Does an erroneous conscience excuse us?

This post continues the consideration of the binding force of authority, in particular of conscience.

1. It seems that an erroneous conscience always excuses. For what is proposed by an erroneous, is judged as good to do or good to avoid doing. Now a good will is a will that tends to its proper object, the good. Therefore the will that tends to the presented good by choosing what is judged to be good or rejecting what is judged to be evil, is a good will. Thus erroneous conscience excuses a will of evil in following that conscience.

2. Further, if an erroneous conscience sometimes does not excuse, then, since a man is always obliged to follow his conscience, a man would be compelled to do evil, either by following his conscience and thereby doing (unexcused) evil, or by violating his conscience. But the culpability of sin presupposes the possibility of acting otherwise, as St. Augustine says “No one sins in that which he cannot avoid.” (Retract., I, 9 / PL 32:596; cf. De libero arbitrio, III, 18 / PL 32:1295) Therefore erring conscience must always excuse.

On the contrary stands the authority of the psalmist, when he prays for the forgiveness of “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12), and of St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

The Catechism also teaches, that when conscience errs due to error, one must distinguish whether the ignorance is his fault. “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility…. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits…. If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” (CCC 1791, 1793). Therefore an erroneous conscience excuses sometimes, but not always.

I respond that to ask whether error of conscience excuses from evil, is to ask whether the evil of what is done according to conscience is to be attributed to the one who, in acting according to his mistaken conscience, does something objectively bad. For example, a doctor may believe himself obligated by his profession and duty, or in conscience, to assist a woman in ending an unwanted pregnancy, and may do so even in a situation that, objectively, means killing an innocent person, which is contrary to natural and divine law. Is he guilty, before God, of murder?

The general principle applicable to such cases is that everything connected with a human act, whether good or evil, is to be attributed to the will just to the extent that such circumstances or characteristics of the act are voluntary, either directly, or at least indirectly. Thus, if a cook, having taking usual and reasonable precautions, serves up strawberries and cream, not knowing that the strawberries are contaminated with salmonella, poisoning the guests is not be attributed to the cook’s will, he is not to be morally blamed for the incident. But if a food distributor simply ignores reports of food poisoning, paying no attention to them at all, the resulting food poisoning from lots of contaminated food would truly and fairly be attributed to him. Although not directly willed or intended, it is a result of the voluntary ignorance, and in this sense from his will.

The same distinction may be applied to the ignorance or error of conscience, when someone’s conscience tells him he must do something, which actually is bad, though he does not know that. He does not directly will to do evil, but rather to do the good which he perceives in what he does. So the badness of what he does is not directly voluntary, as willed by him. Yet it may be indirectly voluntary, if his ignorance of the badness is voluntary, if, say, he at some time knew that he should consider the morality of the situation more carefully, but refused to do so, for reasons of public opinion, his career, or the like.

Even if the cause of the ignorance or error be general or remote, in the measure that a man is liable for that cause, by voluntary action or negligence, he is liable for the resulting error and the disordered action proceeding from it.

To illustrate this, we might compare man, with manifold interests and responsibilities, desires, and knowledge, to a company with many workers that, produces and maintains complex equipment, say aircraft for example. To save on the number of employees needed, the bosses might be pressured to have workers who double check calculations work faster; if it can be foreseen that this hurry will lead to a number of mistakes over time, and it should be predictable with some degree of probability that this would lead to the failure of jet engines, which then happens, a resulting airline crash and deaths could be attributed to the company.

Similarly, a boss, having once adopted an abusive pattern of behavior he saw in others, if he downplays and dismisses any concerns raised about the way he treats the workers under him as merely motivated by envy or a political ideology such as “wokeness”, he might become so convinced that this is a normal human way to treat employees, that he doesn’t have any doubt about it, and has a secure conscience. This ignorance, inasmuch as it arises from a voluntary, blameworthy neglect to form his views and attitudes in a balanced and authentically human manner, would be indirectly voluntary, and therefore his behavior would be morally blameworthy, despite experiencing no guilt in acting this way.

