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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question E: What is meant by “formation of conscience”?

1. The will to live a good life is the indispensable foundation of an upright conscience. In its submission to God’s word, the act of living faith provides this foundation. Still, on the level of knowledge, three things are needed to make a sound judgment of conscience. First, one must be clearly aware of the norms which distinguish right from wrong. Second, one must have sufficient factual knowledge to see practical possibilities, including at least one which is morally acceptable. Third, one also must attend to the relationship between the norms and the practical possibilities.

2. Ignorance and error are possible in regard to all these matters, and instruction and learning are therefore needed in regard to all. The formation of a Christian conscience thus relates to three areas: clear understanding of norms, accurate and adequate information about possibilities, and readiness to engage in moral reflection before every choice.

3. Help in achieving a clear understanding of norms takes the form of clarification of the principles of natural law, the law written in our hearts (see Rom 2.15). In this clarification Catholics are assisted by the teaching of the Church (see DH 14). Chapters five through ten of this volume will articulate the principles of natural law and show how one can reason validly from them. Question F, below, will say a little more about the help which the Church’s teaching gives; and much more will be said about this matter in chapters twenty-two through twenty-eight. Chapter thirty-six criticizes the opinion that tries to justify dissent from the Church’s constant and very firm moral teaching.

4. Instruction about practical possibilities is an important part of the preaching of the gospel. Only in the gospel can we learn how it is possible to live a morally good life in this fallen world. More specific instruction about practical possibilities is an essential part of catechesis, spiritual direction, vocational guidance, and counseling. Until their lives are well organized by commitments and their personalities are integrated with these commitments, people need help in thinking of the right thing to do. Often, in a difficult situation, the morally good possibility simply does not occur to a person.

5. Directing attention to the relationship between moral norms and practical possibilities is a very important part of conscience formation. The use of conscience only really begins with the asking of moral questions. Yet children and morally immature adults often act spontaneously, with no moral reflection, and when they do engage in reflection, it often enough concerns only the promptings of superego and social convention. Thus it is a basic step in the formation of conscience to encourage those who are morally immature to ask moral questions, including whether the demands of superego and social convention are reasonable.

6. Existing desires and accepted projects must also be called into question. Indeed, a fully mature Christian conscience comes into being only when all merely assumed goals and standards have been examined in the light of faith, and faith itself has been accepted by a commitment which one confidently holds to be reasonable and right. So St. Paul urges: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12.2).

In trying to form consciences, Christians customarily have concentrated on exhortation. For example, most of the Epistles of the New Testament include straightforward efforts to call attention to moral truths. These exhortations usually take the form of lists of good deeds and attitudes, contrasted with their opposites. Christians are urged to put aside their old ways, be vigilant, resist the devil, and submit to the demands of their state of life.21

Today, many question the effectiveness of such exhortation and suggest instead a more dialectical method for forming consciences. For example, values clarification tries to elicit moral reflection in children without authoritatively proposing any correct answer to the moral questions on which the children are asked to reflect.

Traditional exhortation surely has been part of the good news suitably directed towards Christian converts, who are enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life in Jesus. Without downgrading such exhortation, one can admit some real advantages in a more dialectical approach to the formation of the consciences of Christians. After all, the principles of morality are available to them by natural insight; what they need is a stimulus to reflect morally, to bring to mind and put to work what they already somehow know. This is true especially of children brought up in a Christian environment, for their experience and habits of behavior will not block sound moral insight.

But if a more dialectical approach in the formation of consciences might be advisable, the movement of values clarification cannot be accepted uncritically. Much of the pedagogical material and literature of this movement is defective by Christian standards. For example, there often is a suggestion, at least implicit, that every individual should choose his or her own values, and that the only real duty is to be consistent. Similarly, the suggestion often is made that sufficiently good consequences can justify virtually anything.22

In a Christian educational context, a method somewhat like that used in secular programs of values clarification could be developed, but only after the approach is thoroughly criticized and reconstructed. Questions should help children to articulate objective moral principles and to appropriate the truth they find, truth which they will realize does not depend upon their own choices. Faith will illuminate the real but limited significance of every human good to be realized in this world. Attitudes of submission to values and of absolute respect for the dignity of persons—a respect which excludes some choices regardless of consequences—need to be cultivated. The lives of Jesus and of saints should be used as models, so that children will be encouraged to shape their own lives according to these exemplars.

21. See Marcus Barth, Ephesians, 4–6, Anchor Bible, 34A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), 453–62, 550–53, and (bibliography) 824–25.

22. A widely used text for values clarification, which contains many things unacceptable by Christian standards: Sidney B. Simon, Leland W. Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum, Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students (New York: Hart Publishing, 1972). An official state publication which exemplifies the pragmatic, proportionalist approach of the new value instruction: Valuing: A Discussion Guide (Albany, N.Y.: The Board of Regents, 1976). A revealing work directed toward teachers: Ronald G. Havelock, The Change Agent’s Guide to Innovation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications, 1973), which assumes that the function of the school is to lead children beyond traditional moral views they bring from their homes.