Well-formed Conscience

This afternoon I was listening to a Catholic call-in show on the radio, and the caller’s question was on the topic of “well-formed conscience.” According the the program host, the Church requires that we make moral decisions utilizing our conscience. When the caller questioned this, the host qualified his answer by saying that it must be a “well-formed” conscience. I found his answer to be rather dissatisfying, so I am looking for clarification here.

An example: I have a friend who is a member of a mainline protestant church. I my opinion, she is a good person who leads a moral life. However, contrary to Catholic teaching, her church does not teach that using artificial birth control is immoral. We have talked about this topic at great length, she has done her own research, and she has talked to her minister about this subject. In the end, her conscience tells her that utilizing ABC is not immoral. Is her conscience “well-formed?” Why or why not?

Yes and no.

Yes because she has made a good effort to inform her conscience.

No because she remains in error.

Without knowing her, we might say hypothetically that she does not sin by following her conscience, since her errors are a matter of invincible ignorance (ignorance that she has made a good effort to correct but circumstances have prohibited…though others may disagree with what I say here).

Catechism: scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a6.htm

During the course of our discussions I have informed her of what the Catholic Church teaches. Consequently, I don’t think she could plead “invincible ignorance.” However, as a non-Catholic, she is acting in a moral manner according to the teachings of her own church. So, does she “remain in error” simply because she does not follow Catholic teaching? Is “a well-formed conscience” just another way of saying “follows Catholic teaching?”

For a catholic I believe the answer to your question is yes.

In your friends case, I don’t know what the answer is because I really can’t see inside of her mind to know just how pure her thinking is. I guess we just have to take her at her word. But still that dosen’t mean we can act as she does because our conscience is formed and informed.

Tho it is my opinion, I do believe people believe that ABC is ok, and see nothing wrong with it. So at most, they are committing sin but it won’t be attributed to them since they don’t know better.

But you did good in informing her. Now the Spirit will take it from there.

May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine on you. May God be kind to you and give you peace.

Merely being informed of Catholic teaching does not in itself neccessarily remove invincible ignorance. A person can remain invincibly ignorant if there are understandable reasons why they do not recognise the truth when it is revealed to them. For someone raised in another Christian faith, or another faith entirely, or no faith at all, it can be very hard to see Catholic teaching as the truth…through no fault of their own.

Keep in mind that many faithful Catholics fail to understand the Church’s teaching on contraception, so it is understandable that others might too.

This article by Jimmy Akin discussed ignorance in much more detail:archive.catholic.com/thisrock/1999/9907chap.asp

You will note that the catechism tells us: “The education of the conscience is a lifelong task”. We should not be too fast in condemning others who are at a different point in this task. If a person seeks truth in sincerety, then they are doing what they can to form their conscience well, even if it seems to others that they are erroneous in some matters.

In all such matters, only God is the judge. He will decide if your friend is invincibly ignorant in this case, or perhaps merely vincibly ignorant, or whether her ignorance is culpable. It is not something we plead; it is something that God takes into account in judging us.

If ones conscience is not conforming to truth -it is in error.

The conscience can be true or false, and certain or dubious.

A true, certain conscience is one which is correct on moral issues and is certain that it is correct; thus the person knows exactly what the correct answer is without a shadow of a doubt.

A false, certain conscience one which is incorrect on moral issues and is certain that it is correct; thus the person is wrong as to the correct answer, but still has no doubt that he is correct.

A true, dubious conscience is one which is correct on moral issues and is not certain that it is correct (unsure); thus the person knows what the correct answer is but is not sure or is shaky in carrying it out or saying it to others.

A false, dubious conscience is one which is incorrect on moral issues and is not certain that it is correct (unsure); thus the person is both incorrect on the answer and is not sure or is shaky in carrying it out or saying it to others.


EVERYONE is obligated to obey a certain conscience. If a Catholic believes it is a mortal sin to eat pork, and has a certain conscience about it, he will sin if he eats pork, because he intends to do what he perceives to be grave evil.

Thus, in the case of your friend, if her conscience has been formed to think that contraception is ok, she has a false certain conscience, and her culpability for her error is greatly mitigated.

When the words “well-formed” are used to describe a conscience, it usually refers to a true, certain conscience. It is well-formed in that it knows the truth, and it is well-formed in that it is strong enough to be clear, without a doubt, that it is correct.

I don’t agree with that. A Catholic who does not know or knows but does not fully understand Church teachings is vincibly ignorant, not invincibly ignorant.

After posting I re-read your post. Are you referring to non-Catholics?

Sorry, it was in response to the OP and her friend’s situation. Her friend is non-Catholic and I was replying in that context.

Yes, I would tend to agree with you about a Catholic being only ignorant in a vincible manner (which can still remove nearly all cuplability in some cases). There may be extreme cases where invincible ignorance may still apply* - eg someone who was molested by a trusted Church official in their childhood may have understandable obstacles in their accepting the true faith, no matter how hard they try. But for the typical Catholic, given the wide range of resources available today, there is little reason why they couldn’t learn the truth on a given topic, so yes ignorance is vincible.

  • To elaborate on this, here is a comment from Jimmy Akin in the article I linked to, with regard to the general idea that invincible ignorance does not apply to Catholics: “This applies, of course, to those who have genuinely accepted the Catholic faith under the influence of the Magisterium, not those who-though baptized or received into the Church-never actually accepted the Catholic faith due to absent or grossly defective catechesis.”

Yes, I agree with you.

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