Or if a man sees to it that he is surrounded by flatters who praise him for his cleverness when he takes advantage of loopholes in the law to cheat others and enrich himself, and, as a result, ends up with a sincere opinion that “as long as it’s legal, it’s ok,” he is guilty of this error and of his resulting unjust practices, even though his conscience not accuse him on this point.

The same distinction applies when ignorance causes a judgment of conscience that something is evil that is actually good.

A man might consider it evil to believe in Christ as the Church proposes Him for belief, not due to his own fault, but because, without fault (or significant fault) of his own, he is convinced that Christ is a myth or a false prophet or that Christianity, at least as proposed by the Church, is harmful and destructive of human happiness. In such a case, he would not sin by refraining from belief in Christ, according to his erring conscience, since his error is not his fault. He would, on the other hand, sin if he were to believe in Christ contrary to his conscience.

A man, might, on the other hand, consider it bad to believe in Christ because, having over time given himself ever more to the pursuit of power, pleasure or fame, he has adopted the view and now believes without question that a religion which preaches self-denial, humility, and the giving of one’s life, is demeaning and wrong. This disbelief, resulting from sin so as to be indirectly voluntary with respect to what is bad about it, is therefore morally blameworthy.

These principles and distinctions can be helpful for examining our own conscience. They further manifest how we can defend and uphold natural and divine law without presuming to pass judgment on the guilt or lack therefore of others before God. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;” (Romans 14:10) Since God alone knows the hearts of men, he alone can judge (surely and definitively) to what degree ignorance and error is voluntary. “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jer 17:10)

This suffices for the reply to the first objection; the one following an erroneous conscious is not blameworthy for clinging to the good as perceived, but for, through his own fault, believing something evil to be good or something good to be an evil, and therefore actually tending to evil.

To the second objection we reply, it is true that no one sins in that which he cannot avoid, and when a man is not able to avoid having an erroneous conscience, he is not blameworthy for following it. But when it is someone’s own fault that his conscience is in error, he is rightly blamed for the disordered action he does in following his conscience. The dichotomy “following his conscience (thus doing evil), or violating his conscience (thus being evil)” is indeed a false dichotomy. For since man is by nature ordered to the truth and desires the truth, conscience will never absolutely forbid a man from reconsidering his moral situation and correcting his conscience. Thus he is able to avoid all sin by correcting his conscience, and then following his corrected conscience.

We may be confident that God, who wills all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), always enables a man to remedy a voluntary error of this sort. But on the supposition, that a man’s conscience were so darkened through voluntary fault, that he was absolutely unable to correct his conscience, the disordered deeds he would perform in following his conscience would not be, morally speaking, additional sins, but merely the necessary fruit of his previous sins.

We note, further, that though involuntary ignorance excuses a man of moral fault, he does not free a man from the consequences of disordered behavior. That which contravenes natural and human goods remains harmful, even if, without personal fault, someone is genuinely convinced that this behavior is not harmful.

Does an erroneous conscience oblige us

This post continues the series on the authority of conscience.

It seems that an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to act in accordance with our conscience.

1. For the obligatory force of conscience is derived from the necessity of pursuing a good or avoiding an evil that conscience judges as something necessary to be chosen or avoided. But when conscience is in error, that which is judged to be an indispensable good or to be evil is not actually such. Therefore, an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to choose or avoid it.

2. Again, an erroneous conscience may be in contradiction to a higher law, such as the divine law. But a lower rule of our behavior, as conscience, cannot overrule a higher rule such as the divine law. Rather, when two rules conflict, we are obliged to follow the higher one. Therefore erroneous conscience at least does not always bind.

But against this stands the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states that “every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” (ST I-II, q. 19, a. 5) Therefore even an erring conscious obliges the will to follow it.

