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Date: 2003
New Catholic Encyclopedia
From: New Catholic Encyclopedia(Vol. 4. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 9
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This article deals with conscience (1) in its general concept; (2) in its treatment in the Bible; and (3) in its theological analysis.


The treatment of conscience is difficult insofar as it presupposes a certain form of self-experience, without which access, in the strict sense, to the phenomenon itself, as it expresses itself in various ways, is not possible. Yet, in general, the experience mentioned can be analyzed with some precision, since the bonds and relations that give concreteness and possibility to human existence and life are of such a nature that men consider themselves responsible, i.e., they must give an accounting for what they think and do. Therefore, the knowledge of a prescribed order is presupposed, and toward this man adopts a positive or negative attitude. Since this knowledge, on the basis of mythical, personal, and universal experience, does not need to be regarded as reflective in origin, the phenomenon of conscience can be present without a formally defined sphere, i.e., without a name being assigned to it. In such cases, formal analysis of human conduct is required, and especially an analysis of guilt conscience, in order to establish the nature of conscience in the given instance.

University of the Phenomenon. Actually, no culture has yet been found in which conscience is not recognized as a fact, or—in the present age—as at least a problem. Generally among early peoples, expressions such as "heart" and "loins" appear instead of the word conscience, but they are used to indicate the innermost nature of man. An ancient Egyptian text reads: "The heart is an excellent witness," and one must not transgress against its words; "he must stand in fear of departing from its guidance." The divine world order is often employed for conscience; among the Hindus, e.g., it is regarded as "the invisible God who dwells within us." The world order can be represented, as in classical antiquity, also in individual figures, who, reflecting moral awareness of the order that has been impaired or destroyed, are interpreted as the avenging powers employed by the highest divinity (for example, the Erinyes or Eumenides, Furies, and Nemesis).

Formal Recognition of Conscience. In the light of the establishment of the phenomenon of conscience as a presupposed knowledge in respect to the meaning and truth of God, the world, and man, but not yet based on reflection, conscience as "reflective knowledge" must make its appearance by name as soon as the universal validity of knowledge without reflection is questioned. This happened in ancient Greece in the age of the Sophists, when an opposition of φύσις and νόμος (nature and law) was stressed, and when Socrates spoke of his indwelling δαίμονιον (divine monitor). Conscience then received a name, συνείδησις (the scholastic synderesis), a term signifying self-consciousness in its role of making moral judgments. It became the substance and sphere of knowledge in respect to human action, the spiritual-ethical world order, and the existentially experienced correlation of both, either as agreement or difference. Conscience is shared knowledge, referring clearly to the whole, to which man as a morally acting individual (choice of the good) knows that he is responsible, and in a concrete way.

Since feeling and will play a significant role in the application of conscience to human action, conscience is more affirmative than consciousness and abstract knowledge. There can and must be a good and bad conscience, one that is active not only after the deed but also before and during it, because in this kind of knowledge man as a whole, i.e., as an ethical being, is continuously present. Seneca expresses this thought when he speaks of a holyPage 140  |  Top of Article spirit dwelling in man, "an observer and watcher of good and evil in us" (Epist. 41.1).

Christianity, naturally, not only took up the question of conscience, but also developed the concept further and defined it more precisely in both theory and practice by its teaching on the virtues. As the numerous manuals of moral theology indicate, it has continued its task along the same lines.

Conscience in Modern Thought. In the process of secularization that characterizes modern times, conscience has received a special position, since the nature and image of man has been affected in a special way. Kant still thought of conscience, although understood as autonomous, as the "consciousness of an interior court of justice in man" FICHTE, as the immediate consciousness of definite human duties, the "oracle of the eternal World." But EMPIRICISM gave it a psychological interpretation, and Darwin and his school evaluated it from the viewpoint of evolution. H. SPENCER, the sociological school of DURKHEIM, and the English Functionalist School all derived it from sociological conditions and needs. F. NIETZSCHE saw in conscience a mark of the degeneration of civilization and created the idea of a superman without a conscience. S. FREUD regarded conscience as the suppression of the libido. Finally, MATERIALISM considered that its deeper meaning was to be sought in its role as a factor in the general process of evolution.

