Following Your Conscience
I was putting together an adult faith formation presentation on conscience. They asked me for a snazzy title for the bulletin announcement. I am not good on snazzy titles but the one that came to mind was: “Following your conscience… all the way to hell.” Let me explain.
The advice to follow your conscience can easily be abused and, I would suggest, often is. Being in good conscience, being sincere in your decision-making, will not always justify you. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once pointed out: “If this were so, then the Nazi SS would be justified and we should expect to seek them in heaven, since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience.” Or, as I like to point out: Hitler was sincere.
You see conscience is an inner sense or, again as the pontiff emeritus put it, an “original memory of the good and true implanted in us.” But it is not specific. It is not good at details, if you will. This “memory” can be distorted by our own self-centeredness and by the loud voice of the dominant culture’s biases. Every culture has its own vantage point and, therefore, its own unexamined pre-judgments, that is, prejudices. And between our own selfishness and a culture gone astray, we can become deaf to the true voice of conscience. And, then, what we are following is not conscience at all but something else.
Our conscience, therefore, needs to be informed. It needs to be open to challenge. As Christians, that challenge comes from Scripture and Tradition, as applied and interpreted by those with the mission in the Church and whose charism it is to pass on the catholic and apostolic faith. The Church, precisely because it is “catholic” is uniquely suited to this task. For the universality of the Church causes it to hear the wisdom of many cultures and its apostolicity allows it to hear the wisdom of the generations of saints and teachers all the way back to Christ Himself.
So, yes, you can and, indeed, must follow your conscience. But there is a prior obligation to listen to the voices of wisdom that challenge and confront us, otherwise one can well be wrong to have come to one’s convictions of conscience in the first place.
C. S. Lewis addresses this matter in his book, The Great Divorce:
“Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”
Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal