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RicbardM. Gak, S.S.

RresoN Ixronuno

New York

gy F'errH









Lonscience" is another word like 'sin"--often used but little

understood. Trying to explain conscience is like trying to nail iello to the

wall; iust whcn you think you have it pinned down, pan of it begins to slip away, This is really no surprise. We ell know we have a conscience, vet our

expcriences of conscience are ambiguous. We struggle with conscience when

facing dnse great decisions of life, such as the choice of a career, or of

conscientious obiection to war, or whether t6 pay oxr taxes which support

defense proiects. Yet we even feel the pangs ofconscience over petty maners,

like iaywalking or taking cookies from thc cookic iar. We are told that con-

science cnioys invioleble freedom, yet wc are often given rules so absolute in

character that we wondcr whether .conscierrce rnetters at all. What is this

thing called consciencc? Which is the u'ue consciencel

The 6rst task is to clarify the important distinction between rnoral coo- science and the superegp, e psychological notion of conscience. After esab- lisbing $is distinction, we will be able to appreciate the meaning of personal moral conscience in our theologicel aedition. Only then will we be reedy to

onsider the criticel issue of the formation of conscience. Chapter l0 will bc exclusively devotcd to th:t issue. Chapter I I will cr:nsider the reletion of personal nnrd consciencc m the moral teaching of the megisterium, the

officiel teaching ofhce of the pope end the bishops.

Moral Conscience and the Superego

Psychology hes helped us gready in our effons to be clear about the

meaning of conscience. The work of psychologists has helped us to under-

stand tlre devclopmeat of e minrre conscience which is subiect to all the vagaries of the human expriencc of growth and development. Normally the patu:in of growth is frorn e conscience subiect to extemal control (when the

moral backbone is on the ouside and we do what we arc told to do by



Rcuon lxfomd $ Faith

somcone in .udoriry, or whrt

directiog conscience

wc sec othcr do) to a more intemd, self-

(r'tm thc mord badbonc is on the iaside rnd we do

whet wc.ourselves pcrcive to be right rnd went to do).

. ln other words, e


critcrion says/or ocsclf, oot t, oncsdf. Thc mrtur€ consciena is formed ad exerciscdin community in didogue with other surces of moral wisdom. The criterion also implks drat if a person spends his or her whole life doing what

he or she is mld to do by some authority simply because the euthrity says so,

or because it is expectd by the gmup, then that person never reelly makes

moral decisions rvhich are his or her oran. For moral m.rturity one must be one's oun person. It is not enough merely to follow what one has been told.

The morally rnature person must be eble to perceive, choose, and identify the

self with what one does- On the moral lcvel, we perceive every choice as a choice between being an authentic or au inauthentic person. Or, as some v'ould put it today, we act either in charactcr or out ofcharacter- In short, we

give our lives meaning by commining our freedom. The morally maturc

adult is called to snmit his or her freedom, not to submit it. As long as we

do not direcc our own activity, we are not yet free, mordly rnatrrre persons.

criteriur of e matule norel coasciene is the abilig to

melc up one-s mind for onesdf about whet orrght @ be dme, Nde

One of the rrrst @mmon errors and mures of confirsiqr in talking

rbout conscienct, or in examining coriscience, is to rnistake what the theolo- gians meen by "mcd conscjencc" with what som psychologists mcan about

con'scieoce when speaking of the 'superego." l{e can appreciate this god of

commining our freedom, or developing our ch:racter, as a morally mature

person if we clear up the confusion between moral onscience and superego

which contaminates so nuch of our thinking and conversing about the moral


1.le conscience/superego mixup causes confusion about what it is we must fom, follow, eramine, and whose freedom we must resp€|ct as morally

rtsponsible aduls. So many confessions in the sacranrent of reconciliatiqr are

more clearly expressions of an over:cdve superego producing unhealthy guilt than they rre the wimess of an edult moral consciene renewing itself so that

the moril person cen serve God rnore lovirgly end faithfirlly. But the morrl

conscienc€ is not drc suFrego. Whet then is the difference betri,een them? Psychologists oftbe Freudirn school tell us that we have three srructurs

to our persondity: the r4-the unconscious rcservofu of instinctual drives

largely dorninated by the pleasure principlg the go--rhe conscirrus srrucme

which operates on the reality principle to mediete dre forces of the id, the

demands of society, and the reality of the physicel world; ard tbe suprgo- the cgo of another superimposed on our own to serve ls en internal censor m

regulete our cooduct by using guilt es its powerful wcapon. The superego is



likc an attic in en old housc. Instcrd of frrmiture, ir storcs all the "shoulds"

rnd "have-tos" which we absorb in the process of growing

inlluerc of audnrity figures, 6rst our parcots but latf, any other

up under the


fgur€e-terchers, police, bocs, sisters, priess, pope, rc. Its powcrful

weepoo of guilt springs fordl rutomstically for simple faults rs u;U rs for

more serious mrncr, Thc supercgo tells us we are gmd wlreo we do whet we rre told to do, ard it tells us we ere brd and males us feel guitty when wc do not do whet the amlrority over us tclls us to do.