Further, the Church assembled in Council of Vatican II teaches, “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.” (Dignitatis humanae 3). The Catechism similarly states: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC 1790)

I respond that, as stated previously, conscience is a judgment by which constraints, or rules for action in relation to the attainment of happiness are known as applicable to specific concrete actions. Conscience always proposes something as a rule for a concrete action, which is to be done or avoided; for example, “I must complete this work assignment, as I have promised to”, or “I must not receive Holy Communion, because sacramental confession is necessary before every Holy Communion, and I have not been to confession since my last Holy Communion” Whether the rule or the application therefore is objectively correct, by conscience we hold something as a rule for a concrete action. And, given that conscience is erring, the discrepancy between the “objective” truth of the matter and the judgment of conscious is unknown. Otherwise conscious would not be erring, but still deliberating or doubtful.

Since we can and mustchoose the good and choose to avoid evil inasmuch as it is known to us, we are therefore obliged by conscience, even when this conscience is mistaken.

It is worth noting, however, that the feelings that correspond to conscience may sometimes counterfeit conscience, producing quasi-judgments about what we should do. For example, an emotionally and physically abused spouse might feel guilt at the thought of separating from an abusive spouse, and, corresponding to this guilt, the thought “I can’t do that!” They might continue to have such feelings and thoughts, even have careful, prayerful discernment that has lead to a prudent decision to separate, for their good and the good of the children.

We are not, in principle, bound by these feelings and thoughts, and especially not when they are in contradiction to the true judgment of conscience, which is not a feeling or impression, but a judgment of our mind according to the truth as best we are able to know it.

The response to the first is apparent from this. When a man has an erring conscience, he is not obliged to follow that conscience in virtue of the objective good or evil in the action in question, but in virtue of the good or evil which he believes to be in it. Thus, if a man believes that chewing the consecrated host when receiving Holy Communion is wicked, he is obliged to avoid choosing to do that, not because it is objectively a bad thing to do, but because his will relates to it in the way that he understands it, as a bad thing to do.

To the second we may reply that a higher rule can override the obligation of a lower rule only when the two rules can be separated from each other. For example, if a bishop orders that a priest remain in pastoral duty in his diocese rather than transfer to another diocese or pursue contemplative life, the pope could overrule this ruling of the bishop. But if the higher rule is only applied through the mediation of the lower rule, the higher rule cannot nullify the lower rule. If, for example, the priest could only knew the decision of the pope through the bishop’s order, he would be obliged to what the bishop claimed the pope had decided, whether the bishop was telling the truth or not. But morally binding laws are applied to specific acts through the judgment of conscience, and therefore we are bound to follow conscience, though it at times be objectively mistaken.

The authority of conscience: does conscience oblige us?

Having examined the nature of conscience, we continue to consider the obligation following from it. And first, whether conscience obliges us?

And it seems that it does not, because

1. No one is bound except by some authority superior to himself. But one’s conscience is not superior to oneself. Therefore one is not bound by conscience.

2. The same authority that can oblige a man, can also free him from obligation. But conscience cannot free a man from obligation, therefore it cannot oblige him.

3. Conscience recognizes not merely obligatory goods and evils that one must avoid, but also that which is better, yet not obligatory. For example, it might in some case be just to demand the return of a debt while being better to forgive it. But a man is not obliged to that which is better. Therefore he is not obliged by conscience as such.

4. No one is obliged to the impossible. But sometimes conscience urges to contradictories, and therefore to the impossible. For example, if someone unwittingly caused a fire that led to horrible loss of human life and pain, another person might be urged by conscience to lie about some circumstances in order to spare that person from distress over what he did, while still in conscience perceiving the lie as a moral evil. Or a military office might feel himself obliged to destroy a plane with innocent hostages that is being used as a missile and would kill far more people if not destroyed, yet perceive the destruction of the plane as murder. Or the leaders of a state might, to deter nuclear attack, intend nuclear retaliation if attacked with nuclear weapons, thus being ready in principle to actually carry through with a retaliation that kills many innocent people in order that the present threat of retaliation be credible.

Against this is the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC 1790)

I respond: to impose an obligation on a moral or free agent means to make that to which he is obliged necessary, not in the sense that he is absolutely unable to do anything else, but in the sense that his freedom is constrained, so that he may not do anything else, if he is to attain his end.

Some such constraints are given by nature and are known to man as natural law, while others are imposed by positive divine decree and known through revelation, accepted in faith.

