“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
Hamlet’s concern is about the future rewards or punishments for our decisions of conscience – and rightly so. But how do we use our consciences rightly? In Catholic terms, it would be fairly straightforward: the laws of right and wrong, mortal or venial, are clear. Tick the box. Or, nowadays we could in practice have a computer guide. Type in the information, and out comes the answer – followed by the necessary penance. Possibly, as we are getting used to long distance electronic communication, absolution would come through our computer. I do not have a ‘smart’ telephone but I daresay that a ‘confessional’ program could be set up.
But Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, will not help us here. We are clearly taught that conscience is founded in love. The fundamental basis is love of neighbour and love of ourselves. I take ‘love of ourselves’ to mean our continuous attempts to climb the ladder another step to reach our own perfection of love.
But people like me, of an older generation, were taught that practical emphasis was always on law – in some description. The spirit is left in the background, obedience is the practical expression. I have found very little to read on the formation of conscience, notwithstanding its importance. I have to go back to my own Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (Gower 2002). There isn’t much in that which I would alter some twenty years later. Out of print, of course.
We have looked at Natural Law on occasion in the past. We need to remember that we know a great deal more about human nature than we did a millennium ago. Take, for example, the homosexual. Once upon a time it was assumed that this was a corruption of nature and would always be fundamentally wicked. But now we know that that the causes of homosexuality are broad and are by no means always the outcome of wickedness. And I wonder how many of us share Augustine’s view that, although in principle, sexual intercourse in marriage could be sinless, in practice sinfulness of some kind will inevitably be present.
Some readers will know that I spent several years as a marriage counsellor. I learnt there a wide range of motivations behind behaviour. These were likely to be at least related to the upbringing and the experience of each individual – to say nothing of their genes. The solution was likely to be learning how to live with one’s own and each other’s internal tendencies, rather than to change them.
So I think that readers of this Blog could learn a great deal about the formation of conscience by listening to other contributors’ habits. Do you, for instance, examine your conscience each day – perhaps before turning to sleep. And how do you do it?
Do you consider your conscience in some detail before you go to Confession? (Do you, nowadays, regularly go to Confession? – how often?) This is not a trivial exercise: it is through our use of conscience that we can develop our love for God, our love for our neighbours, our love for ourselves.