This devaluation of conscience was opposed in the 19th century in part by the romantics, but especially by J. H. NEWMAN and S. Kierkegaard. It is owing to the latter in particular that conscience came to be understood as a phenomenon sui generis. As a consequence, philosophy in the 20th century has been concerned with giving justice to the phenomenon of conscience. For M. SCHELER, conscience means not only the capability of moral evaluation but also at the same time serves as a functional guide for action. For N. HARTMANN, it is the "basic form of primary value consciousness." M. Heidegger sees in it the "call of care" that keeps existence from the impersonal "Man," in that it waits for the "voice of being." K. Jaspers understands by conscience that voice speaking to man "which is man himself." The role of conscience in depth psychology was discovered especially by C. G. JUNG and J. A. Caruso.

Significance of Conscience. As the locus of freedom and the intersecting point of mental experiences, conscience has significance not only for philosophy and theology but also for the practical conduct of life, and therefore for the formation of man in the personal and public sphere. Its importance is all the greater, since in conscience the unity of man with himself and with mankind is procured, his personal nature guaranteed, and responsibility for himself, his fellow men, and civilization in general is established. Conscience, which always points to ultimate unity of theory and practice in the ethicoreligious fulfillment of life, can, it is true, be viewed from the concrete situation of action as purely autonomous; but, when viewed from the total nature of existence, it must be understood as heteronomous. If the image-concept of man is assumed, there are found united in conscience both the constitution of its image from the beginning and its independence from its content to its innermost connection. Conscience, therefore, really does not emerge at a given stage, but is already always present in plastic form. Objective heteronomous world order and value order, as regards conscience, are therefore completely compatible with its ultimate—and in this sense autonomous—competence respecting a concrete situation. Conscience, so understood, is the place where man becomes himself, since here the invisible God becomes present for him. Therefore it is proper to the true nature of conscience, with constant effort and submissively, to align itself on what confronts it as claim from the nature of man and his history—for example, the requirement of faith.

Bibliography: J. STELZENBERGER, "Gewissen," H. FRIES, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 1962–63) 1:519–528. E. WOLF, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. J. HOFER and K. RAHNER, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:1550–57, with copious bibliography. H. HÄFNER, ibid. 4:864–867, with bibliography. J. H. HYSLOP et al., J. HASTINGS, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 4:30–47, older bibliography. R. EISLER, Wörterbuch der philsophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1927–30) 1:555–559, with bibliography. G. ERMECKE and J. P. MICHAEL, Staatslexikon, ed. GÖRRESGESELLSCHAFT, 8 v. (6th, new and enlarged ed. Freiburg 1957–63) 3:496–951, with bibliography. J. H. BREASTED, The Dawn of Conscience (New York 1934). L. BRUNSCHVICG, Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale, 2 v. (2d ed. Paris 1953). M. HOLLENBACH, Sein und Gewissen (Baden 1954). H. KUHN, Begegnung mit dem Sein (Tübingen 1954). H. HÄFNER, Schulderleben und Gewissen (Stuttgart 1956). H. J. SCHOLLER, Die Freiheit des Gewissens (Berlin 1958).



The concept of conscience as a kind of other self, a critical voice within one assessing the morality of a concrete situation, finds its clearest Biblical expression in St. Paul. Neither the Old Testament nor the other books of the New Testament treat the subject in any detail.

In the Old Testament and Judaism. Indeed, there is only one certain mention of the word conscience (συνείδησις) in the entire Old Testament (Wis 17.11), and that in a book much influenced by Hellenistic ideas. The word and all the nuances it suggests are more typical of a Greek than of a Hebrew mode of thought. But howeverPage 141  |  Top of Article theocentric, unreflective, and lacking in introspection the Israelites might have been, they were not unaware of that universal human phenomenon, the experiencing of peace when one has done good or of remorse when one has done evil. Perhaps nowhere else in world literature is remorse of conscience so superbly described as in the recounting of the reaction of Adam and Eve to their disobeying God (Gn 3.7–11).

In the intertestamental period and in the rabbinical literature there are some indications of a developing theory of conscience. But the general tenor of Jewish thought was that of an excessive emphasis on the external act. The paramount importance of one's internal motivation was increasingly neglected. As a result, cultic and ethical activity tended to become increasingly formalistic and to be judged solely on the basis of their external conformity with the Law and its traditional interpretation.

In the New Testament. The Gospels nowhere employ any specific term for conscience, but their spirit is essentially different from that of the rabbinical writings. This spirit lays emphasis, not on the external action, but on the heart, the interior disposition from which it proceeds (Mt 15.7–20; Lk 11.39–42). It insists on the need for purity of intention and bolsters that insistence with a repeated reminder of the omniscience of the transcendent God (Mt 6.1, 4, 6, 18, 33). It is that spirit that animates the Pauline commentary on the Christian conscience.

