Conscience - Aboriginal Vicar of Christ

Let’s talk about the conscience! Exciting, right?! Just hear me out. I’ve long been impressed by St John Henry Newman and his thoughts on conscience. And, I’ve recently read what the CCC has to say on the matter. Consider the following:

“His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” -GS 16; CCC 1776

It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn CCC 1777

Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ , a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.” -Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (italicized portion quoted in CCC 1778)

“Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Newman, Letter

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. CCC 1790

So, how far are we to go with the conscience? Is there any sense in which we can go “beyond” the conscience? And is there anything more basic than it in assisting us, especially in determining truth in moral, spiritual or wisdom matters? The conscience seems to function as an internal BS-meter. That is, we can sniff out when certain types of propositions are suspect, if not false. But, this suspicion of falsehood doesn’t come from reasoning it out. It’s something more primal—like that feeling you have when you say, “yeah, I don’t know about that. Doesn’t seem right to me.”

Many non-Catholics have this reaction to various claims of the church, like sexual ethics. Not only is it not obvious to them that various positions of the church are morally right, but the very thing that is forming the barrier to assent (on some level) is their own consciences. Catholic sexual ethics can seem wrong, at the level of the conscience. And, of course, with Catholic participation in sex outside of marriage, contraception, etc, we can’t even say that this seeming wrong instinct of the conscience is confined to non-Catholics.

Many times, we Catholics take the approach of trying to “instruct” others, as if the only problem were a problem of lack of knowledge. But suppose you’ve explained everything you know to another about Catholic sexual ethics so that knowledge is no longer the barrier. You’ve informed her, and she freely explains it back to you at least as well as you could articulate it yourself. And yet, she cannot assent for reasons based, at the most primal level, in her conscience.

Even the preaching of the gospel itself relies on an appeal to the conscience of the hearer, right?

It seems to me that the more we think about conscience, the more primary and basic we must acknowledge it to be–to all humans.

What do you think?

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It is our responsibility to take the steps to form a proper conscience. “Invincible ignorance” does not apply where we deliberately avoid informing our conscience. Pope Benedict warned us of the dangers of moral relativism.


More likely they “seem wrong “ at the level of the heart and libido, not the conscience.


How far we go with what we think is right certainly involves prudence. Because of course, our conscience can be wrong. I suppose that’s why the Church advocates that we should have a well formed conscience (courtesy of the Church of course) and not stray to far from the pack.

Even if someone is not Catholic, or is Catholic and doesn’t know about the Church’s teachings on conscience, they may still know that there is always the possibility that they could be wrong about something - which, to me, is justification of the Church’s teaching to form our consciences well.

That’s an interesting question. Given the fallibility of men to pass on Revelation, I’d say yes. I mean, how many people have swam the Tiber because of their conscience. Are they then to check their consciences at the door once they get to the Vatican? I don’t think so, but the Church’s position on its own teaching authority seems like it might be somewhat of a ‘necessary evil’ for lack of a better term.

To talk about ‘conscience’ we first have to define it. And all the definitions I have seen are either definitions based on other immaterial things like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ and ‘god(s)’ or are so un-concrete as to preclude a rational debate. Observations of humans also suggests that there is absolutely no action, however immoral we, or another regroup, might consider it to be that has not been done by one of us humans in ‘goof conscience’.

Would anyone like to help a non-believer understand this thread by coming up with a definition based on observation of the real (material) world?

Leaving God totally out of it, conscience in the minds of most people is what separates “normal humans” from “psychopaths”.
Its basic form is an understanding of the natural moral law based on empathy and on principles of what makes a person a good citizen of their particular tribe or culture. It’s what keeps people from just doing what they want all the time and taking advantage of anyone weaker who is in the way. Smart psychopaths will learn to fake having a conscience when necessary in order to get what they want, because they learn that most people have one and expect them to have one too.

In extreme circumstances, like everybody is starving in Donner Pass, or a drug addict is in withdrawal, conscience goes out the window because animal instinct takes over and the logical and emotional conscience factors just disappear.

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Ah ha! A good one Bear. Psychopaths have a pretty well-defined range of behaviours that are different from the rest of us. I could work with that. ‘Conscience is what psychopaths don’t have’.

However, from that ‘definition’ I could argue most easily I think to my own ‘situation ethics, greatest good for the greatest number’ approach than to the Catholic view of morality and, thence, to the Catholic view of what conscience responds to.

I think Mag set it up well and bear has defined it very well.

As regards ‘natural law’ as being the prompt for decisions made by our conscience, I think we should be wary of how we define ‘natual law’. For any given Christian it may be claimed that abiding by natural law is simply fullfilling the will of God. But that’s going to depend on who has interpreted said will.

I would claim that natural law comprises the basic principles that have been followed which have allowed us to form societies. Oversimply nominated as the golden rule and all it encompasses.

