A short reflection on “following your conscience”

In Veritatis Splendor, the pope reaffirms the traditional Catholic teaching on objective morals and conscience place in the moral life as a “conversation with God” where conscience is the “proximate norm of personal morality” but eternal and divine law is the “universal and objective norm of morality.” (VS 60)


The pope quotes an earlier encyclical, saying that


“Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behavior.” (VS 58)


In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II properly lays out the Thomistic and Catholic understanding of conscience and its authority, along with the duties of developing it.  St. Thomas has a lengthy treatise on this (Disputed Question on Truth), and affirms that, although it is never permissible to go against one’s conscience, it in no way guarantees that one is doing what is objectively right.  In fact, if one does what happens to be objectively right, but against his own conscience, he is sinful.Likewise, one’s doing what his conscience tells him is not a guarantee that what he does is right, and does not necessarily remove culpability merely because he acted in conformity with conscience.


We see, then, that our conscience does not create license to :be true to thine own self” as many today would put forth, but rather to be true to God’s eternal law:


“The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions.” (VS 61)


It was Cardinal Newman who said “conscience has rights because it has obligations.” “Be true thine own self” isn’t worth a flip if your “self” isn’t properly formed. Most people use that second phrase as a pretext to do whatever they feel like and have no actual intent of it being “right.”

“Men have a right to do what it is right for them to do.” Rights mean obligations. Everyone wants their rights; I never see people complain about not being allowed to fulfill their obligations. This is our current crisis!

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