As discussed in a previous article, the Church teaches that God has given each of us a conscience to help us properly navigate the decisions we make throughout our lives. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the conscience:
Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgement of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law. (CCC 1778)
This line in particular has always struck me: “In all he says and does, man is obliged to faithfully follow what he knows to be just and right.” As Christians, then, we have an obligation to follow our consciences. This obligation is accompanied by another, essential moral duty: ensuring that our consciences are properly formed.
The Catechism says this about the formation of conscience:
Conscience must be informed and moral judgement enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and reject authoritative teaching. (CCC 1783, emphasis added.)
The Catechism then, emphasizes the importance of a well-formed conscience as it is our conscience which informs every decision we make throughout our day. If we want to make good decisions from moment-to-moment, day-to-day, we need to make sure our consciences are rightly attuned to “the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.”
Learning from the Early Church
I often tell my RCIA class that when we want to know what it looks like to live the Christian life, we should start by examining life in the early Church. In the Acts of the Apostles we get a little glimpse of what this life was like for the first Christians. Scripture tells us:
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
Here we see the early Christians dedicating their lives to four things:
- The Teaching of the Apostles
- Communal life or Christian Community
- The Breaking of the Bread
We can learn to properly form our consciences by doing just as the early Christians did and dedicating our lives to these four things.
Fun fact: The four things listed here in Acts 2:42 are also the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now you know where the Catechism comes from!
Teaching of the Apostles
The first thing we see the early Christians dedicated themselves to is the teachings of the Apostles. In our modern Christian vocabulary, we would call this doctrine or the teachings of the Church.
The teachings preserved throughout history and passed onto us by the Church help to guide us in what is moral and immoral. The Church can help us understand issues that we might not be able to reason to on our own. She is here to help guide in forming our consciences and as Christians, we should dedicate ourselves to learning what it is exactly that the Church teaches and why.
The Catechism points out that as humans, we can have erroneous consciences (CCC 1790-1794). A sign of a well formed conscience is one that will not contradict Church teaching. For example, a conscience that tells an individual to commit murder is considered to be an erroneous conscience. Why? Because we know both from the Fifth Commandment and from the teachings of the Church that murder is wrong and that life has a sacred value. The teachings of the Church are here to enlighten and guide our consciences.
When I have to make an important decision, I normally reach out to people I trust for help and advice, such as my parents, a mentor, or friends. You probably do the same. But how often do you turn to Scripture or look up what the Church teaches about a particular issue before making a decision?
If we want to develop a properly formed conscience, reading and studying Scripture and the teachings of the Church need to become regular habits in our lives. If we do not strive to understand Scripture and the teachings of the Church, our consciences will not be fully educated in saving truth and we will be prey to the errors of conscience described in the Catechism.
The two best ways to get the teachings of the Church in front of you and your families regularly is through Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Every Catholic should own a Bible and a Catechism. If forming your conscience is important to you, Scripture and the Catechism are the best places to start.
Our culture today completely undervalues the need for authentic community in a person’s life. You need people in your life with different backgrounds, experiences and wisdom. You need an authentic Christian community.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you do not have all the answers. You will never have all the answers. You need good, faithful Christians in your life to help you work through difficult issues. As Proverbs tells us, “Iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another” (27:17). Through shared wisdom and charitable guidance, other faithful Christians help us properly form our consciences.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “you are who your friends are”? This is true for the conscience as well. If you surround yourself with a community of Christians striving to properly form their consciences, you will learn to properly form your own. If you surround yourself with people who have ill formed consciences, you will also develop an ill formed conscience.
So, make it a priority to find an authentic Christian community in your journey to properly form your conscience. Be intentional in choosing the people with whom you spend your time. Do you seek to surround yourself with individuals authentically living the Christian life? Are the people you turn to for guidance and advice individuals who strive to faithfully follow Christ? Are you yourself humble and willing to listen to the advice and direction of other Christians who might be more advanced in the Christian life? These questions can become a good little examination of conscience in helping us understand the community around us.
Breaking of the Bread
The phrase “breaking of the bread” is New Testament language for the Eucharist. In our modern Christian vocabulary, this means participation in the sacraments.
The sacraments are the normal way in which God encounters us. In the sacraments God’s grace is poured into our souls, and slowly we learn to conform our will to the Divine Will. The sacraments help teach us who God is and what his will is for us.
Ultimately, a properly formed conscience is one that is in conformity with the will of God. This is one of the graces of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession: that we slowly come to understand who God is, what his will is, and how our will can be more perfectly aligned with his. Participation in the sacraments is a vital part of properly forming our consciences.
Frequent participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and regular confession are normal realities in the lives of Christians striving to properly form their consciences.
Prayer is an important component of the Christian life. Why? Because it is in prayer that we learn both to talk to God and listen to what he has to say to us. If you are not a person of prayer, you are not going to be able to learn to properly listen to your conscience.
To learn to properly form our consciences we have to learn to pray and incorporate prayer into our daily lives. As the Catechism points out, “when he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speak” (CCC 1777). In order to learn to listen to our consciences, we also need to learn how to converse with God in prayer.
As Christians, we should strive to develop a daily life of prayer. For those that do not pray daily, this can be an overwhelming thought. So start small. Begin with ten to fifteen minutes everyday. Maybe read the Mass readings for the day and spend a little time pondering on them, asking the Lord what he might be trying to say to you. But it is important to understand, without a prayer life, we will always struggle to properly form and follow our conscience.
A Lifelong Journey
Properly forming our consciences is a journey that will take a lifetime. You will not be able to develop a properly formed conscience overnight. You will spend your life trying and failing, and trying and failing again. But that is ok.
As Christians, we know that God is a merciful and loving God. In everything you do, strive to find the truth, but let it be the truth as it reflects our Lord, Jesus Christ, and not that of your own desires and ego.
We will inevitably find points in our lives when our conscience was wrong or ill informed, and we made mistakes. Do not let that discourage you. Ask God for forgiveness if you have sinned, thank him for the lessons learned, and praise him for guiding you to the truth. And with God’s grace, continue to strive to properly form your conscience as the early Christians did through the teachings of the Church, the sacraments, Christian community, and prayer.