The Apostle does not offer a systematic treatment of his teaching on the Christian conscience, nor is the word συνείδησις one of his favorite expressions. But he is the first New Testament writer to employ it. And whenever the word is found in the New Testament with the meaning of "conscience" each such use occurs either in a Pauline letter or in a New Testament writing influenced by St. Paul. From his usage of the term the following observations may be made. What the Law is for the Jews, conscience is for the pagans (Rom 2.14–16, a passage that, together with Rom 14.12, may be said to contain the classic Christian understanding of the functioning of conscience with regard to past actions, for pagans and Christians alike). Paul can assert that his own conscience testifies to his having the purity of intention insisted upon in the Gospels (2 Cor 1.12).

In his advice to the Corinthians and the Romans Paul enunciates some of the cardinal principles pertinent to the Christian conscience in its role as regulator of one's moral activity. Whoever acts against his conscience commits sin (Rom 14.23). The conscience is the proximate, subjective norm of moral action; even when it is erroneous, it must be followed (Rom 14.14, 23). Love of God and neighbor must be the supreme regulating principle of Christian conduct and may at times require one to forego the otherwise legitimate exercise of his Christian freedom (1 Cor 8.1, 3, 9, 11–13; 10.24, 28–29; Rom 14.15, 20–21).

The Biblical doctrine on conscience is obviously not the fully developed Christian understanding of the nature and function of conscience, but the Pauline exposition of what that conscience is and of how it ought to function in the various problems he was called upon to solve is a faithful development of an outline furnished by Jesus Himself.

Bibliography: E. SCHICK, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. J. HOFER and K RAHNER, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 4:859–861. E. WOLF, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 2:1550–52. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by L. HARTMAN (New York 1963), from A. VAN DEN BORN, Bijbels Woordenboek 412–415. C. A. PIERCE, Conscience in the New Testament (London 1955).



Perhaps nowhere more than in the theological and philosophical problem of the nature and structure of moral conscience is greater diversity of opinion or greater confusion of thought to be found. In modern times philosophers and theologians as well as religious writers all proclaim in one form or another the absolute supremacy of conscience in the moral life. This they do under the immediate influence of I. KANT, who identified conscience with good will or good intention (see Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 1) and in any event completely subjectivized the notion and the reality, separating it in fact from the influence and guiding power of reason and reducing it to a kind of irrational imperative instinct (see The Metaphysics of Morals 2.12B), and under the more remote but nonetheless profound influence of NOMINAL ISM. As a term and concept and as a reality conscience has pertained not only to the field of theoretical and philosophical analysis but also, and perhaps even primarily, to the sphere of folklore or popular wisdom. When an attempt is made to define conscience strictly, its dignity, absolute binding force, and freedom are taken for granted and conscience itself is reduced to a sort of blind instinct that easily becomes the subjective cover for moral cowardice and for innumerable crimes committed in the name of that noble thing called moral conscience or even in the name of Christian conscience.

It is commonly maintained that conscience is the subjective individual consciousness of that which is objectively good or evil, right or wrong; it is the reaction of the human ego vis-à-vis its moral behavior, and as such it is the emotionally conditioned knowledge of the worth or worthlessness of that behavior. Conscience, then, has been reduced to (or, in the minds of some moralists,Page 142  |  Top of Article elevated to) being that faculty by which one is able to judge the goodness or sinfulness of one's actions, by which one is able to determine whether such or such an action is gravely or lightly sinful, and, as a consequence, by which one is able to determine whether any given action in any given circumstances is or is not permitted by the law. An extreme form of this absolutizing of conscience made its appearance in the middle of the 17th century in the atheistic movement begun by a student of Protestant theology, Matthias Knutsen, founder of the socalled conscientarii.

In this unwarranted restriction of the function of conscience to determining between the sinfulness or righteousness of one's actions, between their lawfulness or unlawfulness, conscience itself has been emptied of its true nobility and greatness. From being truly the voice of God for an individual and the real guarantee that his life is anchored in God and in the law of Christ, or, as the Germans so pithily put it, of the Gottund Christusbezogenheit, of one's life, it becomes the jealous guardian of one's own petty subjective whims and fancies. Such was not St. Paul's conception of conscience or the notion of conscience found either in Scripture or in the teaching of the early Church Fathers; such was not the idea of conscience held in honor universally among theologians right up to the 17th century and still defended and propounded by a small minority.

