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DEAR FATHER | We must look to Catholic teaching as reflected in the Magisterium in forming our consciences

What does it mean to have an informed conscience?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at the center of each person is a voice planted there by God that helps him or her to know the difference between good and evil and act accordingly. It goes beyond mere human reason: “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (CCC 1777). In other words, we have the ability to make moral decisions programmed into us by God provided that we have formed our conscience according to reason and divine revelation.

For the Christian, the starting place is always Jesus Christ and the Gospel He proclaimed. Christ is the measure of our morality, and it is His teaching that gives us what we need to make good and just decisions. To assist us, we are expected to form our consciences according to Catholic teaching reflected in the Magisterium. That would include the study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the teachings of the pope and bishops, the writings of saints and moral theologians and the advice of people we regard as faithful Christians.

Forming our conscience is a lifelong process, but we believe that the moral teachings of the Church harmonize with those of Jesus in the Gospel.

Having formed our conscience, we must then exercise discernment in the use of it. Not every situation is specifically addressed by Catholic teaching. What’s more, those with well-formed consciences may discern different and even conflicting courses of action (e.g. which candidate to vote for, whether or not to receive a specific medical treatment, etc.). Life is complicated, and sometimes we need to make the best decision we can after asking God for His guidance and consulting Church teaching. Any decision we make should have selfless love at the heart of it.

What if we make the wrong decision? A more appropriate question would be, does anyone ever make the right decision every time? God knows our hearts better than we do. He knows when we are honestly striving to discern and follow His will, and He knows when we are ignoring it to fulfill our own selfish desires. Sin is something that is always freely chosen, and God certainly understands the difference between an honest mistake and a deliberately chosen sin. Our best course of action is to commit to doing God’s will in all things and to form our consciences according to the Gospel and Church teaching. We may still make mistakes, but we trust God to bring us where we need to be. St. Joan of Arc said it best in her response to the judges at her trial: “If I be not in a state of grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.”

Father Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.

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