Posts Tagged ‘conscience’

Morality Part 4: Form, Inform, and Follow

When I do laundry, after washing and drying, I’ll transport the clean clothes to the couch.  The couch and coffee table are my folding zone, a task I’ll tackle while watching Netflix, talking on the phone, or visiting with a close friend (one whom I am secure enough to expose my family’s laundry to).  The reality is that the folding does not happen immediately.  Often the couch is buried amid several loads of clean laundry.  Yes, I’ll get to it.  Eventually.  The thing is that my kids will want to actually use the couch to sit on, despite the piles of clean laundry.  Sometimes I take a little too long to get around to folding; I take responsibility for this.

Other times, like today, I’m within the margin of acceptable laundry-folding time. Regardless, the clean laundry got knocked off the couch by one of my kids.

Me: Who knocked the laundry basket off the couch and onto the floor?

Max: I fink I did it.  I’m sowwy, Mommy.  I didn’t mean to.

I know that he didn’t intentionally, maliciously knock my laundry on the floor, but still.  He could’ve been more careful.  And even if it was an accident, he could’ve fixed it.



While laundry on the couch isn’t one of the most pressing moral issues of our time, this conversation with my 6 year-old does provide a framework for examining moral responsibility.

First, let’s recall where we left off: Morality Part 3 explained the lifelong process of forming conscience.

Conscience Formation

In my explanation of forming conscience, I gave a lot of attention to the idea that a person must genuinely choose what is good.  However, saying a person must decide to do what is good for oneself is not the same thing as saying that a person makes moral decisions by oneself.

This is where Informing Conscience comes in.  If forming conscience is about wanting to be a good (not bad) person, having an informed conscience is about making right (not wrong) choices.  Quite simply, it’s about making informed decisions.

Conscience Definition Form and Inform 2


How do we make informed moral decisions?  The Catechism explains that we do this by consulting with three areas of our life: self, others, and God.

To make informed moral decisions, we strive “to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC, 1788)

1. Self (“assisted by the virtue of prudence“)  Quite simply: stop and think.  Mindful self-examination helps in discernment, whether or not we actually write out that pro and con list.  Here, we take the time to differentiate between wants and needs… between immediate gratification and long-term impact…

2. Others – (“assisted by…the advice of competent people“)  Inviting the wisdom of others is not the same thing as allowing “superego” to decide for us.  In fact, think of this as your own Personal Board of Directors.  While unsolicited advice will be offered far and wide, you find yourself talking through difficult decisions with a select group of people.   Each member of this board is must be personally appointed by you as a closest, trusted adviser; no applications (or self-nominations) are accepted.  It’s not that the people on your Board tell you what to do (because you may not always follow their advice), but you do seriously consider whatever they have to say.

That said, it is important that we neither appoint strictly “yes-men” nor superegos that micro-manage our decisions.  Our Personal Board of Directors should give us insight into our darker selves, but do so with selfless agape-love.

Alongside your Personal Board of Directors, the independent research of a respected third party should be considered when making difficult decisions.  The voice of “competent people” extends to the sciences, particularly the social sciences.

3.  God – (“the help of the Holy Spirit“)  In making moral decisions, we must pray–inviting God into the discernment process.  Additionally, part of being Catholic means that we value the 2000+ years of wisdom from Scripture and Tradition, which is one of the big ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us today.

There is a temptation to approach the teachings of the Church and the role of the Magisterium as the voice of superego.  For some of us, that means we blindly follow an unexamined faith.  For others, it means we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Neither of these approaches reflects having a truly informed conscience.

What we don’t want to do is end up uninviting the Holy Spirit from our Personal Board of Directors.  The key is to earnestly listen to the wisdom of the teachings of the Church.  If we find ourselves in disagreement with the Church, we owe it to our faith to explore this disconnect.  Sometimes it’s a matter of understanding why the Church teaches what it does.  It’s not ok for a person to simply dismiss a teaching that they don’t agree with; rather, this is a reason for deeper prayer, study, and exploration in faith.

  • What is your decision making process?  In what way does it align with the self-others-God explanation of CCC, 1788?  In what way does it differ?
  • Who is on your Personal Board of Directors?  Have you appointed any “yes-men” or superegos?  
  • What insights do you gain from thinking about informing conscience in this way?

Follow Your Conscience

Catholic Teaching insists that we have an obligation to follow our conscience, but stated more precisely, we have an obligation to follow our formed and informed conscience.

Conscience Form Inform Follow

It is in this context that it makes sense to return to a discussion about moral responsibility and sin, because it is our conscience that enables us to take responsibility for our actions (CCC, 1781).

