"Conscience! Conscience! divine, immortal instinct and heavenly voice!" (Rousseau, Emile, IV). With this apostrophe the Savoyard Vicar addresses that human faculty which enables man to distinguish good from evil, which prohibits him from doing evil and makes him love the good. Conscience is no more than reason applied to moral conduct in order to regulate it. Just as our speculative knowledge derives from a few basic, immediately formed principles which enlighten it and guide it, so our moral judgements are derived from a few practical principles. The first of these principles is that we must do good and avoid evil. As soon as the human intelligence comes into contact with perceptible things, the conscience forms these principles. Created to know being, the intelligence immediately grasps the basic laws of what is and what should be. Thus it reveals its origin, since the absolute, universal and necessary character cannot come from itself but rather from a higher light which illumines it. Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas understood this profoundly and clearly taught it.
Some philosophers who excluded the other roads towards God, finally discover this. The voice of the conscience is a commandment that one can violate but one cannot suffocate nor modify it. This implies a duality and rules out all monism. For this reason, Armando Carlini gave up the idealism of Gentile. Kant himself, after having done away with metaphysics, wrote this lovely sentence: "Two things fill the soul with admiration and continually renewed respect: the star-filled sky above us and the moral law within us. "
When the judgement of conscience conforms to the principles we receive from natural reason, or proceeds from them without deviation, it is correct and pronounces that which is good. But is it always correct? Can we say that conscience is infallible? Rousseau seemed to think so since he continued his apostrophe to conscience as follows: "Secure guide of an ignorant and limited, but intelligent and free being, infallible judge of good and evil that makes man like to God!" He contrasts it to our understanding which is without rules and to our reasoning which is without principles, both of which lead us astray from error to error. But conscience is not a faculty distinct from intellect and reason. Just as the intellect is infallible when it enunciates the first speculative principles and that which immediately follows from them, so conscience is infallible when it proceeds from the first practical principles and their immediate applications. But when the conclusions are more remote in the intellectual sphere as in the moral sphere, we can make mistakes. In this case we can judge as true that which is false and as good that which is evil.
Therefore we cannot have blind faith in our judgements but we must form them well, the moral judgements which are those of the conscience and the others. Just as speculative intelligence acquires greater ease in finding truth by acquiring good habits or intellectual virtues, so also practical intelligence perfects its power to judge correctly the moral value of acts by acquiring certain virtues, particularly the virtues of wisdom and prudence. A conscience is well formed when its judgements proceed from wisdom and prudence. Otherwise it can be badly formed.
Now, if conscience is not necessarily well formed and can even be very poorly formed, how are we to understand the precept: we must follow our own conscience? Let us now distinguish the various cases.
If conscience is prudently formed and one has every reason to believe it to be so, then, obviously, one must follow it. If there be some doubt about the legitimacy of an act to be performed, one cannot act with this uncertain conscience. However one can often resort to some certain principles which make the legitimacy of the act certain, in spite of the fact that the law is in doubt.
Is it possible to believe that one's conscience is well formed and, however, be mistaken? This is possible, and an act based on this conscience will not be sinful. But objectively speaking, this act does not proceed from wisdom and prudence and consequently, because of the nature of the error, it will often be possible to realize one's mistake.
Is it possible to find oneself faced with a clear and certain law and still violate it with a prudently formed conscience, that is, one formed objectively with wisdom and prudence? If the law does not allow for exceptions, it is clear that the answer to this is in the negative.
In the light of these considerations, seeing on the one hand that conscience, the guide of our actions, must be prudently formed, and on the other hand that a prudently formed conscience conforms to the law that is certain, I believe that every Catholic whose conscience is truly and prudently formed, will conform in his conduct—if he wants to avoid sin—to the judgement of the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, when he gives, with the authority and certainty of the ordinary magisterium, the decision contained in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Weekly Edition in English
14 November 1968, page 11
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
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