Formation of Conscience
Is it part of Christian vocabulary?
As part my course in theology, one of the compulsory courses is the course on moral theology. And my professor was generous enough to have one full session (2 hours) on the importance of conscience, and formation of conscience.
If you are a person with a Christian religious background (I don’t have any expertise to speak about other backgrounds), you can just check how many times you have heard this interesting word in connection to our morals or choosing between right/wrong etc. You would surely have heard words like sin, charity, doing good, Laws, commandments, mortal sin, venial sin etc. Along with this, if you have heard sufficiently about conscience, then it’s wonderful. And if you have heard of the formation of conscience, and is trained (may not be with diplomas and degrees) to take the decision based on a formed conscience, it is wonderful and much liberating.
One of the first critique that can arise is, conscience of people can be relative. They can be used to justify any wrong doing. Definitely there might be some weight to that critique; but any conscience (and a Christian conscience too) is not formed in isolation. It is formed in relation to his society, the morals and cultures of families, religions, studies, ways of thinking, friendships, experiences etc. In the development of moral conscience, we can speak of three dimensions.
1. The first dimension is that all human beings have a certain characteristic to do good. (Whether everybody agree to this is an interesting question; but we don’t get into that question).
2. The second stage is called formation of conscience, where we learn the processes to apply the general characteristic principles to our particular situations. Here, there are processes of learning, informing, examining, transforming etc. This stage is never over; we have to constantly form and reform our consciences. Atleast I personally feel that the perfection is not the perfect following of laws, but application of the general laws (with a lot of love, compassion and justice) to all our extremely diverse situations.
3. The third stage is the stage of application or judgement stage, where we choose between the right and the wrong.
The tradition of Church always spoke about the important role of conscience, which may or not be emphasized (or even taught) at all times. I can give innumerable references, starting from Paul through Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Moore, Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. But that could be given for anyone doubting it. But I will put three quotes to see the importance of conscience in the tradition.
They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Rom 2, 15).
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, 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. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (Gaudium et Spes 16, a document of the last Council in the Church).
We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia; this is specially said to the church leaders).
Thus, a spiritual guide/mentor or a any person in the responsible authority in the church is never called to make decisions for another person. They surely are called to help in the formation of conscience, that everybody can take the decisions in their life. This is most just too, as the complexities of the life situation can only be understood by that person. All our decisions won’t be right and there is always hope for improvement and growth. We can’t make the argument that it is better that some people (authorities of some kind) make decisions for others as the decision making of the person is not perfect too. Definitely that of authorities is not perfect too. But beyond each one’s life is their responsibility and it helps each one to accept the responsibility of their decisions and actions.
Two added benefits are that,
- All will be living their vocations to become mature human-beings and Christians
- I might be slow in judging a decision by another (which may not be the best according to my sensibilities)
Christian morality has exactly the same aim as non-Christian morality, namely happiness. But the Christian moralist is certain that the quest for happiness is aided by the recognition of God, the God of Jesus Christ. (I conclude with this statement of French moral theologian Xavier Thevenot SDB. People of other faiths and traditions will have their own foundations as Christians have of Jesus Christ).