These constraints have a basis in reality itself. For example, since life and the ability to performs acts of life is a presupposition for living well, or happiness, preserving one’s life and capacity for living activities is necessary for happiness. (Or, in a case of conflict, preserving the life of others, whom one loves as oneself.) Since man’s perfection is found above all in knowing and loving, pursuing truth and truth, for example, is necessary for happiness.

Yet the way that these constraints, or precepts of natural law or positive divine law, constrict the will in its freedom, is by being known by man, and known in their application to his potential action, as constraining or prohibiting him from performing certain actions, or requiring him to perform certain actions, if he is to attain his end.

But the knowledge of the constraints on actions in relation to the attainment of happiness, or morally obligatory precepts, as applied to action, is nothing other than conscience. Therefore conscience obliges the will.

Ad 1. To the first argument against this position, it should be noted that though conscience is not superior to oneself, it is the recognition of an order superior to himself, whether the order of nature or of the divine truth. And so one can be bound by conscience, which sets one in relation to a superior order that is not at one’s own disposal.

Ad 2. To the second we respond that in the sense we are considering here, of moral obligation, conscience does indeed free a man from obligation to a duty of which he is not aware, unless his limited or erroneous conscience results from his fault, and he could and should have known of an objective law or precept obliging him.

Ad 3. To the third we respond that conscience obliges according to the nature of conscience’s judgment. Where conscience recognizes a necessary good or an evil that must be unconditionally avoided, it obliges absolutely. Where the judgment is of a good, but not a necessary good, it obliges one to respect that good as a good, and not treat it as an evil, but does not absolutely oblige to that good.

Ad 4. To the fourth we respond that when a man seems urged in conscience to contradictories, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, presupposes an incomplete or erroneous conscience. By “incomplete” I mean that some link in the moral connection between the ultimate end is missing or does not have unconditional force. In the first example, “causing or allowing distress” is not absolutely incompatible with the order to man’s complete good. If the principle “distressing people is bad” is taken as a principle only applicable for the most part, and therefore producing a merely provisional judgment about what the man should do, this judgment, since it is not final or definitive, is not properly conscience, yet in common parlance may be termed “doubtful” conscience. Conscience in this incomplete sense is, in and of it itself, not binding, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, and with respect to conscience of this kind we grant the argument that conscience which urges equally to contradictories is not binding. We shall however consider the question of doubtful conscience in greater detail later.

If the general notion “distressing people is bad” is taken as a principle for an absolute judgment that this “must” not be done, this judgment of conscious is erroneous, being based on a false supposition. As also in speculative matters two arguments, at least one of which proceeds from false premises, may lead to contradictory conclusions, so also a judgment of conscience, proceeding from a false premise, may contradict another judgment of conscience considering the action and circumstances from a different perspective. Now an erroneous conscience does bind, as we will explain in the next article. Consequently, if a man were to be immovably stuck in an error, such that he believed that "doing this deed now" and "not doing this deed" now are both absolutely wrong, he would be so bound as to be unable to perform any action morally, as also a man can for physical or emotional reasons be restrained from performing any moral action. However, in general a man can correct his conscience, if in no other way, then at least by considering the fact that the contradiction of the two contrary conclusions “I must unconditionally do this now”, and “I must unconditionally not do this now”, necessarily implies an error in at least one of the trains of thought. Having drawn this conclusion, he will now have an incomplete or doubtful conscience, and what was just said above will apply.

A similar account applies to the other two examples.

What is conscience?

In the current series of posts I am taking up the question of the morally binding force of authorities. Since conscience mediates the morally binding force of other authorities, before continuing to the question of external and legal authority, we should consider conscience in more detail. This consideration will take the form of a disputed question.

1. Is conscience a judgment of reason?

2. Does conscience oblige us?

3. Does an erroneous conscience oblige us?

4. Does an erroneous conscience excuse us?

5. Does a doubtful conscience oblige us?

It seems that conscience is not a judgment of reason, but rather

a feeling

1. Conscience seems rather to pertain to affective movements than to reason. For we speak of the pangs or remorse of conscience, which is a kind of sorrow, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that contrition is a stirring of conscience. (CCC 1453) But remorse and contrition are affective movements, of will rather than of reason. Therefore conscience pertains to will rather than to reason.