C. A. Pierce in his splendid study of conscience in the New Testament, having pointed out the complex structure of conscience and the various subjective elements (both noetical and emotional) that go to make it up or are presupposed to it, remarks judiciously that to erect any one of these elements into an infallible criterion of right or wrong is "woefully to mislead and in any case utterly to distort the conception of the New Testament" (125–126). Most unfortunately, this is what has happened both in Catholic and in non-Catholic theology since the 17th century. It would be true to say that Catholic moral theology has been more profoundly affected by this distortion of the true notion of conscience than corresponding non-Catholic teaching. There were ever non-Catholic theologians to react against this state of affairs, as witness the great Caroline theologians in England (Robert Sanderson and others). Catholic theologians introduced the new conception into moral theology and then fore-stalled all criticism of it by distinguishing moral theology from ascetical and mystical teaching, thereby unwittingly severing moral theology from its roots and reducing it, too, to a mere shadow of its former noble self.

However, neither this transformation in the notion of conscience nor the true traditional meaning of the term conscience in Christian theology can be properly grasped except by examining the origin of the term and concept and by tracing its development in the history of both profane and Christian thought. The distorted notion of conscience has become so ingrained in common thought that there is danger of reading into the term as used in ancient times (in both sacred and profane literature) the meaning that it has come to have today. Hence the importance of considering the history of the notion of conscience if one wishes to arrive at a proper understanding of it and of its many forms. Any attempt to define or explain and analyze conscience a priori, is, from the nature of the case, doomed to failure.

History of the Term. St. Paul may be rightly considered the author or originator of a systematic teaching, either philosophical or theological, on conscience. He introduced the term and the idea into Christian moral teaching, taking it over from the popular (probably Stoic) philosophy of his time and giving it a new and fuller meaning that it retained up to the 17th century, in spite of many contrary tendencies.

Greek. The term conscience or, better, its Greek correspondent συνείδησις, of which it is the direct translation, is first found in a fragment of Democritus of Abdera toward the middle of the 5th century B.C. It is there used in the specifically moral sense of consciousness of evil life or behavior (συνείδησις τ[symbol omitted]ς κακοπραγμοσύνης) as distinct from the mere psychological sense of consciousness of the fact of doing or having done something, mere consciousness of self, and as distinct from the nonmoral consciousness of the hardships of life (see H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz 2:206–207). This is the first-known meaning of the Greek term, and though not the only one, it remained the predominant one up to the period of the New Testament. It was a popular term used in the language of the people to express a very simple idea and a very simple fact of daily experience, namely, the sure knowledge that all men have within and with themselves (hence συνείδησις, con-scientia) of the moral quality of their actions and in a special way (precisely because more easily discerned) of the moral quality of their evil actions. However, one does not find, nor should one expect to find, a fully developed notion, worked out in a philosophical or religious context. Such elaborations came much later and very gradually. It should be noted, however, that conscience in the fragment of Democritus was what later became known as a consequent evil conscience, that is, a consciousness of evil action already performed. The explicit notion of either good or antecedent conscience is of much later origin.

Latin. In Latin literature conscientia occurs quite frequently in pre-Christian times, and the notion is muchPage 143  |  Top of Article more developed than in corresponding Greek literature. The concept of both antecedent conscience and good conscience as the cause of interior peace and joy is found quite commonly in the writings of the Stoics, especially in the works of Cicero and Seneca. Cicero declared that the consciousness of a life well spent and the remembrance of numerous deeds well done (note that the conscientia bene actae vitae and the multorum benefactorum recordatio are here obviously identified) is the cause of the greatest joy (iucundissima est—De Senectute 3.9). Elsewhere he clearly brings out both the antecedent and the religious character of conscience. "On the deeds of evil-doers there usually follow first of all suspicion, next gossip and rumour, then the accuser and the judge. Many wrong-doers have even turned evidence against themselves…. And even should any think themselves wellfenced and fortified against detection by their fellow-men (contra hominum conscientiam), they still dread the eye of the gods (deorum [conscientiam] horrent) and are convinced that the pangs of anxiety night and day gnawing at their hearts are sent by the gods to punish them" (De finibus bonorum et malorum 1.16). An impressive exhortation addressed by Seneca to his young friend Lucilius brings out in a most striking manner the notion of antecedent and consequent conscience, the notion of good and evil conscience, and finally the notion of conscience as the voice of God within man: "You are doing an excellent and salutary thing if, as you write to me, you strive perseveringly to attain to that health of mind and outlook (ad bonam mentem) which it is foolish to desire or wish for, seeing that you can acquire it by your own efforts. It is not a matter of raising hands to heaven nor of beseeching some temple-keeper to give us access to the sanctuary as if in that way we would be more easily heard: God is near you, he is with you, he is within. Thus do I say, Lucilius: a sacred and august spirit resides within us and takes stock of our good and evil actions and is the guardian or avenger of our deeds (sacer intra nos spiritus sedet, malorum bonorumque nostrorum observator et custos). Just as he is treated by us so does he treat us" (Letter 41.1).

