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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude
Religious Believers


Marist Messenger
1 June, 2008
Reproduced with permission
Fr. John Kelly *

. . .are we really justified in upholding the principle that one must follow one's conscience, when so many people, by following their conscience, seem to make so many mistakes?

It is a generally accepted principle in our society that we must respect each other's consciences even when they seem to us to be erroneous. Thus we respect sincere unbelievers, Muslims, atheists etc. whose consciences are quite different from those of Christians.

However, people can make all kinds of mistakes in following their personal consciences. Did Bush make a mistake in following his conscience when he invaded Iraq? Do suicide bombers act out of an erroneous conscience? Are Muslims in error when they conscientiously reject Christianity in favour of Islam? Are we Christians alone correct in claiming that salvation is found only in Jesus?

The question of following one's conscience becomes even more challenging in our daily contacts. At the work place one may be in contact with as many as fifty different people and each of these will have his/her own personal conscience. No two are likely to have identically the same moral values. Some think that homosexuality is acceptable while others totally disagree. Many think that premarital sex is an expression of authentic love but Catholics and many others are convinced that sex outside marriage is morally wrong. The truth is that people working side by side are likely to conscientiously adhere to opposing values. Indeed many believe that they are justified in judging for themselves what is right and wrong without reference to any objective norms. Their moral values, if they have any, are subjective and relative. Indeed two people, who are both Christians and who are equally sincere, can hold opposing views on the morality of certain actions. We may ask whose conscience is judging correctly and who is in error?

All these considerations force us to ask ourselves, are we really justified in upholding the principle that one must follow one's conscience, when so many people, by following their conscience, seem to make so many mistakes?
The Duty To Inform Our Conscience

Our society, as we said above, recognises the right of a person to follow one's conscience and this has to be commended. However, there is a complementary duty on the part of all us, which is equally important. We have a duty to make sure that our conscience is properly informed before we act on it. This duty is not always remembered by people who justify themselves by saying that they are following their conscience. Do we need to take seriously a conscience that has made little effort to discover the truth? How are we to judge whether our own conscience or that of another is erroneous or not? We have a right to follow our conscience only when it has been properly informed. This duty to enlighten our conscience is not often stressed but it should be remembered when people insist on their right to follow their consciences. It often happens that we claim that we are following our consciences even when we have made little effort to discover the truth. Right reason demands that before acting we are properly informed of all the consequences of what we propose to do. Surely there is a moral fault if we make a big decision without having studied sufficiently the implications of our choice.

Right Reason

This raises a further question - in a pluralistic society, where people adhere to very diverse moral values, how can a common conscience be formed? Many people are not Christian; others are not believers and may even be atheists. In dealing with such people one cannot use the Bible as an authoritative source of truth. But is there some other source that we can use, that most in a pluralistic society will accept? It seems that right reason plays an indispensable role in highlighting the moral values that can unite the different people in a pluralistic world. Almost all accept moral values that seem to be reasonable.

It is worth noting also that many unbelievers are very moral people, committed to love of neighbour and to the common good. Jack Dominion claims that Sigmund Freud, the psychiatrist, was a very moral person even though he was an atheist. We should remember that the Holy Spirit is in all people and he works in them through the medium of right reason. Vatican 11 teaches that the Risen Christ gives the Holy Spirit to all (L.G. 40). Consequently we should be alert to his operations even in non-believers. Furthermore, there are many excellent people in our society who have no religion. Yet they live good moral lives and devote themselves to the good of others. I like to think that such peoples' consciences are formed by the Holy Spirit who teaches all truth, even though people do not realise it.

The Christian Conscience

While we must recognise the operations of the Spirit in all people we should expect him to be especially active in those who are committed to the love of Christ. Is he not the Spirit of Christ? A Christian is expected to have the mind of Christ and to have internalised gospel values. The Christian is formed by the gospel and by the Holy Spirit who teaches us all things (Jn. 16, 13). However Christians must be what they are called. We all know how easily we can claim to be Christians while our set of values and our consciences can be very un-Christian. We can be Christian in name and practical atheists. Our consciences will not be truly Christian unless we immerse ourselves in God's word by spiritual reading and give ourselves to prayer. If we do our part the Holy Spirit will teach us all things. In order to develop a truly Christian conscience we will also need to distance ourselves in mind and heart from non-Christian values. Jesus reminds us of this when he tells us that "we cannot serve God and money" (Mt.6, 24). We cannot have a pure Christian conscience if our minds are excessively focused on values other than Christ such as money, power, pleasure etc. Probably most of us, who pride ourselves on being Christian, have only partly put on Christ. We accept some gospel values while we conveniently ignore those that are too demanding.

In conclusion we are entitled to follow our conscience but we have a duty to form them as well as possible by the word of God and by recourse to right reason.


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