In light of the controversies surrounding chapter eight of Pope Francis apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the role of conscience has taken center stage. The questions for us are: what is conscience and how is it formed? Is it informed only by formal principles that permit exceptions in hard cases, or is it formed both by exceptionless negative precepts that bind every conscience and by affirmative precepts where conscience has more latitude? Quite possibly the future of Catholic moral theology and sexual ethics may hang on how these fundamental questions are resolved.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw conscience as “a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.” Today, in the confusion over Amoris Laetitia (AL) the notion of conscience, what it is, how is it to be formed, what does it hold a person to, if anything, are essential questions. Some see conscience as the invitation of God to embrace His law as a free person; others see it as a call to personal freedom. For many, as evidenced by the present debate, the word “conscience” does not suggest law but the freedom to judge by one’s own personal resources and standards along with the right to act as one thinks best—a rejection, in other words, of the need for morality and creed; a claim that one should be allowed to live as one chooses.
Newman on Conscience
“Conscience is not a longsighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself, but it is a messenger from Him (emphasis added), who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representative, a monarch in its peremptoriness. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even through the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a say.” (emphasis added)
The metaphor of “messenger” was a key idea for Newman. When we receive a message, we can’t change it to make it say what would please us. Newman interprets conscience as the advocate for truth in the innermost part of the human person. He would say that any difficulty with Church teaching should not be the end of the matter but the beginning of conversion, education, and quite possibly repentance. In a situation like this Newman’s advice would be to kneel and pray for God to lead weak steps and enlighten fragile minds.
For Newman conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in a person (again, think “messenger”). A man must overcome mere subjectivity in an encounter with his own inferiority and the truth from God. Newman said: “I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead me on!”
Saint Bonaventure’s view of conscience is akin to Newman. For St. Bonaventure “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger (emphasis added); it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.”
An appreciation of the gravity of sin and the formation of conscience
Before looking at the proper formation of conscience, it may be well to call to mind what John Paul II taught in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, of Reconciliation and Penance (RP). The pope reminded us that the synod called to study this issue not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins, but also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. The Pope also added that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts, which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful.
Loss of the sense of sin and its effect on the formation of moral conscience.
John Paul II taught that the “sense of sin” is rooted in man’s moral conscience and is as were its thermometer. The “sense of sin” is linked to the sense of God, since it derives from man’s conscious relationship with God as his Creator, Lord and Father. The pope goes on to say: “Is it not true that modern man is threatened by an eclipse of conscience? By a deformation of conscience? By a numbness or deadening of conscience? In this situation, it is then inevitable that there is an obscuring of the sense of sin, which is closely connected with the moral conscience, the search for truth and the desire to make a responsible use of freedom. When the conscience is weakened, the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result, with the loss of this decisive inner point of reference, the sense of sin is lost.
What about the relationship between conscience and truth?
Newman believed that conscience and truth must form a partnership, that they must support and enlighten each other and that obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the truth. The relationship of conscience to truth is the fundamental element of Newman’s teaching on conscience. Any discussion of the rights of conscience has to take into account its duties as well and the duties of conscience lie in the responsibility of the creature towards its Creator. The right of conscience does not involve, in Newman’s words,
“the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their (the individual person) judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all…Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up this or that and let it go again…Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not be mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will” (emphasis added)
Newman’s description seems to fit our day and age. Is it not clear that conscience today, in many cases, is confused with personal opinion, subjective feelings, and self-will under the guise of “discernment” and use of the “internal forum”? For many today, conscience no longer implies the responsibility of the creature towards its Creator, but independence, autonomy, subjectivity and arbitrariness.
What then constitutes a man or woman of conscience?
Newton would simply say that the answer to this question would be a perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth within a man or a woman. Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was not a matter of personal taste or of subjectivity. In 1844, just prior to this conversion he said: “No one can have a more unfavorable view than I of the present state of the Roman Catholics.” He was, however, much more taken by the necessity to obey recognized truth than with his own preferences. He emphasized truth’s priority over consensus and the accommodation of groups.
What about the relationship of conscience with God?
Vatican II teaches that, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” For Newman, conscience is the way to come to recognize God. Conscience points to a God who has a personal relationship with every person, who addresses him, who directs and guides him, who rebukes and reprimands, who shows him his mistakes and calls him to conversion, who leads him to the perception of truth and who spurs him on to do good, who is his supreme Lord and Judge.
Can conscience be wrong?
The Catechism, #1779, tells us it is essential for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. In #1782 we read that man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. Consider this warning from Cardinal Ratzinger in relation to an issue that has become pressing with regard Amoris Laetitia: “It is strange that some theologians have difficulty accepting the precise and limited doctrine of papal infallibility, but see no problem in granting de facto infallibility to everyone who has a conscience.”
John Paul II made it clear that conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error, and that it is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on this account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a person shows little concern for seeking what is true and good.
Proper formation of conscience
The words of the Lord in Mt 6:22-23 represent a call for us to form our conscience as the eye of our body and to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and what is good. Cardinal Ratzinger tells us that conscience requires formation and education since it can be become stunted, stamped, or falsified so that it speaks in a distorted way. Included in the idea of conscience is an obligation to care for it, to form it, and to educate it. The right of conscience is the obligation of the formation of conscience. The magisterium of the Church bears the responsibility for correct formation. The teaching office of the Church should be accepted as the primary factor in the formation of conscience. The magisterium therefore has an obligation to speak its word in such a way that it will be understood in the midst of conflicts of values and orientations,
In the formation of conscience, the Word of God is the light for our path. We must examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross, assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness and advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: What can it say to us?
Newton’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk touches on the notion of conscience in Section 5 (247). The very first sentence of the letter written in the 19th Century was prescient: “It seems, then that there are extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.” In Newman’s discussion of conscience — when it seemingly runs counter to the words of the pope — he quotes Cardinal Jacobatis:
“If it were doubtful whether a precept (of the Pope) be a sin or not, we must determine thus: that, if he to whom the precept is addressed has a conscientious sense that it is a sin and injustice, first it is duty to put off that sense; but, if he cannot, not conform himself to the judgment of the Pope, in that case it is his duty to follow his own private conscience, and patiently to bear it, if the Pope punishes him.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke comes to mind.
 Richard A. Spinello, Amoris Laetitia and the Post-Modern Papacy of Pope Francis Crisis Magazine, January 24, 2017.,
 George Cardinal Pell, The Inconvenient Conscience, First Things, May 2005.
 Fr. Hermann Geissler, FSO, Conscience and Truth in the Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, p. 8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1778.
 George Cardinal Pell, First Things, May 2005.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On Conscience, Ignatius Press, 2007, p. 25.
 Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, (58)
 Pope John Paul II, Reconciliation and Penance, 1984, (17).
 Ibid, 18.
 Hermann Geissler FSO, Conscience and Truth in the Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 25.
 Gaudium et Spes, 16.
 Geissler, pp. 9-10.
 Ibid, p. 59.
 Ratzinger, On Conscience, pp. 62-64.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1785.
 Newman Reader – Works of John Henry Newman, Copyright 2007 by the National Institute for Newman Studies, Conscience, Section 5.
 Ibid, Section 246.
 Newman Reader, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 260.