Old Testament. There is no Hebrew word corresponding exactly to conscientia or συνείδησις. In the Septuagint the term συνείδησις is found two or perhaps three times (Eccl 10.20; Wis 17.10; Sir 42.18), all of very late date. However, even if the word is missing in the Old Testament, the reality of what is meant by conscience as a fact of universal human experience and as a special experience of the people chosen to enter into special contact with Yahweh is present. It is found in the terms "loins" and "heart" (kelâyoṯ walébḇ), which are frequently coupled together and signify the inward man made by and known only to God and thus constitute the veritable seat of conscience (cf. Ps 7.10; 25.2; Jer 11.20; 17.10; 20.12 and passim) under the watchful eye of God (cf. 1 Sm 16.7; Ps 138). Here three things must be noted: first, for the chosen people, ever conscious of Yahweh and of His law, the voice of conscience, that is, the reaction or feelings of the heart and loins, of the whole inner man, was the voice of Yahweh, their God, and was the answer, in praise or in reproach, on the part of rational man, to His law. Thus conscience for them was intimately linked with the alliance and was essentially conditioned by it. Second, while there was insistence on the concept of consequent conscience that upbraids each one for his evil actions and for his transgressions of Yahweh's law, there was, however, mention also at least implicitly of antecedent and of good conscience, which puts man at peace with himself and with Yahweh, because his life is judged to be in accordance with the demands of the alliance between the people and their God. Third, in the Old Testament conscience, that is, the feelings and the sure knowledge of the heart and the loins, was in no wise set up as an inviolable criterion of one's life and actions. On the contrary, its whole activity was radically conditioned by the objective exigencies of the alliance and by true subjective loyalty to it. It should be remarked here that the priests and the scribes were not slow in exteriorizing, legalizing, and depersonalizing the law of Yahweh by smothering it, as it were, in their own interpretations and traditions. Against this corruptive process the Prophets reacted violently and, in the name of Yahweh and against the priests, recalled the people to a true and inward communion with their God and to a true understanding of His law, which vivifies.

New Testament. It is against this background that one must understand the teaching of the New Testament on conscience. The term is not found in the Gospels, with the exception of one mention in an interpolated text of Jn8.9. But it is met some 30 times in the rest of the New Testament: 20 times in the Epistles of St. Paul, 5 times in the Epistle to the Hebrews, three times in the first Epistle of St. Peter and twice in the Acts of the Apostles. Whereas the Gospels retain the terminology of the Old Testament and of the Jews in general (heart, cf. Mt 15.18–20; Mk 6.52), St. Paul and the other New Testament authors took over the term συνείδησις, which they found in the Hellenistic culture of the day both as a popular concept and even as a technical term in the writings of the Stoics. There is no reason why they and, in a special way, St. Paul should not have met it in the oral traditions of the Greek Stoics and in the variety of meanings indicated above. However that may be, the fact is that St. Paul took over the term in order to express most appropriately and most fully a central and very complex reality of the Christian moral message. Without a detailed analysisPage 144  |  Top of Article of texts, the three following points should be carefully noted in order to attain to a proper understanding of the real nobility of the Christian conscience and of its full meaning in the Christian context and tradition, as well as of its dependencies and essential limitations.

The first all-important point to be noted is that for the New Testament authors conscience—syneidesis—meant a consciousness of the true moral content of human life founded on faith (πίστις) insofar as this faith is conceived as a personal engagement with God coloring man's whole outlook on all of reality—on God, on man, and on the cosmos itself and all that happens in it (cf. Rom 14.1, 23; 13.5; 1 Pt 2.19). In this sense conscience— syneidesis—meant very much more than a simple subjective judgment about one's actions. It implied the whole inner religious attitude of man, his whole concept of the world and of human life as seen through the eyes of faith, that is, ultimately through the eyes of God and through the infallible knowledge of God. It might truly be said that, for the authors of the New Testament, Christian conscience was nothing more than the specifically Christian Weltanschauung, which in the individual always governs and conditions his reactions to reality and events.

