most upbeat songs from the cartoon, Pinocchio’s mentor and guide in life, Jiminy Cricket, sings: “Always let your conscience be your guide.” He tells Pinocchio to call for help at any time that he is in trouble: “Give a Little Whistle.” This happy children’s tune is filled with good moral theory from solid ethical traditions. Our Catholic Faith likewise has much to say about the moral conscience God has given us to guide our choices. The Church teachings on conscience are close at hand (just give a little whistle and continue reading) if we want to opt for good over evil in our actions.
A while back I worked as a Chaplain at a Catholic high school for almost 10 years, and I became familiar with teens as they developed their moral thinking. When students got into deep trouble because of a school rule they had broken I would ask them, “Why did you do that?” Usually the answer was something like “I dunno.” I think these teens, many times labeled as troublemakers, had not learned to give prior reflection to their choices so as to deliberate right from wrong. Problems might have been avoided had they not just acted quickly but also used some thinking before making decisions.
Conscience is sometimes shown in caricature as a fight between an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other shoulder who duke it out in order to win over a person to their side. I prefer the understanding of conscience as a “messenger that helps us discern” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1718). Catholic Seminaries require special moral courses so that seminarians can learn the liberating teaching of Roman Catholic Ethics. What follows are a few of the major points that are always covered in seminary courses on morality.
The famous Document of Vatican II known as Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) mentions that “In the depth of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.” (GS #16)
“Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS #16). Most Catholics can relate to conscience as a sanctuary, since they know that the sanctuary is the sacrosanct place in our churches where we worship and celebrate the Eucharist. Such is the conscience in every person, a hallowed place where we can hear the voice of God.
But it is important that one educate their conscience before acting on it. A person must take the time to learn what Sacred Scriptures and the Church teach about an issue. We give our Sacred Tradition from Magisterial teachings the benefit of the doubt when it comes to discerning truth.
The next step in conscience formation is to consult with people who are wise and practiced in living the faith. We then need to give some effort to pray and discern about an action before we decide to act. It is only after completion of these steps that a person can say that they have formed their conscience. Our faith also teaches that a well-formed conscience must be followed.
Finally, since educating one’s conscience is a human effort, we must realize that the conscience can be in error. A person, due to circumstances outside their control, may believe they have made the right choice of action when actually they are in the wrong. Sometimes this error is because the person was culpable and didn’t do enough to educate themselves. Sometimes it is not their fault, such as when invincible ignorance is at play.
Don’t forget to let the Church’s teachings and good Christian people lead you into forming educated consciences. Like the song goes: “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by Father Leo Perez, OMI to reflect on questions of mission and faith.