. To understand the supcrego we need to begio with childhood. As we

deveJop through dfldhood, the need to be loved and approved is the basic

need and drive. We fear punishrnenr as children.not foi its physical


only, but more because it represents a withdrawal oflove. So wi regulate our behavior so as not to lose love and approval. We absorb the standards and

regulations of our parents, or anyone who has authority over us, as a mattcr of self-protection. The authority figure takes up a place within us to become

the source of commands and prohibitions. Gordon Allport tells a delightful

tale-which illustrates graphically the way an authority

within us so thet not only the content of the command but also the voice of


takes up a-place

the extemal authority arise from within.

A three-year+ld boy awoke at six in the rnoming and sarted his noisy play. TIle fedrer, sleepy-eyed, went to dre boyt room and

sternly mmrnznded him, "get back into bed ad dont you darc get up until seven o'clock." The boy obeyed. For r few minutes all was

quiet, but soon there were strange sounds dut led the father egain

to look inro the room. The boy was in bed as ordered;

an arrn over the edge, he ierked it back in, srying,

,,Get back in

but puning

there." Next a leg protrudcd, only to be roughly retraded with the

warning, "You heard what I told you." Finally the boy rolled to the

very edge of the bed and then roughly rolled back, aemly warninq

himself, "Not until seven o'clockl" We could not wish foi a clearei instance of interiorizing the father's role as a meaos to self-control

and socielized becoming.

- A! dds srrg€ tbe extemel voice of authority is in the process of

becoming the internel, or appr.opriate, voice of

cnts' task is m enlist the voie in behalf of vimre, as the pcrents

euthmity. The par-

. themselves cooctive virtuc.

To illustr{e tbe prevaiting theory at a sormwhet later age, let us say the partnti teke their son into the woods on r family picnic. Under their watchful eyes he picks up the liner efter lunih and

dispoes it. Perhap a 6rm weming on a printed sign, or the sight of


Rcaw Infornal By Faitb

r Fssing

constrble, rray dso rct as a monitor of nermess. Hre still

the nord backbone is on the outside- t

A simplifcd way of drinking about the difference between superego rnd

monl conscim is to distinguish

the 'watts" as the source of

between the "slroulds" or

bommands 'dirccting our behavior.

'have-tm" ard


and 'bave-msl belong to someone else. "Wrnts" belong to us. As e frierd of

rnc. I dont ucr to be die way

mim ooce rcminded me, 'Don't 'should' on

you think I dnU be. " She hed it exacdy iight. The cornmands of the superego which tell us what we 'should" do come

from the proccss of absorbing the regulations and restrictions of those who

are the source of love and approval. We follow the commands of the superego

out ofthe fear of losing love, or out of our need to be accepted and appiovei.

. The moral conscience, on the other hand, acts in love rsponding to the call

to commit ourselves to value. The commauds of the moral conscience come from the personal perception end appropriation of values which 've discover

in the stories or examples of persons we want to be like. The moral con-

scieoce is the key to responsible ficedom of wanting to do what we do



and "have-tos"

ofthe supenqo lmk ro aurhority, the "wants" ofthe moral conscience look to

personalized end intemalized values- The consciancdsuperego mixup helps

because we vdue what we are seeking. Whereas the


us ro understrnd in part what makes a person with an over! developed


9r'erly lctive srperego have a diffictlt time distinguishing berwen wbet


is Tabl_mg o-r_9l_ling him or her to do from what inreoni in authority says he


she'should" do. John W. Glaser gives a more sophisticated contrast of the differences

bets,een superego and moral conscience in his valuable



and Superego: A Key Distinction."r ln the. accompanying chart, I have

reconstructed Glaser's nine contrastiog characteristics of the superego aud

moral conscieirce: This listing is not intended to bc exhaustive. t have added


.to F

poino of contrast in Glaser's lisg and I

hevr slightly re-



wolded his

using bere.