The second point is that in the work of applying this new Christian attitude to the business of daily living, conscience, being a spontaneous reaction of the "new creature" (that is, man re-created and regenerated by grace and living faith) to daily events, frequently needs the corrective of mature consideration of and deliberation on all the varied and changing elements and circumstances of every human action. In other words, it needs the practical guidance of Christian wisdom in the matter of the Christian life. Over and above a good conscience, a wise and prudent evaluation of every human situation, which takes into account not only the demands of the acting individual but also all the exigencies of Christian intersubjectivity and of true Christian charity, is absolutely necessary; and even then it is only in fear and trembling that the Christian works out his salvation (cf. Phil 2.12) and thus attains gradually to the fullness of growth in Christ (cf. Eph4.13). A very clear example of the existential relation between the applied conscience of him who is born anew in Christ and the corrective power of prudent and wise deliberation is found in St. Paul (1 Cor 8.7–13;10.27–30).

The final point is that in the New Testament and especially in the teaching of St. Paul conscience is identified with faith, not on the level of application to action, but on that of the general outlook on things mentioned above (see Rom 14.1, 23). All that we do and all that happens to us and all that we are called upon by the circumstances of life to bear must be judged in the light of faith, that is, with reference to God, to His all-wise providence, and to His law, because God spoke to men and became man in Christ in order to teach men how to live and how to order their lives in God and in Christ (cf. Rom 13.5; 1 Cor 14.4), which is only another way of saying in order to redeem and save men. This explains the statement of St. Peter that "this is indeed a grace, if for consciousness of God (διὰ συνείδησιν θεο[symbol omitted]) anyone endures sorrows, suffering unjustly" (1 Pt 2.19; see also 1 Jn 3.19–22), that is, if one endures in the conviction that he is in the all-seeing and solicitous care of God.

This point (the identification of conscience with faith) is all the more striking when it is recalled that in later centuries almost all the great theologians identified faith with SYNDERESIS on the level of supernatural life (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Sent., 41.1.1; Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 10.4 ad 2; In 1 Sent. prol. 5) and saw consequently in Christian conscience the application of practical faith to the business of everyday living in Christ (cf. Summa theologiae 1a, 79.12, 13, especially ad 3). And in this very precise and theologically exact sense, conscience became known as the voice of God within man, not an autonomous and purely subjective judgment, but an attitude rooted ultimately in the word of God or in faith and in the sure guidance of divine wisdom and infused prudence.

Patristic and Scholastic. Such is the legacy that the early Fathers received and handed on to posterity. It continued in the common teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in both the East and the West. It should be noted, however, that there was always present the temptation and the tendency (as in the Old Testament) to externalize, to legalize, and to depersonalize the reality of conscience. This danger was more readily present and more acutely felt in the Western Church, where the legal-minded Romans set the tone and determined in great measure the teaching and the organization of Christian ecclesial life. It would, however, be quite incorrect to say that the moral teaching of the Western Church quickly developed into a type of casuistry, while the Oriental Church remained true to the spirit of Christian freedom found in the New Testament. That would be a gross over-simplification of things and a quite unwarranted generalization.

In spite of difficulties and dangers, the Western Church and Western moral teaching ever remained true to the authentic spirit of the New Law. A typical example is that of St. Thomas, who achieved a scientific synthesis of revealed moral teaching, changing it from a simple, direct, and indeed most efficacious moral catechesis to a moral science and rigid analysis. His most brilliant insight was to see in faith the synderesis or intellect (nous)Page 145  |  Top of Article of his predecessors and in conscience the spontaneous or quasi-instinctive reaction or application of this attitude (under the all-pervading impulse of charity) to the business of daily living, allowing at the same time for the possibility, if properly understood, of identifying conscience with faith, from which it primarily flows (see Summa theologiae 1a, 79.13 ad 3; In epist. ad Rom 14.3. 1140–41; for the notion of conscience as a spontaneous or quasi-instinctive reaction, see Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 64.5; 64.7; 142.3 ad 2). There are obvious differences in this matter between the East and West, but there is no question of opposition. It is rather a matter of emphasis: the one more social and communautaire, the other more individualistic and personal; the one insisting on the part to be played by each member in and for the Christian community, the other insisting more on the personal competence and perfection of each member of the community. The elements found in the New Testament are fully preserved in both East and West. It is true, certainly, that a tendency toward a kind of legalistic casuistry may be traced in the West, but the great theologians of the Western tradition were ever on their guard against it.

