True Conscience

Letter from the District Superior, Rev. Robert Brucciani, November 2022

See therefore, brethren, how you walk circumspectly: not as unwise, But as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore become not unwise, but understanding what is the will of God. (Eph 5:15-17)

My dear faithful,

Understand the will of God

What is the will of God? The will of God is expressed by His law, the Eternal Law, which, for moral actions, is divided into Natural Law and the Divine Positive Law.

Natural law is the law of moral behaviour that will lead man to a certain natural perfection. Divine Positive Law is the law revealed by God to lead man to his supernatural perfection in heaven.

We arrive at a knowledge of Natural Law by common experience and by education. We know almost instinctively, for example, that to steal, or to lie, or to be ungrateful are morally wrong; we also know that to pray to God, or to honour father and mother, or to give to the needy are all morally good. The philosophers give a name to the virtue of knowing the first principles of moral behaviour: synderesis. We also learn the law by knowing the catechism, and by further study of moral theology.

The Divine Positive Law is contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition and is taught to us by the Catholic Church. It comprises the laws that govern the supernatural life such as the law of the sacraments. It is also acquired by study of the catechism and moral theology.

Walk circumspectly

St. Paul says, "See therefore, brethren, how you walk circumspectly," which means "see to it that you act according to God's will." So, how do we do this?

In the course of every single day, we judge the rightness and wrongness of dozens of possible actions. We do not have time to look up God's law in weighty tomes of moral theology; instead, we refer to our conscience.

What is conscience?

Most people think that conscience is a feeling: a feeling of righteousness on the accomplishment of a morally good act, or a feeling of guilt following a sinful act.

A few might say that conscience is a perception, a moral sense which takes information from our senses to arrive at a moral evaluation of an act.

Some think it is a special faculty or power by which we judge the morality of an act. Indeed, the way we talk about conscience would indicate this: "follow your conscience," or "let your conscience decide," or "what does your conscience tell you?" We speak of conscience as if it was a power alongside the intellect and the will.

The truth is, however, it is not a special faculty, neither is it a feeling or a perception. It is the moral judgement of an act. It is an act of the intellect; a judgement of the goodness or evil of an act—whether it corresponds to, or goes against, the rule of law, which is God's will.

This judgement is often made by common sense or habit. With common sense we apply the natural law to a particular action. By habit, just as we instantaneously know the answer to 2 x 2 without doing the maths, we can instantly know the rightness or wrongness of an act because we have done the reasoning many times before.

What about feelings?

What of the feelings of righteousness or guilt that most take to be conscience?

Acts in accordance with, or against, one's conscience (judgement) are often accompanied by a passion (emotion) as nature's way of assisting us in the act of doing the right thing or shunning the wrong thing. Just as love is most often accompanied by affection, and hatred is often accompanied by revulsion, so a feeling of either righteousness or guilt often accompanies a moral act.

The emotions of righteousness or guilt, however, do not necessarily manifest themselves or perhaps do not correspond to the act of conscience. We sometimes feel guilty when we know we have done nothing wrong (e.g. when falsely accused of a crime), and we sometimes do not feel guilty when we know we have actually done wrong (eg. in the case of psychopaths, or those used to evil).

So, while emotions might be helpful in making us follow the judgement which is conscience, we should not follow them as an infallible rule.

Should we always follow our conscience?

That being said, should we always follow our conscience? The answer to this question depends on what type of conscience.

Broadly, our conscience may be true (correct) or false (erroneous).

— We should always follow a true conscience because it is the immediate, subjective law of behaviour. It is the correct moral judgement of the act.

— As to an erroneous conscience

◦ If our error is due to invincible ignorance of the law, the facts, or how to apply the law, then conscience should be followed for with invincible ignorance we are unaware of our ignorance.

◦ If our error is due to a vincible ignorance of the law or its application, then a moral duty exists to enlighten ourselves before acting if conditions permit.

◦ If our error is due to a habitual misapplication of the law, we must submit our conscience to the judgement of another—usually a confessor.

In summary, we are bound to follow a true conscience and an invincibly ignorant conscience, but not an otherwise erroneous conscience.

A bad conscience

Finally, what we call a bad conscience is a judgement which rejects correct moral principles in an attempt to justify sinful behaviour. In reality, it is not conscience at all, but self-deception. The will intervenes to bend the judgement in a desired direction. Examples are legion such as those who champion lifestyles which are against nature, and those who claim to be Catholic and yet deny the infallible teaching of the Church.

Our mission

May God forbid that we should fall in this way. Our mission, dear faithful, is to educate our consciences so that they be true consciences, by which we might walk circumspectly, redeeming the time. Remember that God's Laws lead us to Him; and far from constricting us, they really do set us free.

I enjoin you to pray for the Holy Souls during November, that they too may be set free. Also, embrace the season of Advent that you may prepare peacefully for Christmas.

With my blessing.

In Jesu et Maria,

Rev. Robert Brucciani

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