Any act that follows those basic principles feels right to us because we have evolved the characteristics which enabled us to be part of society. Generally speaking, acts which do not follow those principles in times past would have seen those guilty of them shunned by society and removed from same. Hence those left would generally tend to be those who did follow them. Those who felt it was ‘the right thing to do’. And hence passed on those characteristics.

The teachings of the Church are my “conscience”. I don’t know what in the Sam Hill our good Cardinal St John Henry is talking about when he says “aboriginal Vicar of Christ”.

I do not accept that there is some kind of “tiny little voice inside of me” that tells me what is right, and what is wrong, and even though it may line up with what the Church teaches, it does not have to. To that I say, paraphrasing Bumble in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, if that be conscience, then conscience is a a%%.

(I censored the last word because I foresaw that it might get snagged in CAF’s filters. It’s a synonym for donkey.)

You’ve never had a time in your life when you thought: ‘Hmm. This doesn’t feel right’. Or a time when someone asked you why you did something and you said: ‘I dunno. It just seemed like the right think to do…’.

Yes, I have, for instance, regarding tattoos. By my own lights, I cannot see how they can not be sinful, except for cases of necessity (I have long felt that there should be a universal set of “Medic Alert”-type symbols, diabetes, epilepsy, etc., that could be tattooed on an inconspicuous part of the body), expediency (the German army tattooed the soldier’s blood type underneath their arm, which was a brilliant idea), or to conceal or obscure a deformity. Yet the Church does not teach they are sinful, so I do not regard them as sinful. I choose not to get one, but I cannot condemn those who do.

And I can see the internal logic of Dr Bernard Nathanson’s suggestion that a mother may abort a child who is threatening her life, using the analogy of being tethered to a madman on a life preserver at sea, who is thrashing wildly and threatening to drag both you and him down beneath the water to drown — you can cut him loose and let him drown, saving yourself. But if this runs counter to the Church’s teaching on abortion in those circumstances, then I reject it. (I am not sure the Church has ever spoken definitively on whether Dr Nathanson’s analogy is acceptable.)

So you have had experience of this ‘little internal voice’. So let’s call it your conscience and go on from there.

So how would you define it and where do you think it comes from?

It is as you say — that little voice. It comes from your consciousness and rational thinking ability, as well as your emotions, in short, from inside you, and everything that “makes you you”. That’s where you form it in accord with what the Church teaches, much as you would put braces on teeth to straighten them instead of having them go all crooked.

But is it really connected with conscious thought? We may rationalise a decision in retrospect but isn’t it the case that, as I said earlier, the answer to why we did something (according to that little voice) is often: ‘I dunno. It just felt right’.

It’s often the snap decision when you have no time to rationally think about the pros and conns of any given action when your conscience seems to go into ‘automatic mode’.

I’ve been in India and if you’re walking around some areas you will be pestered by people who obviously need help. You know, rationally (and in India you have already run through the options before stepping out) if you stopped to help one person then it’s not going to make any real difference and that you are going to innundated with everyone expecting the same help. So the rational thing to do is move on. But most of us would still feel a slight sense of guilt. That’s the little voice whispering ‘Golden rule, Freddy. Remember the golden rule.’

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The Green River Killer was convinced in his conscience, that he was doing good and helping reduce crime by murdering scores of prostitutes. So, conscience in and of itself is not an indicator of good or evil. It is a mental repository of internal checks and balances, subject to concupiscence, but illumined by faith and reason. A well-formed conscience is what our aim should be.

I’m not sure that we have contol over our conscience. It’s like saying we could control our unconscious. And if you have no empathy then the golden rule is useless so one may well revert to ‘if it feels good then do it’. But decisions should (in most cases) be backed up with rational thought. And/or faith if you are relgious.

There is a problem of course when your conscience says ‘Do this!’ because it feels like the right thing to do but your teaching has pointed you in a different direction.

“Repent” includes forming/re-forming your conscience. Sociopaths, however, may not have a true conscience.

I think that repent in the sense you mean it means overriding your conscience. Consciously making a different decision. I’m still of the opinion that we have no control over our conscience.

I find that odd. Sorry.

You asked me to come up with a definition of conscience divorced from all religious overtones, so I did.
“Conscience” without religious overtones is a very basic level of conscience; it’s the type of conscience man could develop without thinking of any higher ideal of either ethics or deity. You punch your little brother, he feels pain, he cries, your conscience/ empathy makes you feel bad for inflicting pain on a weaker member of your family tribe who was not harming you.

Religions, as well as higher levels of ethical thought, are trying to take that basic conscience and raise it to a higher plane or a consistent type of reasoning. If you’re going to reject “greatest good for the greatest number” then you have some principle now in play beyond just basic economic principles. In practice, ethical dilemmas of “greatest good for the greatest number” rarely come into play for the individual except as hypotheticals. In the unlikely event they occur in real life, decisions are often made under great stress, in the grip of emotion, with incomplete information, and under time pressure anyway rather than by some well-thought-out reasoning process, so my view is that these sorts of “ethical dilemmas” get a disproportionate share of study and discussion. I pretty much ignore them.

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