How can we say something is “wrong” if you’re following your conscience?

Faced with a moral choice, our conscience can either make a right judgment or a wrong one.  Sometimes, we will be following our conscience and still end up making a mistake, which Catholic tradition calls “erroneous conscience” (CCC, 1786, 1790).   Actually, there are different levels of assessment here:

  1. Invincible Ignorance – if a person honestly did not know something was wrong (and there is not a reasonable expectation that they should have known), then it is considered a true accident.
    • Although the person may have done something wrong, they are not in violation of their conscience.
    • It is expected that they will make amends for any damage done, but they are not morally responsible. (See CCC, 1793)
  2. Vincible Ignorance – if a person claims that they didn’t know something was wrong, but when we logically assess the situation, we can safely say that they should have known better.  In the court of law, we call this negligence.
    • When a wrongdoing falls under this umbrella of  “willful ignorance,”  the person bears moral responsibility, but it is still not considered a “sin” (CCC, 1791-1792).
  3. Sin – For something to be considered a sin, it must be a deliberate decision to violate our conscience. Therein, we must have both:
    • Knowledge that it is wrong
    • Freedom to choose

There are times when we know what is wrong, but we do it anyway.   St. Augustine tells a story from his adolescence (in Book 2, Chapter IV of his Confessions) when he stole some pears.  He knew it was wrong; he admits that he was neither hungry, nor poor when he did it.  He stole them for the thrill of stealing – simply because it was forbidden.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.*

We all have a pear-tree story of our own; a time which we were clearly choosing to do something that was in violation of our conscience.

The next post on Morality will explore and unpack some of the traditional vocabulary surrounding sin.  For now, consider the following:

  • Can you relate to these three categories of “doing something wrong” – invincible ignorance (accident), vincible ignorance (negligence), and sin (deliberate decision)?  Which do you struggle with most and why?

Morality Part 3: Forming Your Conscience

I have my Grandmom’s chin.  So does my mother, my aunts and uncles, most of my cousins, and my younger son.  When I was a teen, I noticed that Grandmom’s sister, Aunt Helen has this same chin, and when she agrees with you on something, she sticks out that pointy chin, presses her lips together, and v-e-r-y slowly nods her head three or four times.  Then I noticed that Grandmom often does the same thing.  And so does my Mom.  And now I even do it.

Grandmom and Aunt Helen

Aunt Helen and Grandmom

There are things we pick up from our family of origin whether we like it or not.  Some of them are innocuous and make us smile.  Other times, it’s a bad habit–or worse an immoral behavior.

What if a person was raised in a racist home?  How can we say that’s wrong if that’s what they were taught?

When discussing morality, lots of attention is given to the importance of following one’s conscience.  In Morality Part 2, I explained the difference between conscience and superego.

Conscience and Superego

Superego has its place in forming our conscience, but they are not the same thing.  From childhood to adulthood, we must transition from an external voice of moral authority to listening to the inner voice of our conscience.  The Greek philosopher Plato explored this idea in both The Republic and Meno.  Recognizing that one’s conscience reflects genuine internal decision, he asked:

Can you teach someone to be virtuous?

You can teach someone what is right, but for them to be truly virtuous, they must actually choose it for themselves.  So how do we actually teach virtue?  We teach virtue in three different ways, during three different stages of life.

1.  Stories and Examples

During childhood, especially birth to age 7, children are like sponges; they pick up on everything.  In this stage, we teach children to value what is good by through the stories and examples we expose them to.  The difficulty here is that kids will learn both the good and the bad.  While they may memorize the words to the bedtime story and the children’s songs that we intentionally select for their beautiful message, they will also pick up on the other words, phases, attitudes, and behaviors that they are exposed to which are not so “pure.”  And they will do this whether we like it–or intend for it–or not.

IMG_0725Dennis noticed that his 3 year old, Jakob was entering into that parroting stage: repeating, imitating, and copying whatever he saw or heard.  While Dennis was already cautious about what he was exposing his son to, this annoying and adorable behavior had him on high alert.  They were in the car, only driving 10 minutes down the road to the store, listening to XM radio when the DJ came on, mocking some celebrity: “In he comes wearing his [effing] cowboy hat and his [effing] cowboy boots–” and Dennis quickly and discreetly changed the station.  He parks the car, unbuckles his 3 yr old from the back seat, and Jakob announces, “Daddy! I have my [effing] cowboy boots, but I don’t have an [effing] cowboy hat.  When can I get an [effing] cowboy hat?”  Trying desperately not to overreact, Dennis explained to his super-hero loving son, “Those are not good words, buddy.  Good guys don’t use words like that; only bad guys.  You don’t ever hear Daddy using those words, do you?”  Jakob’s eyes widened, “No, Daddy!  You never use those words!”