After the Reformation. With the religious upheaval of the 16th century, when the structure of the Western Church was shaken to its foundations and when, under the still powerful influence of nominalism, the principles of personal freedom and private judgment were being introduced as the guiding principles of moral living, the Church was faced with a completely new situation. Then appeared, toward the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, a number of epoch-making and classical juridicomoral treatises on law, right, and justice (Francisco de TOLEDO, GREGORY OF VALENICA, L. LESSI US, Gabriel VÁZQUEZ, F. SUÁREZ, and others), which laid the foundations of the modern treatise on justice and exercised a most profound influence on the whole future structure of moral teaching in the Western Church. The traditional notion of PRUDENCE and practical personal wisdom, which plays such an important role in Pauline moral teaching, was set aside almost completely and its place taken by a legalistically and casuistically conditioned conscience, put forward now as the ultimate and inviolable norm of moral living. With an overinsistence on the juridical order of things all sense and feeling were lost for the radical subordination of man's life and being to an objective and divine order of things; and at the same time, as a necessary consequence, the true meaning of real personal creative activity realized in the mystery of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity in the dynamism of knowledge and love was forgotten. This reversal of values gave rise to a strange paradox seldom pointed out, but one that should, on no account, be missed or overlooked. On the one side, the ultimate rule of morality became something completely subjective. The all-important condition for good moral action was no longer correspondence with objective reality and the law of God, author of that reality, but rather the subjective good faith or good intention of the individual, whether his moral judgment was objectively right or wrong, true or false. Provided the intention is good, whether the judgment is right or wrong, it is equally the voice of God for the person acting. This is the direct antithesis of traditional moral teaching in the Western Church (cf., for instance, St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 19.5, 6). On the other hand, concrete human activity became completely mechanized and impersonalized through the mechanization of the judgment of conscience, which came to mean nothing more and nothing better than weighing opinions that the individual does not share personally and does not ever live existentially. Thus all sense of the real meaning of creative activity (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 5.7; 6 prol.; In 2 Sent. 34.1.3), which alone can contribute efficaciously to the fulfillment of human life and being, is almost completely lost.

On the level of the so-called spiritual life, a remedy for this state of affairs was sought in the development of a new theological discipline, ascetical and mystical theology, a higher type of moral teaching reserved for the chosen few. There was, then, in the course of the 17th century, a strange shifting of perspective, so that conscience came to mean something it had never meant in the whole of pagan or Christian tradition. Severed from its roots in living practical faith and dependent now on the precepts of positive law and the varying opinions of theologians, conscience inevitably lost its true meaning and was robbed of its true nobility. One could perhaps put the difference this way: whereas the moral teaching of the whole Christian tradition up to the 17th century insisted on the inalienable right of objective truth and of the exigencies of the objective and divine order of things, the new moral teaching, based on a new and legalized notion of conscience, insisted either on security (TUTIORISM) or on the freedom of the individual in the face of the law (LAXISM). And in this way Christian moral teaching came to lose its true existential character.

A strong reaction to this situation appeared among both Catholics and non-Catholics. On the Catholic side the reaction has continued (or better, has been taken up seriously and intensified) until modern times and has been so pressed that the danger exists of falling into quite another extreme by insisting on the primacy of love or charity in moral theology and by leaving out of account altogether that practical wisdom of prudence, through which alone charity can be existentially mediated into the daily life of each Christian. On the non-Catholic side there was an immediate reaction on the part of the greatPage 146  |  Top of Article Caroline theologians in England, who maintained, not without foundation, that they and not their Catholic counterparts on the Continent were the true successors of St. Thomas and the whole authentic tradition of Christian moral teaching.

Systematic Exposition. In the light of what has been said above, a balanced systematic exposition of the nature and structure and division of conscience and, in a special way in the context of moral theology, of Christian conscience (cf. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 13:94 for perhaps the first use of this term) can be worked out without much difficulty.

