“Follow your conscience” is a sound moral precept. However, this phrase must be understood in its proper context. Remember that the conscience is the capacity of the intellect to judge here and now a situation, to apply knowledge of what is good and true to that situation, and then to direct the will to do what is good and to avoid what is evil. Not only is conscience prospective in that it looks at what is to be done, it is also reflective in that it looks back and assesses what has been done.
The key to a conscience “operating” properly is its formation. Conscience is not something that operates in a vacuum and determines on its own what is right and wrong. Rather, conscience applies the truth– God’s universal, absolute truth. We call this truth law. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth stated, “Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered” (#11). Classically, we identify the primary source of God’s law as the eternal law: “the supreme rule of life is the divine law itself, the eternal objective and universal law by which God out of His wisdom and love arranges, directs and governs the whole world and the path of the human community” (Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Liberty, #3).
This “supreme rule of life” is illuminated in both the natural law and the divine positive law. Natural law is not a biological or physical law. Instead, the natural law can be known through reason. As a person contemplates his bodily and spiritual nature, of what it means to be a good person, or how society ought to be structured, he can discern the divine plan. This natural law expresses the purposes, rights, and duties of an individual. For example, the absolute respect for the sanctity of human life arises from the dignity proper to the individual that any rational person can discern through reason, not simply through a natural drive or instinct to preserve one’s life. Since God is the creator of all things, this contemplation and discernment truly reflects the eternal law of God.
On the other hand, divine positive law refers to those truths expressed directly by God. Take for example the 10 Commandments: These are not suggestions, but commandments of God which bind us to obedience. We would find other laws or principles revealed in sacred scripture, such as again the sanctity of human life, of marriage, and of sexuality. Interestingly, when we think about this for a moment, one could derive the 10 Commandments through the use of reason even if Moses had never received them: It is reasonable and proper for human dignity not to steal, commit adultery, and so on. Therefore, the natural law and divine positive law support one another and enable us to live according to the eternal law of God.
The Church’s Magisterium preserves these laws and gives further guidance to particular moral issues. In our world, we are confronted by very complicated moral situations, such as euthanasia, bioethics, and modern warfare. These issues are not specifically addressed in Sacred Scripture, and the average person could find it very difficult to discern a right course of action on his own, no matter how good his reasoning abilities. The Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of Truth” (John 15:17) whom Jesus said, “will instruct you in everything” (John 15:26), renders binding moral guidance so that the Catholic faithful can live authentic Christian lives in accord with the eternal law of God.
In this understanding of law and truth, albeit very brief, we find a God who has revealed how we ought to live as one made in His image and likeness, as one redeemed by Christ, and as a baptized member of the Church. The duty of conscience is to learn these “laws” of God and integrate them into our lives. Vatican II asserted, “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this and shun that.’ For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #16).
Therefore, “follow one’s conscience” properly understood means forming our conscience according to God’s law and then living life as God wants it to be lived. When our conscience reflects back on our actions and we find that we have violated God’s laws– we have sinned– we ought to be moved with contrition to seek forgiveness. St. Bonaventure said, “Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; 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.”
Unfortunately in our world, many people do think that “follow one’s conscience” means to do whatever “I” think is best as some isolated, autonomous, human being. I then become the standard of truth. They think God’s commandments and the Church’s teachings may be nice guidelines but are not binding. How wrong! Remember Jesus said, “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17), and “You will live in my love if you keep my commandments” (John 15:10). St. John emphasized, “The man who claims, ‘I have known him,’ without keeping his commandments is a liar; in such a one there is no truth.” Conscience does not establish the law, but conforms to and applies God’s law to actions.
Moreover, some equate a correctly formed conscience with sincerity. I remember once overhearing a couple of my college students arguing over the notion of premarital sex. One said that it was wrong because the Bible said so and because such people did not take full responsibility for the love and life involved in the action. The other said, “What is right for you may not be right for me. Your values are yours, and mine our mine. What I decide is right.” Wrong! I could not help but enter into the conversation. I said, “If you follow that principle and make morality relative, I could say, ‘I believe that black people are inferior and there should be segregation.’ [The relativist student happened to be African American.] Then I could get enough votes and make it law. Would that be right?” I had him stumped. Of course it would not be right because it violates the eternal law of God. This is why apartheid was wrong no matter how many Afrikaners sincerely believed it was right. A sincere conscience is an erroneous one if it does not reflect the law of God.
Yes, we follow our conscience, but only a properly formed conscience. We struggle with God’s law. Sometimes we may not fully understand the teachings of the Church especially in our modern moral situation when we are bombarded with the counter gospel. Nevertheless, in faith we submit our wills and say, “I believe. I will follow.” Rather than just “going off” and doing whatever may seem popular, easy, and pleasing, we put aside pride and in love follow Christ. The grace of our Lord will strengthen us and the Holy Spirit will bring us to understanding one day. Only then can we say we are living with dignity and in the freedom of children of God.