The stories and examples that we expose our children to will either teach them to desire what is good or not.  When it comes to what children observe, it is often the implicit, unspoken example that leaves a lasting impression over and above what adults explicitly say.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Stories: What were some of your favorite stories from childhood?  What was the moral or message?
    • Examples: What are some of the behaviors you learned from your family of origin?  Try to identify one positive, one negative, and one “amoral,” innocuous behavior.

 2.  Practicing Habits

In adolescence, the primary way in which we experience moral formation is by practicing good habits.  Athletic coaches, band and choral directors, and educators use certain exercises to help students practice “skills” to improve overall performance.  Parents require their teens to do certain chores.  We employ the phrase “practice makes perfect.”   The goal is to practice good behavior to the point that it becomes so ingrained that we can do it without thinking.

The 1984 movie The Karate Kid offers a great demonstration of this dynamic.  Daniel is a teenager who asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate.  As he arrives each day for what he hopes to be “training sessions,” Daniel is told he must first perform chores in very specific ways.   Frustrated with what he perceives as days of varied slave-labor, Daniel complains and confronts his teacher.  In turn, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel that each specific action in the chores relates to a maneuver in karate.

Parents, coaches, and educators require teens to do certain tasks that are the building blocks of perfecting the practice of virtue.  This is why Catholic schools and Confirmation programs require students to do service hours.  The reality many of us face, however, is that we don’t just form good habits over the years; we also form bad ones.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • In what way can you relate to the Karate Kid example?  When were you required to practice an obscure skill that later proved useful?
    • Think of a bad habit that you worked to break free from; tell the process of re-learning.
    • What good, moral habits have you developed?  Who influenced you?

3.  Journey into Adulthood

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by a maturity in which we go from doing things without thinking about them to examining and evaluating what we have been taught and intentionally choosing our path.  This third stage is not automatic; it is up to each person to decide whether or not to integrate what they have been taught into the person who they want to become (and by this, I mean the very best that each person is called by God to be).

Notice that this is called a “journey” into adulthood because it’s not a “once and done” moment of enlightenment.  This journey of growth and maturity happens over the course of time.  Unfortunately, some “grown-ups” have not taken that journey into adulthood at all, and instead continue to repeat the patterns (and mistakes) they inherited from their family of origin.  Most of us, however, are somewhere on that path.

Catholic Tradition calls this life-long process Formation of Conscience (CCC 1783-1785), which is ultimately a matter of improving our character and strengthening or increasing our desire for goodness.  As adults, it comes down to asking ourselves:

Do I want to be a good person?

Honestly, we can become apathetic in our response to this very basic question, a state which Catholic Tradition calls lax conscience.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Identify one moral behavior from childhood and adolescence that you have examined, evaluated and mindfully chosen to continue.
    • Have there been any immoral behaviors from your formative years that you have intentionally chosen to eliminate?  
    • Do you struggle with lax conscience?  
    • Who or what helps you to increase your desire for goodness?


Morality Part 2: Mercy, Motivation, and Conscience

In Morality Part 1, I explained how morality was about relationship, not rules.  Part 2 will begin to explore moral responsibility and the role of conscience.  But first, a word about mercy.

Yesterday, when I backed the car out of the driveway, I was too close to the neighbor’s fence and clipped, shattered, and broke off the side-view mirror.


Why?  There was no good reason.  I wasn’t distracted or stressed.  I have no one to blame but myself.  I literally hung my head in shame as I showed my husband what I had done.  Worse yet, I misread the text message that my friend sent.  She hadn’t asked me to pick her up; she had offered to pick me up.


I wasn’t even supposed to be backing out of the driveway.  The feeling of stupidity stung.

My husband was more merciful and compassionate to me that I was to myself.  “Try not to do that again,” he said as he hugged me.  He knew I was sorry.

As I tried to moved beyond self-condemnation to being present to the rest of my day (and of course figuring out the details of getting the car fixed) I thought a lot about my own practice of showing mercy, especially with my kids.

I find that my ability to show mercy is directly related to the person’s ability to take responsibility.  We all make mistakes; I sure as heck do.

I get really upset with my kids when they fail to acknowledge whatever wrong they have done – whether it’s due to ignorance, indifference, lying, or blaming.  But the times in which they come to me with honest remorse over something, I respond with mercy, compassion, and love – at least I try to.


