There is such a thing as a true conscience and a false conscience. Our true conscience is the one that is in touch with God’s law. But it can be submerged beneath a false conscience that is formed not by God’s law, but by all sorts of other influences. Today, it can be difficult to get away from the influence of our culture’s easy-going morality and its message that if something seems good to me, then it is good. It is important to realise that this kind of thinking usually comes from ‘doctrines that have lost the sense of the transcendent or are explicitly atheist,’ as Pope Saint John Paul II said in his remarkable Encycylical Letter, Veritatis Splendor [no. 32].
In his last homily before he was elected to the papacy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said,
“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires” [Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on 18 April 2005].
Strong words. But what is this “relativism”? It is the popular teaching whereby the individual conscience is held up as the ultimate moral authority answerable to nothing but itself. It refers to no objective criteria by which to evaluate its decisions; the only requirement is that of personal sincerity. It does not refer to anyone else to discover what is right. Personal sincerity is considered sufficient to justify any action.
In relativism, there is no awareness that if personal sincerely is the only yardstick by which I measure the moral content of my actions, moral chaos soon results. What if, for example, I sincerely believe that causing harm to my next door neighbour is good because I sincerely believe him to be wicked? Or, what if I sincerely do not believe that the foetus of a human being is human? To call such exaltation of personal opinion a “dictatorship” is not too strong. We try to tell ourselves that this way of thinking is tolerant of different points of view. But what of the point of view of the one who is weaker than myself, and whose human existence and potential I “sincerely” do not acknowledge?
If you are even reading this post, you probably would not go to the lengths I have just described, but it is not necessary to ascribe consciously to such relativist or individualist doctrines in order to be susceptible in a lesser sense to the kind of thinking that goes with them. The selfish tendencies that we all have as a result of our fallen nature can make it hard, at least at times, to realise that conscience is not about personal sincerity.
Then what is conscience about?
Conscience is directed beyond ourselves toward God and true goodness in a manner similar to the way a compass directs a traveller toward her destination. The difference is that the traveller knows before she sets out that she doesn’t want to go round in circles, stay in the same spot, or end up further away from the place of her destination. We expect a compass to direct us to a place that is different from the place where we began. We do not necessarily have the same expectation with regard to our conscience. We might prefer it if our conscience would kindly sanction what we are doing, or planning to do. We don’t want it to challenge us or deprive us of our fantasy.