This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

What is a ‘good conscience’?

It has been a constant teaching of the Catholic Church that individuals are bound to obey the judgment of their conscience, and that to disobey this guide is to condemn oneself. Such a stance, however, is easily misconstrued, for it must be understood within the context of the entire Catholic truth about the conscience, its formation, and its exercise.

The degree to which the teaching has in fact been misconstrued is evident by the common phrase: “in good conscience.” When a person says this, they usually mean to imply that they acted in accordance with their conscience when they made the decision. Unfortunately, putting things this way is really to skip a step. Just because a person may act according to his or her conscience does not mean that the conscience was “good.” It simply means that they obeyed it. It is possible to have a “bad” conscience and to obey that.

What this means is that we have two things to consider when it comes to the conscience. First we must ensure that our conscience is healthy. That is to say we must take great care to have formed a “good conscience.” This will not just happen automatically. Second, and only after we have accomplished the first task, we must follow the judgement of the conscience. This is a very important point to emphasize, because it is conceivable that a situation could arise in which it is unwise to trust too easily one’s own conscience. A man given to drug addiction or habituated to pornography may very well engage in these activities “in good conscience,” meaning that his conscience is not disturbed by participating in them. Such is a case of a de-formed conscience, and such a man would do better to trust an upright neighbor. Too often, and no doubt under the influence of a certain humanistic naivety which assumes that the conscience is always good, we neglect the first step—the duty to “train” one’s conscience—and think only of the second. We end by obeying an ill-formed conscience, and in such cases where the deformation is due to our own laxity or negligence, we will rightly be held responsible for the error.

Share This