“Ask a Priest: Is Conscience Supreme?”

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Q: You hear so many in the media, in government, in academia, etc., use their conscience as an excuse for their poor decisions. For instance, “My conscience tells me it’s OK to have an abortion” or “I’m following my conscience by voting for this law.” Can you please explain the term conscience and where your conscience comes from? And without its foundation in God, how will your conscience be uninformed or, worse, ill-informed? Thank you for taking my question. – Julie

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: “Deep within his conscience,” says the Catechism in No. 1776, “man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.”

So the conscience comes from God. We can think of as a capacity to discern between right and wrong.

Conscience is a bit like a muscle. We need to eat the right things to keep it healthy, and we need to exercise it well.

To eat the right things means that we have to inform ourselves about Church teaching. We can’t just feed on ideas and opinions from anywhere.

A conscience can become weak, either from a person’s lack of formation or from a person’s tendency to start ignoring it. Over time, a conscience can become deformed and virtually dead.

We have a duty to follow our conscience, but not when it’s in clear violation of Church teaching. John Henry Newman famously wrote, “Conscience has rights because it has duties” (see his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

A person who has allowed his conscience to be deformed won’t necessarily be vindicated because “I’m following my conscience.” In fact, the person bears guilt for allowing his conscience to be corrupted. Politicians and others who claim absolute supremacy of conscience are on thin ice.

For a masterful summary about the topic, see the Catechism section on the moral conscience, beginning at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm.

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