How to Fine-tune a Well-formed Conscience

An angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. We all have light and dark, kind and cruel, good and bad impulses.

As Catholics, we’re no strangers to guilt. We know when the devil on our shoulder has won out over the angel, and we feel off when that happens. Remorseful. Ashamed. Guilty.

Unfortunately, guilt can sometimes go into overdrive.

In 2019, I wrote about scrupulosity. The article continues to be a top performer on this blog, and many of its views come from organic search traffic—from readers seeking resources to ease their consciences.

Guilt gets a bad reputation, especially in a culture where “Do what makes you happy!” is the mantra of the day. And scrupulosity is bad. It is a disordered sense of guilt. But a healthy sense of guilt is a natural part of the human experience. It is a tool for the ongoing work you are doing to improve yourself.

The conscience, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn” (¶ 1777). Your conscience gives you a compass by which you navigate toward Goodness—and it rouses guilt when and only when it is needed to show the way.

We call an upright conscience with a solid understanding of moral truth a “well-formed conscience,” and its formation takes nurturing.

So, how does one obtain a well-formed conscience?

“A Lifelong Task”

Also in the Catechism (paragraphs 1784-1785), you’ll learn:

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness, and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Such a wealth of guidance in those sentences. So many hidden tips and tricks.

Let’s uncover them.

How to Be [Up]Right

Inspired by that passage, here are several spiritual habits that can help you develop a well-formed conscience.

#1: Seek to educate yourself on your faith and the issues of the day.

While we are called to trust in the Church, Catholics are also called to continually seek to understand her teachings. Why do we believe what we believe? On what authority?

Unfortunately, the catechesis we receive before Confirmation is not always perfect. And even if your faith formation was excellent, there is much to learn from 2,000 years of history!

In the context of conscience, it’s also important to stay informed on social and political issues that affect everyone’s lives. This certainly doesn’t mean we all must be activists or news junkies, but it does require putting faith and sound morals first in our public lives.

Where to Start: Get reading! Explore spiritual books, blogs, or even diocesan social accounts to put more of this material in your daily life. You can also find a wealth of information via Formed.org—your parish may have a subscription that grants you free access.

#2: Read the Bible, on your own and with the Church.

As the Catechism states above, “the Word of God is the light for our path.” There are countless lessons in the Bible. Indeed, it is a primary source for all of Salvation History, and it demands our attention.

Pick up a good Bible and read. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order. It doesn’t have to be on a deadline. But familiarizing yourself with the language will only help inspire you to dig deeper and truly understand what God demands of you. It will also help you discover the good person you are made to be.

Where to Start: Reading scripture in a vacuum can lead to a lot of missed nuances, so in addition to personal reflection, it’s important to seek guidance from experts who can provide clarity and guide your journey. The Bible in a Year podcast from Father Mike Schmitz is an excellent source for this guidance.

#3: Attend the sacraments as frequently as you can, and visit Jesus in Adoration when you need extra guidance.

In greater doses than anywhere else, you will find God’s grace in the sacraments—and, when it comes to forming your conscience, the most crucial of these are Confession and the Eucharist.

As someone who once went many years without stepping foot into a confessional, I know this particular sacrament requires a lot of vulnerability—and it can expose a lot of shame. But I promise its comforts can help you right now. Make an appointment with your priest, or simply go during stated confession times, as soon as you can. The more you attend and the more thoughtful your examinations of conscience, the better formed your conscience will be.

And when you are deeply troubled, run to Jesus. Sit with him in Adoration and soak up his presence. It will help you in your discernment of all things.

Where to Start: Find a place for perpetual Adoration if it’s available near you. This is a beautiful sacrifice for Jesus—like watching over him in the garden. This list of Adoration sites may be helpful.

#4: Learn to recognize—and pursue, and continue developing—the gifts of the Holy Spirit in yourself.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—are the foundation of our ethical lives as Christians. They are the intellectual mechanisms by which we seek to understand God and His will for us.

Take a look at your personal passions and consider how those gifts apply. Do you use your personal gifts (artistic abilities, athletic prowess, interpersonal empathy, teaching skills) in a way that enlightens these spiritual gifts? How can you develop both more thoughtfully? How does the Holy Spirit play a role in your personal vocation and the way you live each day?

Embracing these gifts will help you build a better understanding of right and wrong, as well as your place in the world. When we intentionally seek fulfillment and righteousness in our pursuits, we’re much more likely to hear and abide by our consciences.

Where to Start: Volunteer for your parish or a local Catholic organization. Nothing will help you put your gifts into action, and nurture their growth, more than sharing them with others. Look up Catholic Charities in your diocese to see where help is needed.

When All Else Fails

Many times, we are faced with questions and dilemmas that feel like vast chasms of confusion in a relativistic world. We try to understand what’s right, and the answer seems impossible to find. How does one proceed?

When you’re feeling trapped, confused, unsure, alone, or far away from the resources that can help add clarity to such moments, follow these three rules cited in paragraph 1789 of the Catechism:

  1. The ends do not justify the means. You cannot do or condone an immoral act in order to achieve a good result. Evil begets evil.
  2. Follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. This means kindness, helping others be their best selves, and speaking up for those who have no voice.
  3. “Charity always proceeds by way of respect.” When you must correct someone, or object to their behavior, or reject their requests of you—do it with love.

And again, remember: No man is an island. Seek out a good shepherd—your priest, a spiritual director, a parent, a friend—for help. You are loved and you are not alone.

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