(Conscience) can mean (a) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (b) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are. In sense (a) conscience is always to be followed. It is the sovereign of the universe, which ‘if it had power as it has right, would absolutely rule the world.’ It is not to be argued with, but obeyed, and even to question it is to incur guilt. But in sense (b) it is a very different matter. People may be mistaken about wrong and right; most people in some degree are mistaken. By what means are mistakes in this field to be corrected?
The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis
That last question is very important. As he rightly says, we are all mistaken to some degree about what is right and what is wrong. As fallen and sinful creatures we can and often do misunderstand or misinterpret the truths that would establish for us what is right and what is wrong. Surely most (all?) of us have encountered a situation in which something we thought for sure was true turned out to be false. If someone tells us this has never happened to them then we can only assume one of three things about them: a) they are perfect and know the good and act on it perfectly – but this is only true of God and perhaps could be said of the good angels that serve Him; b) they are lying to us; c) they are delusional. Basically, if someone (except God Himself) thinks they are right about everything – that they have the ultimate source of knowledge for what is good and evil – then they should not be trusted. To say it another way, we all need to be willing to admit that we make mistakes in our understanding about what is right and what is wrong. If this is not your understanding of yourself then you can stop reading now.
And now that it is just the mere mortals of sound mind left, let us ask the question again: how do we correct our conscience when it is mistaken? And this really requires another question to be answered: how can we even know when our conscience is wrong? First of all, we need to be humble, acknowledge our shortcomings, realize that we do not ‘know it all’, and always be on the search for the Truth; because truth brings knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. This truth can come to us in different ways: first through intuition. Most people understand that it is not right to just walk up to someone on the street and shoot them in the face. Our basic moral intuition tells us that. On the other hand, many people today would not apply that same understanding to the unborn. Instead, they have been brainwashed by a political and social system that is constantly screaming about a woman’s ‘right’ to reproductive choice. The result is, that according to many people’s conscience, the unborn child, who is really no different from the innocent person walking down the street, does not deserve the same protection. This is obviously an instance of someone’s conscience (and here we are talking about a large group of people) being seriously distorted.
There is another way, though, that we can know our conscience is wrong and that is from authority. An example would be when parents help their children understand that a certain behavior is wrong. And here I am not talking about the parent who simply says, “Stop doing that!” Instead, I am speaking of the parents who take the time to help their children understand why a certain behavior is wrong. The same can be said of the priest in the confessional when he causes you to think to yourself, “Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way before, but he is right.” And of course the ultimate example would be Authority of Christ Himself, who speaks to us through Scripture and also speaks to us through His Church. Truly, it is with Authority that the Chruch teaches us what is right and what is wrong.
And yet, how many so-called Catholics use the excuse “My conscience says it is ok” to vote for pro-abortion politicians, to use contraception, to skip Mass on Sunday, etc. Of course the main problem here is that these people think that if their conscience says it is ok then there is nothing else to consider. But, they are missing the crucial step that is needed to rightly follow your conscience and that is to make sure you have a properly formed conscience. And this formation comes primarily from authority.
Whether we know it or not, everyone’s conscience if formed in large part from authority. What makes the difference between pro-life and pro-abortion Catholics, for instance, is which authority their consciences have been formed by. Those who believe in abortion have been formed by the ‘authority’ of the secular worldview. They have been formed by the opinions of the supposed experts that surround them in the media, movies, music and books. On the other hand, those who are pro-life have formed their conscience in accordance with Authority of the Church, which is nothing less that the teaching of Christ that has been handed down to us throughout the centuries.