The Importance of a Formed Conscience

In talking about virtue a while back, the comment arose that perhaps a simpler discussion of forming one's conscience would be helpful. While the previous article was intended to explore the more philosophical and theological sense of virtue, there is no doubt that understanding its practical application in our lives is inestimably more valuable. As Catholics, the need for a well-formed and well-examined conscience is important for more than a few reasons; principally, we ought to have formed consciences to make formed moral decisions, and we ought to examine them in order to participate most fully in the Sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 'Easier said than done,' is surely what you are thinking. So, naturally, how should we go about doing this?

To begin, forming one's conscience is a necessary starting point; there isn't much we can do if we haven't first formed our conscience. This isn't a one-time event either, but rather a life-long process of formation and re-formation, just as we are re-converted to the Lord each day in our knowledge of his love for us. Ultimately, being formed in conscience is both an active and passive reality, wherein we must both actively seek out the truth (which the Church preserves and teaches) as well as become open and receptive to the truth, which God presents in the world and in human interaction. There is no simple way to sum this up, it seems, since it really is a huge and all-encompassing endeavor. Being formed in conscience is being formed as a person and nothing less.

Fortunately for us, the Church offers some great aides in this process. One primary example is the liturgy of the Mass, where we move from examination of conscience (in the Confiteor and Kyrie) to scriptural lessons of morality and faith (in the Liturgy of the Word), and finally to a participation in the total self-sacrifice of Christ offered in the Eucharist. For us, Jesus' self-gift provides a model of that active and passive willingness to be formed by the truth of God; he actively offered himself for God's will and was passively yet beautifully receptive to the ultimate pain of the Cross. The moral teachings we hear in the Liturgy of the Word augment our understanding of Christ's sacrifice; they provide concrete examples and expectations for our own lives, which ought to be molded into the form of Jesus' life. Finally, the examination and confession of our faults in the penitential rite of the Mass permits us to rightfully prepare our hearts for the reception of the greater mysteries to come. Although I explained the Mass in reverse, the fact that we as Catholics should be going to Mass at least every week means that one Mass simply paves the way for another. In reality, the Mass becomes something we live throughout the week and which truly does not 'finish.'

Another great resource for actively discovering what it is the Church teaches on almost any topic (viz. morality, revelation, the saints, prayer, etc.) is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This was first published in 1997 under Pope John Paul II, who called the book a "sure norm for teaching the faith." (Fidei depositum, 3) Undoubtedly, anyone seriously interested in the content of the Catholic faith ought to study the Catechism on a regular basis. Often, parishes have classes set up for such an opportunity. If you are a member of a parish that does not, and you have a desire to learn more, I would recommend taking the initiative to help something like this get off the ground. Oftentimes you don't realize how many other people are longing for a similar and deeper understanding of the faith they profess.

In addition to the liturgy and Catechism, another great help in forming one's conscience can come from talking with a good and holy priest, either casually or in the context of spiritual direction. Priests are education in theology and spirituality specifically for the purpose of helping people come to see the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ. Likewise, they make promises to live celibately and simply so that their entire life might be at the disposal of those same people. The Church desires that all priests grow in wisdom and holiness specifically for this purpose of becoming good shepherds in the image of Christ, the true Good Shepherd. My recommendation to any Catholic experiencing this desire to become well-formed in conscience would be to actively seek out such an edifying spiritual relationship with a spiritual father, one known for his holiness, understanding of the faith and adherance to the Church's teachings.

Hopefully this more pragmatic view of virtue (or at least the beginnings of it) has helped to show just how we can go about becoming truly holy as Catholics. Being formed in conscience requires much work and perseverance, and is never an easy task. However, Our Lord so eagerly desires our growth in faith and charity, as well as our virtuous interaction with our neighbors, that there is no reason why we shouldn't start in that life-long process of formation and conversion right now.