2. Again, to say that someone has a guilty conscience seems to mean the same as saying that he feels guilty about it. Therefore conscience is a matter of feeling rather than judgment.

or a faculty within us

3. Further, it seems to be a part of us rather than an act, such as judgment. For according to the Letter to the Hebrews, The blood of Christ shall “purify our conscience from dead works.” (Heb 9:14) But dead works, or sins, are present in a subject. Therefore conscience is a power or part of the soul, rather than an act of judgment. The same thing is implied by the Catechism, which says that “The principles of the moral law… are written in the conscience of every man” (CCC 1860)

4. Again, conscience judges us about what we have done. But a judge is one who sets down a judgment, rather than being the judgment itself. Therefore conscience is not a judgment, but a faculty of judging.

or a voice outside us

5. Further, granting that conscience in some way pertains to reason, it seems to be external to us rather than within us. For conscience speaks to us, telling us what is right and wrong. Therefore conscience is not our own judgment, but the voice of another in us.

6. If it is said that this voice is actually our own voice to ourselves, as we also encourage ourselves and tell ourselves to do various things, the Catechism seems to exclude this account, when it says that “when he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777)

or a directive given to our mind, which we may or may not accept

7. Again, granting that conscience is a judgment of reason, since it is said to manifest the moral law or even God himself to us (CCC 33, 46, 1706, 1776, 1778), it seems not to be a conclusion, but rather a principle of reason.

8. Further, a man sometimes acts contrary to his conscience. But every voluntary action presupposes a judgment that such action is good. Therefore conscience is not the human judgment about what is to be done.

But against these positions, St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as the application of knowledge to some action, (ST I q. 79, a. 13) but knowledge is applied to a thing by an act of reason. Therefore conscience is an act of reason.

Again, according to the Catechism, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (CCC 1778)

I respond: to clarify this question and resolve the difficulties and doubts concerning it, we must consider the manner in which we act humanly and introspectively know ourselves as actors.

All properly human action, in contrast with involuntary actions and reactions such as blinking, jerking away after touching a hot pan, and the like, presupposes deliberation or a judgment about the action.

When we deliberate, we may begin either from our end or from a set of immediately available options. For example, I might reflect on the fact that I desire to be happy, or to be united with God, or to do God’s will, and continue on to consider how I may attain attain this end, what are possible or perhaps necessary ways and means to this end. For example, I might do (continue doing) active ministry, or I might become a hermit or monk. I may, on the other hand, consider a more or less limited set of options for immediate action, when someone proposes, for example, “we’re having a party tonight, would you like to come?”, or I consider, “shall I eat a sandwich or a salad for lunch?” where my consideration begins with concrete particular possibilities.

Various potential goals, apprehended by a judgment of the intellect, “knowledge is good (for me) and part of happiness; health is good; freedom from coercion is good” may provoke a desire, a wish or longing for them. Such desire may in turn be recognized and expressed in words (with the power of reason): “I would like to understand God, myself and the world better; I would like to be (to remain) healthy”.

Similarly the possibilities with the consequences and circumstances they entail can be apprehended by intellect: “if I go to the party I can eat tasty food; I can meet and talk to so-and-so; I will have pleasure in the food, music and company and enjoy myself.” Some of these things may arouse my desire for them and consequently incline me to go to the party. I may recognize my desire as such and express it in words such as: “I would like to go to the party and enjoy it.”

Action is properly and fully human only when these two chains of reasoning are linked up, or one the chain starting on one end is completed on the other end. That is, when I refer a concrete chosen behavior at least implicitly to an ultimate end, which I intend “for it’s own sake”, not because it would desirable for the sake of something else.