When we talk about Moral Responsibility in the context of our relationship with God, it is important to remember God’s mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:25).  Every person in Scripture that approaches Jesus having taken responsibility for their sins is granted mercy and forgiveness.

  • Think about your own practice of mercy.  How well do you practice – or how much do you struggle with practicing – mercy?  Do you find it harder to be merciful with yourself or others?  

The “Why” Matters

Part 1 explained that morality is about relationships.

3 Dimensions of Morality

Yes, morality is about the interpersonal “how we treat others” (the Golden Rule–do unto others, for sure), but it’s so much more than just external behavior.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains that focusing exclusively on how we treat others leads us to thinking that so long as we do the right thing, it doesn’t matter much why we do it.  On the contrary, it’s that internal motivation–the personal dimension–that reflects the quality of our character.  And God is quite concerned with the quality of our character.

When the Catechism defines Morality in CCC, 1750, it speaks of three “Sources” to be examined and evaluated.  The morality of human acts depends on:

  1. Object – WHAT – the action itself
  2. Intention – WHY – the motivation or reason why the action was done
  3. Circumstances – WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW – the context, all the contributing factors, as well as the consequences or outcome of the act

All three–object, intent, and circumstances–are examined when we evaluate whether an act is good or bad, and all three must be aligned with what is good for the act to be evaluated as moral.  It comes as no surprise that there are some acts (like terrorists murdering innocent people) that are objectively evil. But things get more complicated when people do good things for the wrong reasons.  Or worse, do something wrong so as to achieve some “greater good.”

The circumstances surrounding an act can contribute to increasing or diminishing the goodness or evil the act (for example, how much is stolen in a theft; how much damage is done). Circumstances can also increase or diminish the person’s responsibility (such as acting out of fear or under stress). However, circumstances themselves cannot change the moral quality of an action; they simply can not make an evil act good. (See CCC, 1756)

The Catechism is abundantly clear on explaining that it is never morally permissible to do evil to achieve good.  “The ends does not justify the means” (CCC, 1759).

  • Can you think of an example from your own life when you…
    • …did the right thing for the wrong reason?
    • …did the wrong thing to achieve some greater good?


So we know morality is about relationships, not rules.  And we know we need to consider the object, intent, and circumstances of an act when we evaluate whether or not it is good.  But how we decide what to do is a matter of conscience.  In fact, in all we say and do, we are obligated to follow our conscience. (CCC, 1778).

Conscience: here’s another aspect of Catholic tradition that is deeply misunderstood.  We talk about conscience being the “voice within” (CCC, 1776) and people either think of miniature angels and devils sitting on our shoulders or “hearing voices” akin to Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio.

A more helpful explanation of conscience sees it as both:

  1. The inner desire for goodness
  2. Choosing to do the right action

Yes, we are obligated to follow our conscience, but conscience is not what modern psychology calls our “superego.”

Superego is the voice of some external authority that says “I should do this because I’m supposed to.”  Conscience is when we genuinely say, “I desire what is good, and I choose to do what is right.”  When you hear the voice of your mother in your head telling to send that thank-you-note or spend time visiting that obnoxious aunt, that is not your conscience; that is your superego.

As the mother of two boys who are 6 and 7 /2 years old, I must emphasize that superego has its place in helping us to form our conscience, but it cannot be mistaken for conscience.  There are a variety of reasons why people do what is right.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist that developed the theory known as the Stages of Moral Development.  There are different, age appropriate reasons why people choose to do what is right.

Kohlberg 2


Kohlberg explained that there are six stages of moral reasoning, which describe the different motivations people have for doing what is right.  Those in the first stage, Obedience and Punishment, do what is right simply to avoid punishment.  In the second stage, Individualism and Exchange, the rationale is self-centered and reward seeking.  Those in the third stage, Good Boy/Girl, are motivated by making a positive impression on people who matter to them.  In the fourth stage, Law and Order, the motivation is centered on following the rules.  Kohlberg says that most adults make their moral decisions in stages three and four.  Few people attain the fifth stage, Social Contract, whereby people consider the common good when deciding.  Even fewer reach the sixth stage, Principled Conscience.  It is in this stage which people choose to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.

  • As you consider Kohlberg’s Stages for Moral Development, where would you place yourself?  Why do you find yourself doing what is right?  
  • What insight do you gain from thinking about Morality having Stages of Development?  Why is this significant to you?

Next up, in Part 3: How we Form and Inform our Conscience–and how does that impact our sense of Moral Responsibility.

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