Sometimes doubts, uncertainty, and fears enter our heads, and we don’t know what to do. Forming our conscience responsibly includes developing the virtue of prudence, the habit of properly exercising the conscience, knowing when we can trust its formation, and the need to act on its judgments. A prudent conscience is like well-exercised muscles that help us play a sport well. Prudence grows by regularly listening to God’s voice in the conscience; to hear his gentle voice we need moments of silence to pray and meditate, especially on God’s Holy Word.
We have a lax conscience when we act on the impulse of convenience and desire without first forming our conscience or letting it consider how our actions will impact our relationship with God and others. A boy’s stomach may move him to dig into his sister’s birthday cake before she can blow out the candles. A well-formed conscience would direct the boy to wait and enjoy the cake in thanksgiving for the life of his sister instead of hurting his relationship with his sister and others.
A scrupulous conscience does the opposite, letting doubt paralyze him, dreading every decision as a potential mortal sin deserving eternal punishment. Often this is rooted in self-conscious pride, trusting in one’s goodness and not in God’s mercy. The scrupulous person often finds himself trapped in legalistic rules that are impossible to fulfill. A well-formed spiritual guide or confessor can teach such a person to give himself responsibly with the full freedom of love in the service of God and others.
Sometimes we have a childlike doubt and our conscience cannot decide whether an act is objectively good or bad. If the decision is important, then we need to get the formation to resolve the doubt or seek advice from someone with reliable formation. Often we can do this during confession, asking the priest to help us resolve our moral dilemma. We can also get clarity by reading God’s Word, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its Compendium, or some other good moral guide. In resolving doubt, some rules always apply:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- The Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others whatever you wish others do unto you.’
- Charity always respects one’s neighbor and his conscience: “By sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience… you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12). So, don’t do anything that makes your brother stumble (see CCC 1789).
Also recommended is a daily examination of conscience with frequent confession. For those seeking holiness—all of us should—the Church recommends spiritual direction with a well-formed layman or priest. This gives us an opportunity to consult our doubts and help us discern God’s will, coaching us in how to sanctify our particular circumstances by doing them for love. Yet we can never surrender our personal responsibility for the formation of our conscience and for the decisions we make, as St. Josemaría reminds us:
The advice of another Christian and especially a priests’ advice, in questions of faith or morals, is a powerful help for knowing what God wants of us in our particular circumstances. Advice, however, does not eliminate personal responsibility. In the end, it is we ourselves, each one of us on our own, who have to decide for ourselves and personally to account to God for our decisions.
Over and above any private advice stands Gods law, which is contained in sacred Scripture, guarded and taught by the Magisterium of the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. When a particular piece of advice contradicts God’s word as taught by the Magisterium, we have to reject it decisively. God will give His grace to those who act with an upright intention. He will inspire them as to what to do and, when necessary, He will enable them to find a priest who knows how to lead their souls along pure and right paths even though at times they may be difficult ones (Conversations, 93).