I need not, of course, always make every step in this chain explicit. Assuming I have previously made a reasonable decision “pursuing my studies or writing is at the current period of my life a major component of a happy and holy life”, and this evening is needed for studies or preparation for work, I might merely consider “going to the party excludes studying, but I still need to study this evening.” Granting that I can reasonably presume, at least implicitly, that there is not a particularly special importance to the party, which might overrule some of my general decisions and considerations, this general consideration suffices to make a reasonable and prudent choice “not to go to the party,” but rather to study, as usual. In virtue of a previous general choice of a way of life, in which academics are an important part, the choice to study on this evening is already implicitly ordered to the further goal of a happy and holy life, even without explicitly averting to it.

What kind of relationship can particular objects of desire have to the last end (happiness as that which fulfills all human desire)?

A. I may recognize something as containing all that I desire in itself: God.

B. Some things may be like parts of that end, inasmuch as I take joy or pleasure in them in themselves: knowledge of the truth, or the unfettered use of my various human faculties, physical and mental, which I may experience in play, study or work, conversation, friendship, or contemplation. I seek these not merely as “means”, as I might take a slightly bitter pill to remedy a headache, but as ends, desirable as such. Nonetheless none of them are complete happiness, so I further want to enjoy these goods as parts of a whole happy existence and life.

C. Other things may be means to those parts of happiness or to happiness altogether, which are desirable only because they lead to something else.

Of these parts of happiness (B) and of means to happiness or its parts (C), there are three types. (1) Some actions are compatible with complete happiness and further the attainment of it, e.g., the enjoyment of a meal that upholds our health. Of these, some are necessary for happiness, e.g., preserving one’s life and seeking truth, while others are optional but not necessary for happiness, e.g., eating sweets or wine. (2) Other things are opposed to complete happiness, as they detract from significant parts of happiness, yet are compatible with a life directed towards complete happiness, e.g., the enjoyment of a tasty but definitely unhealthy meal or drinking a bit too much wine, when the value of the taste and enjoyment and any other circumstances in favor of that meal do not “justify” eating that meal or drinking so much. (3) Still other things are altogether incompatible with a life directed towards complete happiness, such as (apart from extraordinary circumstances) eating a meal that will kill us, because we are, say, deathly allergic to it.

The assessment, or judgment, of these types of acts can be expressed as (1) “I may enjoy this meal” or “I should eat to nourish myself”, or (2) “I should not eat this junk food” or “I should not drink that much”, or (3) “I must not eat those peanut bars”. In christian language, these three types of acts are good acts, venial sins and mortal sins.

We make similar judgments about ourselves in relation to previously performed actions or non-actions. “I should not have eaten so much”, “I should have studied more.”

Such judgment, by which we direct ourselves to or from a future action with a view to our ultimate end, or judge ourselves in relation to a current or past action, is conscience in its original sense.

However, because, especially on the basis of our emotions, we are readily inclined to set aside or ignore this judgment of conscience, nature has equipped us with particularly strong feelings that support the judgment of conscience: pride in the thought of acting according to our judgment or shame in the thought of acting against it, pride and self-admiration after having acted according to it or shame and remorse after having acted against it.

Since the human way of knowing proceeds from what is perceived by sense to what is known by intellect, that which is closer to sensation normally makes a more fervent impression on us than what is more intellectual. Consequently these feelings, designed to be subsequent upon conscience and to support it against those things that could distract us from paying attention to conscience, sometimes take on the name of conscience, as the effect and what manifests is named from that which it manifests. This occurs especially in regard to its negative judgment, when one speaks about having a guilty conscience, since the feeling of shame is particularly felt.

Again, the habits and customs by which conscience is formed so as to be effective and objectively correct, sometimes receive the name conscience, as a cause is named from the effect.

In summary, conscience names principally the judgment by which we assess or judge an action or behavior (including “not acting” inasmuch as that is voluntary) in relationship to our final end, but can also refer to the feelings naturally consequent upon such an assessment, or to the habitual character that enable us to form correct judgments of conscience.

Ad 1 and 2. To this the response to the first and second objection is evident. To the first it may, however, also be said that in the express “pangs of conscience”, the “of” signifies precisely that this mental pain proceeds from conscious as from its cause, and similarly, contrition is a stirring of conscience, in that it is stirred up or caused by conscience.

