`Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil...'Gaudium et Spes (64). This opening quote from the Second Vatican Council is a good place to start in attempting to explore the complex subject of conscience. It indicates that conscience is something that can be known, based on love and is not just an individual personal thing. Conscience and having a soul are two of the distinguishing features of our humanity that set us apart from other species. Every religious code believes in a higher power and a morality that can be known or deduced by human reason. We are free rational agents capable of making decisions. How we act has consequences. In this essay, I will attempt to define what conscience is. I will then show how it evolves in a human, taking into account some psychological observations. The role of God in conscience is the most important one for Christians. How do we form our conscience in the light of God's teaching though his Son Jesus Christ? Finally, I will examine the Catholic Church's teaching on conscience.
What is conscience?
Conscience is defined in the dictionary as: "the ideas and feelings within a person, they tell one, when one is not doing right and warn one of what is wrong." We hear much about conscience: `the voice of conscience', `the rights of conscience', `informing conscience' and `following conscience'. Everyone is aware that they possess a conscience, but when asked to describe it, most people do not know how. They think of it as a feeling, mainly in terms of guilt, having done wrong, they express it in terms of: `my conscience is bothering me' or `I have a guilty conscience.' Sometimes it is expressed in terms of joy: `the joy of a good or clear conscience'. It is not so much that we have a conscience, as that we are a conscience. When we describe conscience in others, we may say that they have a sensitive conscience, that they are aware of the moral issues around them. Others a lax conscience or a dulled conscience, in that, no matter what decisions or choices may face them, they just forge ahead, justifying everything in terms of materialism or secularism. A modern way of thinking about moral choice is `if it feels okay for me then it is okay.' Others have a scrupulous conscience, in that any moral issues that face them, they are unable to deal with it due to some underlying anxiety, which causes them to feel immense guilt. Guilt can be healthy, but only if it is appropriate. There is also the psychological notion of conscience which is termed the superego, a person who spends all their lives struggling with the `have-tos' and `should' in terms of authority. Each person is born with the makings of a conscience; we are born with a capacity for thinking and feeling. This in its due course is `educated', or `informed' and allows us to distinguish...