Conscience: The Truth Shall Set You Free

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, stirring them to action. He doesn’t come by some momentary action but continues to manifest himself in our hearts in various ways. One of those ways is his work in our conscience, moving us to choose good and avoid evil.

Conscience is a wonderful gift whereby the Holy Spirit reveals to us what is right and wrong in the secret of our hearts. As St. Paul tells us:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they… show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when… God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Romans 2:14-16).

God gives us a conscience to discern the truth of what is good or bad, what is right or wrong. As Christ tells us: “If you continue in my word… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). This knowledge gives us the freedom to make good choices.

Our Personal Moral Guide We all have a sense of moral conscience, of the voice of the Holy Spirit telling us that we have done right or wrong, or that we should do or should not do something. But what is the conscience? It is the faculty that judges the truth or falsity of something, judging how a past, present, or future action is right or wrong, by how it impacts our relationship with God and others. We read in the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

What is the moral conscience? Moral conscience, present in the heart of the person, is a judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins him to do good and to avoid evil. Thanks to moral conscience, the human person perceives the moral quality of an act to be done or which has already been done, permitting him to assume responsibility for the act. When attentive to moral conscience, the prudent person can hear the voice of God who speaks to him or her (CCCC 372).

The conscience doesn’t create moral laws but bears witness to the truth of those laws and judges how they apply to “particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil” (CCC 1778). This is why the Catechism says that:

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 (CCC 1776, quoting Gaudium et Spes 16).

The conscience discovers God’s call to enter a loving relationship with him and with others. It discovers how our actions affect those relationships, either as a loving response that affirms and deepens — or a selfish response that denies and rejects—those relationships.

As we go through life—from our experience or from the formation we receive from our parents, church, school, and in society—our conscience acquires knowledge to judge our actions’ goodness or evilness. True knowledge is essential for the freedom needed to live in the truth. If we just live by our feelings—by “if it feels good, do it”—then our feelings will control and manipulate us—there is no freedom in manipulation. If we listen to our conscience and let it direct our feelings and emotions toward the good, it will tell us how a particular action will hurt or deepen our relationship with God and with others. Only then will we be free to choose the good and reject the bad; only then will we be free to love.

Father John Waiss is the pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a member of Opus Dei, the prelature founded by St. Josemaria Escriva.