Ad 3. To the third it may be said that conscience is cleansed from dead works, not as through those works were in it as in a subject, but inasmuch as an earlier conscience or judgment of the guilt of past works, is followed by conscience or judgment of the guilt forgiven through Christ. And the principles of the moral law are said to be written in the conscience, in the sense in which conscience names the principles of judgment.

Ad 4. To the fourth we should say that properly speaking, conscience is the very judgment about what we have done. However, inasmuch a judgment already formed about an action, or the subsequent feeling of guilt, manifests the truth of what we have done despite any desire we might have to ignore it, this judgment stands to us now as a judge of our action.

Ad 5. A similar response can be made to the fifth objection, which proceeds from the experience of conscience as a voice or interlocutor. While the judgment of conscience is finally the judgment of our own reason, it is able to enter into further considerations as though it were independent of us, as indeed it may be independent of a separate train of thought. We have this experience especially when the judgment of conscience is so evident as not to demand any deliberation and proceeds directly from a universal consideration. For example, I might be thinking about playing an elaborate prank on someone and taking pleasure in the idea of it. Then I realize that the prank would involve a direct lie about a serious matter, and therefore should not be done. Since the two trains of thought (having fun, wrongness of lying) are opposed, I may even mentally put the two arguments together in the form of a dialog “it would be fun”, “but you shouldn’t lie! Playing the prank would be lying, therefore you shouldn’t play the prank!” so as to form the final judgment about playing the prank “I shouldn’t play the prank.”

Ad 6. To the sixth objection, that in conscience God speaks to us, we respond that every created truth is a participation in and flows from divine truth. So every true practical and moral judgment such as conscience derives from the divine and natural law, by which we are ordered to our end, know our end, and recognize fundamental principles on how to attain that end, of which the most fundamental is “do good and avoid evil.” Inasmuch as it corresponds to the truth about us and our actions, conscience, a judgment or declaration about what we should do, manifests to us the divine mind, which knows the truth of our actions more perfectly than we do, but which we do not know directly. Thus, in our own prudent judgment about our action, or conscience, we recognize God’s understanding of it. In this sense we may take conscience as a mode of God speaking to us.

Ad 7. To the seventh objection, that conscience manifests the moral law to us, we might reply that this language in the Catechism may come from Cardinal Newman, who appears indeed to see conscious more as an innate, independent source of knowledge than as the judgment applying universal knowledge to particular situations, and that, following Thomas Aquinas, conscience presupposes knowledge of the moral law (synderesis) rather than manifesting it.

We might better respond, however, that we come to know universals through particulars, and consequently, though the judgment of conscience always presupposes a certain knowledge of what is good and bad, this moral knowledge may be clarified and discerned more perfectly through reflection on the judgment of conscience in a multitude of cases.

Ad 8. To the eight objection we note that it may sometimes happen that conscience is mistaken and subsequently corrected. For example, a person sick with the flu might believe he is obliged to get up and attend Mass on Sunday, on the grounds that Sunday attendance is obligatory. Upon further reflection, or after discussion with a trustworthy person, he may come to the judgment that he should not attend, as he would risk his own health and/or risk infecting other persons. In this case, a first judgment of conscience commanding or forbidding an action is set aside, and another judgment formed, and a man acts according to the second judgment.

It however also happens that man, without a change of conscience, performs an act contrary to his conscience. Thus someone may be aware of the grave obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but, having had a disagreement with the pastor or another parishioner, does not want to see that person. In this case, the one ultimate judgment of the act “I must do this to be obedient to the Church and (so) fulfill God’s will” he ignores, and proceeds from another judgment “I would be uncomfortable seeing that person” to the choice “I shall not go to Mass, but remain home, to avoid seeing that person”. This judgment finding goodness in staying home does not relate it to the ultimate end, and therefore does not constitute conscience.

Thus, we grant that the eighth objection indeed proves that conscience is not just any human judgment about what is to be done, but hold conscience to be a particular kind of judgment about what is to be done, namely one relating it to the last end, as for example compatible with, necessary for, or incompatible with that end.

Obligation to follow moral Authority

Why is anyone obliged to obey an authority?

