In our rapidly changing world, we need to take time to make decisions. Sometimes the world moves so fast that we try to make our decisions just as fast. Some decisions do not require much thought. For instance, the choice of what to make for dinner is not a deep moral decision.
On the other hand the decision of how to spend our life (ex. career choice) is a much more significant decision. In fact, it is a decision that is not over once we make a choice. When we decide what to have for dinner the decision is done and, whether we enjoy it or not, once we have eaten the meal the decision cannot be changed. Once we eaten the meal, the decision does not have a lasting impact.
But when we make a career choice decision, the effects of that decision remain with us forever. Furthermore, we might change our minds. Even though we can change our minds, the decision is important and should be made thoughtfully through prayer and discernment.
We face many decisions in a lifetime, some was little consequence and others with profound consequences. Here we are concerned with moral decisions. Moral decisions are not just about killing and stealing. Any decision that decides how we treat other people and ourselves is a moral decision.
When we make moral decisions, we exercise our conscience. I recently read a book on conscience by Rev. Thomas D. Williams entitled Knowing Right From Wrong. His book is a wonderful discussion on what conscience is and how we use it.
To act "in conscience" is not just to do what feels good. To act "in conscience" requires us to think about what we are doing. We do not define good and bad. Only God defines what is good (Williams, 11, cf. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 314). In using our conscience, we are called to take what God has offered in scripture and through the teachings of the church and decide how it applies to our particular situation.
Williams writes "Conscience provides more than a pragmatic calculus of costs and benefits, pointing to the most successful outcome. In fact, it often impels us to do things that apparently promise only woe. It judges not the efficiency of our actions, but their moral quality, their "goodness" or "badness" (4). Using our conscience is not a mathematical exercise in probabilities and statistics. It is an exercise in moral thought.
Our conscience is not perfect. Therefore, our conscience, as we know it, is not God speaking directly to us and us following God's plan exactly. If it were, we would never make bad choices.
Then how should be view our conscience? Williams introduces the analogy of a coach and a referee. "If we conceive of the Christian moral life essentially as rule-keeping, logically we will associate conscience with the referee. He enforces the rules. If we think of the Christian life in terms of the object of the game, our conscience becomes more like a coach. The coach focuses on the object of the game: scoring points" (22). In terms of moral choices, scoring points is done by doing good.
In order to do good we need a "well-formed conscience." Some say ignorance is bliss. The church says that if we truly do not know something is wrong, God does not hold us responsible for doing that wrong (See Question #376 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). HOWEVER, we are responsible to do our best to know what is right and wrong so we can be held responsible for not knowing what is right and wrong.
To have a "well-formed conscience" one must work to know right from wrong. This is not limited to childhood religion classes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task" (paragraph 1784). The Catechism goes on to present the reading of scripture, prayer, the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the witness of others, and the teaching of the Church all as essential elements of a well-formed conscience (paragraph 1785).
Ultimately, the Catechism quotes Gaudium et Spes (paragraph 16) when it states "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, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths." (1776).
We cannot discover this law within us by acting on impulse. Rather we must take time to listen to our minds and our hearts. We must pay attention to our feelings.
Williams compares the roles of guilt and pain. He describes pain as "an indicator that something is amiss and needs attention" (69). When we feel pain, our body is telling us to act. When we feel guilty our heart is telling us that we have done something wrong and that we need to stop and/or change the behavior. Therefore, when we feel guilty, we need to examine our conscience to know what we did wrong.
In chapter 9 (106ff), Williams discusses the psychological theory that every decision we make is completely dictated by our previous experiences. This really oversimplifies who we are. First of all, it makes us nothing more than a machine, completely predictable. It removes all responsibility for if our current decisions are based on our past experiences, how can we be held responsible for that which we did not create? The problem is that this also removes our personhood. If we are machines, making decisions that are completely quantifiable, then we lack the free will that God has given us and makes us who we are.
Machines make yes and no decisions. For machines the world is black and white. There is no middle ground. While this can have its blessings in its clarity, it is not the reality of the world. Decisions are not so clearly made. For instance, a decision about medical treatment is not as simple as to treat or not. How effective will the treatment be? What are the risks? While effectiveness of treatment and the risks are often presented by the doctor as here is what will happen (or what we hope will happen) each person can respond differently. For instance, the decision to perform surgery on a healthy twenty year old to remove a failing appendix is readily decided to go ahead with the surgery. The same surgery on a ninety-five year old with major heart problems is not so easily decided.
May we put in the effort to have a well-formed conscience and take the time necessary to make important decision using our conscience in a spirit of prayer and discernment.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1997. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/.
Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. USCCB. 2005. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html.
Williams, Thomas D. Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience. New York: Faith Words. 2008.
USSCB, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006.
"Paul looked intently at the Sanhedrin and said, "My brothers, I have conducted myself with a perfectly clear conscience before God to this day."" Acts 23:1
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith