So writes Richard Spinello in an HPR article about Pope John Paul II's thought on conscience. Conscience formation is a serious duty, overlooked, I have found, by many in the Church today. I think Spinello captures things well:
The Pope recognized the need for a proper understanding of conscience, and he was concerned with those who sought to undermine the orthodox doctrine of conscience with more subjectivist notions. Not only has this doctrine been distorted by some revisionist theologians, who diminish the moral law’s decisive role in human development, it has also been corrupted in modern culture. In recent centuries the notion of authenticity has displaced the traditional conception of conscience. The person is supposedly guided by an “inner voice” to make authentic moral choices that are consistent with his or her particular value system. Conscience is also equated with a Freudian superego, which makes us aware of superficial and conventional social standards. The pre-cursor of this idea was Nietzsche, who reduced conscience to the sublimation of instinct.And he's correct, of course. Spinello goes into greater depth in this discussion, and so I would encourage you to read the whole article.
And what is conscience, really? The catechism defines it in a few ways (1778):
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 judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.It is also a place deep within our core in which God speaks. Quoting Newman, the catechism later states that conscience is the "aboriginal Vicar of Christ. (1778)". We are duty bound to obey our conscience.
Yet, what many overlook is that all of this presumes a conscience that has been (and is in the process of being) rightfully formed according to the teachings of the Gospel as handed on to us by Christ and his Church. In other words, conscience is not merely relative to subjective whim or preference or a mere value system we personally hold. Rather, conscience must be guided and formed against an objective standard or measure of truth that is given to us. And we are responsible for this formation -- indeed it is a lifelong task. A few paragraphs later, the Catechism goes into great length about this (1783-1785):
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment 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 to reject authoritative teachings.Of course, being flawed people, none of this absolutely guarantees that all of our judgments of conscience are correct. But if we are truly serious about following Christ, and we are serious about educating ourselves, as the Catechism says, in studying the Word of God (in Jesus Christ), assimilating it in faith and prayer and putting it into practice with the assistance of grace, then presumably it will become easier to form correct judgments. I can say in my own development as a Catholic that when I entered the church, my conscience was much more loose and confused in its soundness than it is today. I got started rather late.
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task... In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.