To “oblige” someone means to compel him as a free and moral agent, to do something, i.e., to compel his will in the sense of making doing anything else, or refraining from doing what is obligatory, shall entail a disorder of the will. “Hoc est obligare, scilicet astringere voluntatem, ut non possit sine deformitatis nocumento in aliud tendere.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., d. 39, q. 3, a. 3) The will retains the power to choose something else, but to do so would be bad.

The authority of conscience and the truth

So, for example, the interior judgment of conscience obliges the will, when a person judges doing something to be a good of such a sort, that not doing it is bad. (In II Sent., d. 39, q. 3, a. 3; Summa Theologiae (ST) I-II, 19:5). And that is true even if their judgment is, objectively, incorrect. The person is not, however, obliged by their judgment itself, as though their fundamental obligation were to follow their own judgment, but by the good, which he by that judgment holds to be an indispensable good. (In II Sent. d. 39, q. 3, a. 3 ad 3; ST I-II, 19:5 ad 1).

The most interior authority one is obliged to obey is therefore one’s conscience, while the ultimate authority is the ultimate truth about the good that we naturally love and seek.

External authorities

Why is anyone obliged by any other authority, besides the dictate of his conscience and the truth about the good?

We may be obliged to follow an authority because we need specific guidance in order to attain the good, so that our guide is an authority for us, which we are obliged to follow. For example, if I have been stricken with the plague, and desire (and perhaps am obliged) to regain my health, I may be obliged to submit myself to medical authority and follow its prescriptions. And this obligation holds, regardless of whether the "medical authority" is realized in a doctor whom I trust implicitly, or exists in a diffuse manner in medical practitioners and scientists taken as a group and comes to me through their general consensus.

Moral authority

This type of authority is often termed moral authority, rooted in the truth held and taught by the authority in question, whether that truth be medical, physical, philosophical or religious. For the Catholic, the Fathers, doctors and saints are authorities.

As our obligation to respect moral authority is not rooted in a specific responsibility for us on the part of such authority to determine the good we ought to seek, but in the truth of the good itself together with their capacity to communicate that truth, we are not bound by obedience, but by prudence to respect and sometimes to follow moral authorities.

If I need to repair my car, and my next-door neighbor, an expert mechanic who has a great deal of experience with repairing exactly that kind of car, examines it and tells me what I need to do, it is in all probability foolhardy to reject the recommendation in favor of the first Youtube video I find of someone who kind of sounds like he knows what is talking about.

In the majority of cases, moral authorities are not absolutely binding on us, and we are morally free not to follow them, though we might be imprudent to scorn them altogether.

Moral authority in the Church

Within in the Church, the Fathers, the doctors and the saints are moral authorities, as are the tradition and custom of the Church in the measure that they are treated by the Church as a kind of common law. “The custom (consuetudo) of the Church has very great authority and ought to be jealously observed in all things” (ST II-II, q. 10, a. 12)

In the measure that a given authority infallibly (e.g., Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as modes in which God speaks to us) teaches something we are obliged to know or accept, its moral authority is absolutely binding, at least in principle. In practice, we may have difficulty in discerning what is infallibly taught by that which we accept as a bearer of revealed truth. (See ST II-II q. 11, a. 2 ad 3, where St. Thomas explains why not every error about matters of revealed truth is a heresy.) Catholics accept the authority of the Church in interpreting Scripture, and the authority of the pope in defining and articulating the teaching of the Church, but none of these authorities can be received by us unconditionally without any discernment on our part. We might have misunderstood what Scripture is saying or what the Church taught, or a given ecclesial or papal teaching might not adequately represent and expound the divine revelation to which it has the vocation and responsibility to witness, but in some manner distort it. (Though a look at church history supports this last claim, the claim may have been fairly controversial a few years ago in some Catholic circles, but I believe the experience of Pope Francis’s papacy has largely changed that; the point may however still not be adequately accounted for in the Church’s own account of the obedience due to the Magisterium, see Donum veritatis 24, which explicitly only allows theologians to withhold assent to particular magisterial interventions that appear to them to be wrong or harmful).