dsracteristics to bring his language ioto line with *L"t

Gleser poiots out th.t the flilure to distioguish bcwecn superego rnd

morel cooscieoce can cluse sorne serious Fstoral onfusion. For example, the

belief thet wc csn makc a trarsition froh grace to serious sin and back to

grace again ersily and frequendy leads to rhe pheoomenon of mortd sin on

Friday, coofession on Saturday, Communion on Sunday, and back to sin

again on Mooday. However, the approach ro serious sin which respects the

dynamics of the rheory of fundamental option, rogedrer with an undersand_ ing of the difference between supcrego guilt and genuine morel guik, chal_

_lenges such e belief thar one can sin ieriously, refcnt, only to sii seriously



l. funnan& us b rct for thc selre of

s.ining epprov.l, or out of feer of

lociog lovc.

2. Ttrd ir nood nlf io order m

seqte ooc's scnsc of bcing d vduc,

of beiag lovrblc.

t. Tends to b. rrarti by mcrcly rcpeat-

ing I prio. coomand. Unable to

leam or function creetively in a new situation.

4. Oriented primarily tward aathitJ:

not a mader of responding to value,

but of obeying the commeod of authority 'blindly. "

5. Primary rmntion is givci to iadioid- @, a.rr .s bciqg importrnt in them_

selves eFn fiom thc hrger context

or patt€m of ectiofls.


6. Orient€d rov.rd drcpcn:


7. Panisbaat is the sure guarantee of

reconciliation. The more sevcre the punishment, the morc certein one is of being reconciled.

8. The traositioo.from


ro clf-


nnanol @M fairly cesily end

klly by mos of confcssing to the


9. Oftetr fildr a gnat diryrynia *-

tweqr f€elirys of guilt cxpericoced

aod the vdue .t strkc, for cxtcnt of guih depcnds more on the signifi-

cance of authoriry ficure .dis-

obeyed' tban thc'weiiht of rhe

lalue et stelc-



l. R'51prrdt tost it vittriw to love; in thc

very rct ofrcsponding to otherc, one . becomcs e certein sort of person and cocreatcs self-veluc.

7- Farfuuntel


that is ori€trted

tourrd thc otha rnd tovard tbe

rduc which celts for ection-

3- Terds to be firat i bv a sensidvirv to the demand of values which cail for new ways of responding.

4. Oriented pd,marily touard aalu: re_

sponds to the value that deserves

preference regardless of \r,hether

authority rccognizes it or aot.

t. Prim.ry .ttcation is given to rhe

prr8 or ptt.rrr- hfiividu^l


.crs become imponanr wirhin rhis

lrrgcr context.

6. Oriented toward the fizrc: .,Th3

sort of Frson one ought to bccome- "

7. Repdation comes through Jt.z.rr_

ing tht futaft orient tion toward the

value in question. Creating

furure is rlso rhe wav ,o

the pqsr.

a nes,

-ik" g*d

8- S.{-ftrrcoal is

a gradual



gro*th vhich char.crerizes all di_

mcnsioos of personal dcvelopmeot,

9. ExFrierrc! ofjBil, is proportionote to

dre degree of koowleds. and frce-

dom as well as the siight of the

value at stake, even thouch the

authoriry may never have adiressed

the sFcifc value.


konr Inlormcd 81 Faib

eoei*-end do ell this within r matter of days! The neturc of, garuine moral

in this chapter' togcther with thc dimen-

sions of humen freedom which

c&rsciencc which we ere exploring

we explored in Chapter 7' do not suppon

srrch an easv rnd frtqu€nt trsnsition.

AnotbL area of

pasord cofirsion Perteins

to the appropriatc form of

moral ounsctilg. Ai apgoach which

one's lifel Moml

services supcrego needs- would be

oriented orimerilv

sensitive to mord onscicnce end mord grotth

would pay rttention to thelarg€r cont€xt of the person'i life and to the vrlues

tbrt deserve preference in this context.

