There is good news and bad news about our conscience. The good news is that our conscience has an affinity with what is good, and on this level of our being we “are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths,” as The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us [no. 1776]. This wonderful “sanctuary” is given to us by God, we only need to put aside our many distractions in order to enter it.
But, if that is so, then why do good people sometimes go off the rails? Surely, so much God-given moral integrity should keep us pretty steadily on the right path in life, once we have made the decision to take it. Thus, the bad news about our conscience is this: its wisdom can be ignored, as St. Thomas Aquinas remarks [Summa Theologia, I, 79, 13]. He points out that conscience is not like our intellect and our will, because these two faculties of the soul have permanence; the powers of our mind and will are always functioning and cannot be laid aside. Conscience is something else again. It requires, St. Thomas implies, a certain depth of spirituality in order to do its work well; otherwise, its promptings can simply be tuned out.
Why is this so? Recall, we do not live in a state of harmony within ourselves. The true voice of conscience can be out-shouted by other parts of ourselves: our emotions, for example, can, and often do, overwhelm us and can make the judgement of conscience difficult to discern. My emotion of anger, say, when someone offends me, might cause me to fail to take into account the fact that the offender did not intend to cause hurt. I may find myself lashing out unreasonably, without listening to my own conscience telling me to give the other person a chance to explain. Or, say, my greed for a new, stylish pair of shoes might be more insistent than the voice of my conscience telling me that I cannot really afford these designer stilettos, and I shouldn’t add the price of them to my credit card debt.
What do we do about this state of affairs? Perhaps we need to view our conscience as we view our muscles. Weak muscles need exercise in order to become strong. Our conscience is something like that. Ignore its voice and the voice becomes weaker and harder to hear. Seek to follow the voice of conscience, and its guiding voice will strengthen and become easier to discern.