There has been much discussion of ‘conscience’ over the last many months. What is conscience? Does everyone have a conscience? Why must one follow it? Is it infallible?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes St. Paul’s use of ‘conscience’ in his letter to the Romans: Moral conscience judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil (Romans 2:14-16).
Conscience is a faculty of the mind that judges whether an action is good or evil. It is not infallible in itself – only God and His Church are infallible. If the conscience is to judge correctly as to the goodness of an action, it must be formed by the infallible Source – God and His Bride, the Catholic Church which He founded. One can choose to avoid or ignore the teachings of Jesus and His Church. He is still culpable. For example, one cannot say that he knows the Church’s teaching on honesty, but chooses to live dishonestly because his conscience tells him it is okay. He is guilty of sin.
Since a well-formed conscience guides one correctly on the goodness of actions, one must always follow his conscience. To not do so, is to sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1782 states, Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”