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What kind of conscience do you have?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/30/20

Hint: When you use the word “conscience” and the phrase, “I just feel that …” you can be sure that you are doing it wrong.
This is a continuation of our series on learning to read the (conscience) manual. (See the rest HERE and HERE)

How much of a challenge is this question to you? What kind is it?

I suppose the challenge depends on the “kind” and upon you. If the “kind” is wine, and you are a wine connoisseur, then the question is not challenging at all. If the “kind” is cigar, and you’ve never smoked one, then the challenge would be considerable. But what if I asked you, “What kind of conscience do you have?” (Bonus question: “Why does it matter what kind of conscience you have?”)

Let’s go back to the image of wine. Wine is distinguished by the senses of sight, smell, and taste. Sight notes obvious differences (for example, red versus white) and a keen eye detects subtler differences (for example, shades of red). You can train your senses to note increasingly subtler differences of color, fragrance, and taste. Growing in your ability to note and describe differences and subtleties between wine is part of the enjoyment of wine appreciation. Yet, you can lead a happy life even if you never learn how to note anything more obvious than, “This wine is red; that wine is white.” (Hard to believe, I know, but I’ve at least heardof happy people who are not fascinated by wine.)

Wine appreciation can be a hobby—and you can afford to do it at a mediocre level or not at all. The moral aspect of the human vocation, though, is an absolutely indispensable element of human life. It’s unavoidable, and you cannot afford to do it poorly. It’s a venture that everyone is obliged to undertake and execute to the best of his ability. Like cultivating an appreciation of wine, cultivating moral maturity is greatly helped by learning some important concepts and vocabulary. We’ll continue making our way together through this exercise of learning how to “read the (conscience) manual” for the next several weeks.

Kinds or types of conscience may be distinguished by time, judgment, knowledge, certitude, and sensitivity.

Conscience is our guide to evaluating our future actions (“Do this, don’t do that”) and our past actions (“You should be proud of this, you should be ashamed of that”). A future-facing conscience is called an antecedent conscience; a past-facing conscience is called a consequent conscience. When we make an examination of conscience, we are speaking of a consequent conscience.

Moral maturity requires understanding the four functions of an antecedent conscience: 1) commanding what is required; 2) forbidding what must be avoided; 3) persuading or 4) permitting when reckoning a better or worse action in the absence of obligation.

Conscience, properly understood (and contrary to popular misconception), is a function of the intellect rather than emotion. (Helpful hint: When you use the word “conscience” and the phrase, “I just feel that …” you can be sure that you are doing it wrong.)

Conscience, as a judgment of the intellect, can fail either by using false premises or drawing illogical conclusions. In terms of judgment, therefore, a conscience can be correct (judging the truly good as good and the truly evil as evil) or erroneous (judging good as evil or evil as good).

The distinction between a correct conscience and an erroneous one requires us to make a further distinction about conscience in terms of knowledge.

You make a false judgment because you lack knowledge of the truth. If you can be reasonably expected to overcome this lack of knowledge in a particular case, your conscience is said to be vincibly erroneous. If you cannot be reasonably expected to overcome this lack of knowledge, your conscience is said to be invincibly erroneous.

Conscience may also be distinguished in terms of certitude. A certain conscience judges without fear that the opposite conclusion may be true. A doubtful conscience is disinclined to make a judgment at all in a particular case, or makes a judgment reluctantly. A doubtful conscience can be a source of very deep pain and anguish.

Finally, a conscience may be distinguished by sensitivity, which describes the functioning of an individual’s conscience not in a particular case (as above) but rather as a matter of habit. A strict conscience may be one that is habitually exercised with very great care. A lax conscience is habitually exercised with indifference to the gravity or consequences of moral judgments. You may be said to have a perplexed conscience when habitually the prospect of making a judgment leads to paralysis. You may have a scrupulous conscience when you habitually torture yourself (and your confessor) reevaluating past decisions and striving for an impossible degree of certainty about the state of one’s soul. A scrupulous person may need the help of a good spiritual director and maybe even a therapist.

When I write next, I will speak of conscience, obligation, and doubt. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.


Read more:
Philosophy and the Catholic Church: A 2,000-year-old marriage


Read more:
How Catholic monks shaped France’s wine culture

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