Conscience began as a popular idea; that is, it belonged to the store of human knowledge, common to all people and to all classes. Fundamentally it has remained such. The term was used to express a variety of mutually cognate concepts and realities from consciousness, self-consciousness, conscientiousness, etc., to the knowledge one has within himself of the specific human (and moral) quality of one's life and actions, whether they are in keeping with the true human dignity of man or not, whether they are worthy of being displayed openly before the critical eyes of one's fellowmen or not. In this last sense it signifies moral conscience as distinct from all its psychological forms. In the Old Testament this moral conscience, expressed in the reaction of the inner man to life and all its vicissitudes, is intimately bound up with the alliance, with God's choice of the Israelites and with His law, given to them as a guide to life and action. In other words, conscience in the Old Testament took on a specifically religious character, which it retained under the New Alliance, with, however, certain important differences. For the New Law, or Alliance, was primarily and fundamentally the grace of the Holy Spirit penetrating every fiber of man's being and transforming it into something divine, a new creation. This new creation, divinized and redeemed man, has a new and transformed consciousness of reality—of God, first of all, and then of himself and of the cosmos in relation to God (cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ch. 1, 2, 4). This new consciousness is rooted ultimately in the transformation of human nature by grace, but it comes to act in the reality of faith, which, in its fullness, is the full, personal, and conscious commitment of the human person to God and to Christ the Redeemer. It should be immediately obvious that faith is much more than a mere assent to revealed mysteries; it is also the full acceptance of a way of life worthy of redeemed and divinized man. It must be manifest, too, that faith is fundamentally the Christian's Weltanschauung, or outlook on reality, and consequently the fundamental source of his every reaction to reality. This reaction itself is most frequently called "conscience," but St. Paul and the whole Christian tradition down to St. Thomas saw no difficulty in understanding conscience as faith itself. But in order that man's reaction to concrete reality and events be worthy of one who is called to be a son and a friend of God, his heart and will must be informed with love for the God who calls man to Himself and reveals to him His law as a guide to life and with love for God-made-Man, who died to redeem him. This love of God and of the Redeemer, Christ, implies necessarily a loyal observance of God's law and of Christ's will (cf. Jn 14.15, 21; 1 Jn 5.2; 2 Jn 1.6) as manifested and communicated in Scripture and tradition and in the teaching of the Church, which was instituted by Christ as the guardian of Christian morals and life.

In the business of Christian daily living, with its infinite variety of changing situations and circumstances, it is clearly not sufficient to rely on a spontaneous reaction alone as a guide. For from the very nature of things, this may be faulty and in error on many heads (cf. St. Thomas, De ver. 17.2). The corrective of counsel and deliberation, ordained toward fitting Christian living to all the demands of human life, is necessary. In other words, over and above conscience, practical wisdom, also called prudence or discretion in the Christian tradition, is of vital importance. Without this wisdom, which on the one side looks to the objective and divine order of things and on the other is always in the service of charity, mediating it realistically and truly into the flux of life, conscience alone would frequently lead man astray.

In brief résumé: the sources of Christian conscience are grace, faith, and charity; and its most efficacious guardian and corrective, preserving it from pitfalls and forming it to full human maturity, is Christian practical wisdom, or prudence. It follows, then, that the most apt means toward forming a true Christian conscience, enlightened and sure and true, is growth in the spirit of faith and charity and the daily practice of true Christian discretion. This safeguards the true existential character of the Christian life and hinders conscience from exercising, when wrongly understood, a purely subjective tyranny in the lives of Christians.

Bibliography: Of the prolific literature on conscience, the following studies are especially relevant to this article or have full, upto-date bibliography. E. SCHICK et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. J. HOFER and K. RAHNER, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 4:859–867. A. CHOLLET, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. A. VACANT et al. 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 3.1:1156–74. C. MAURER, G. KITTEL, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935–) 7:897–918. E. WOLF, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 2:1550–57. P. DELHAYE, La Conscience morale du chrétien (Paris 1963). J. STELZENBERGER, Syneidesis, conscientia, Gewissen (Paderborn 1963). G. DE LAGARDE, La Naissance de l'esprit laïque au déclin du moyen âge 6, L'Individualisme ockhamiste: Le Morale et le droit (Paris 1946). C. A. PIERCE, Conscience in the New Testament (London 1955). H. R. MCADOO, The Structure of CarolinePage 147  |  Top of Article Moral Theology (London 1949). T. WOOD, English Casuistical Divinity during the 17th Century (London 1952). G. LECLERCQ, La Conscience du chrétien (Paris 1947).


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3407702713