What would this distincrion betwe€n s'uPer€go and moral conscience

look like when derting with a pastoral problem? Glaser offers some illuminat-

ovnrd-individual actions epert from their mtel contcxt in


ing pastoral

to cerrain isiues of sexuality-' (an.


which resPect the-difference trtween

For example, an actual case dealing with


suiciptible to i6e

superego and m.rral conscicnci.

tyranny of superego)


m;$u;adun was resolved by the counselor'i refusiDg to resPe& the superego as ifit were the conscience. It went like this:

A counselor told me of a case in which a hep! y married man with

several children had been plagued by masturhadon for fifteen years'


tlrese ffteen yo.t't .-tt"a ,iutifolly gone the route of u'eekly

confesiion, Communion, etc. The counselor told hirn to stop think-

ing of this in terms of serious sin, to go to Communion

-every Srinday and to confession every six week. He tried to help him see

his introversion in terms of his own sexud meturity, in terms of his relationshio to his wife and children. Within several months this

fifteen-yeai-old 'plague' simply vanished from his life. By refusing

to follow a panern of pestoral Practice

superego, this counselor was able to

based on the dynamics of unlock the logiam of fifteen

y&s; by refusing to deal with the superego as if it were coosciencc, h. freed the genuine values at stake; he rllowed them to sPeak and call the person beyond his preseot lesser sage of sexual integration. We ian pay rent to the superego but the house never becomes our own posscssion.l

Although basically a principle of censorship

and conrol, the superego

'still has a positive and meaningful function in our personalities. Io children'

the superego is a primitive but necessary stage on the way to genuine corr

scienci. In adults, the superego functions positively whcn integrated into e meture conscicnct to relicve us from having to d€cide fr€shly in wery in-

stanc those matters which are alre*dy legitirmtely determined by conven-

tion or custom.



The differeoce berween dre working ofthe

superego in the child and the

adult- is one of degree and not of kind- ln concrete caies, the superego and

morel conscience do not exist as pure alternatives in undiluted'fori.r. We

exgerieng e mixnle of these in our deliberations. Fr. Frank

vides an illumimting example of this mixore in his account of the inte-rior

McNulty pro_

dialogue he experiences in trying to decide wheths to attcnd a wake service

or not.-Thc issue emerged when he did not think he would be able to go ro the.wake because of.e meeting he- already had to attend. But the meiting

broke up early, and thus the need for the decision. Here is the account of hii

interior dialogue:

"Good. I will have a chance to attend that u,ake." (Conscience at

work, saying, in effecr "Frank, my friend lust lost his father. C,o to

the wake; it will mean something to him.')

"Wait aminute. I can't go to that wake. I'm not wearing clerical

clothes. Priests don't go ro wakes dressed like this."

(Superego *"-_

ing about making a "bad" appearance, facing disapproval.) -

"Why not? The imponant thing is consoling the beregved. It's an

act of charity. l-ook at Jesus and his example in Scripture, at how

good he was to Mary and Manha wben t azarus died. bid he worry

about what he was wearing?" (C,onscicnce back again.)

"What rvill people think? Remember I was taught that

should even carry a hat to a wake. I don't have tL do that, but at

a priest

least I have to wear my clericals . " (Superego)

"But I gotra go. I have the time. The family would like to see me

there. It will mean a lot to them. I'll probably be the only priest

there, since they dont know priests in the parish too well. C$ io the wate." (Conscience)

"Wcll, if I go, maybe no one will recognize me. I can sneak in, sav a

q_uiet preyer and sneak out, without declaring myself as a priesi."

(Superego making a concession, but hanging in there.)r

(As it turned out, the family asked Frank m come forward and lead the

ros4ry. )

The development from the superego of the child to the personal value

perception of the adult moral conscience does not take place automatically. One of the asts of moral education and pastoral prrctici in moral maners is

a genuinely penonal way

to- rcduce th€infuence of the supcrego and to allow

of seeing and responding to grow. One of the grert tempt;ti;ns of moral


Recnn Informed By Faitb

counselim ls to 'should' on the person seeling assistrnce' We can examine

our Dssto;l

todei'l Or,

or, ,rd

Dractice on this score by esking' 'Have I 'shoutd' on lnyone

hi"e t dnwn out of eoother whgt he or she Perceives to be going

rr-o to do?" The god of edult nroral edustion rnd adult moral

dcvelopmcot is to ect urorq oui ofa petsonally appropriated vision snd Prson-



committed frcedom end lcss out of supercgo.

Now that we have distinguished suPeiegp ftom the moral conscience,

we can prcceed with a more elaborate expression of the ways the Catholic monl tradition has understood the moral conscience.

Moral C-onscience in the

Theological Tradition

The Gtholic tradition has krng rttested to the primacy, dignity, and

inviolabiliry of the moral conscience. According to that tradition' no one is to

be forced to act conrrary to his or her conscience. The followiog two state-

ments fiom the Second Vatican Council sum uP the Catholic tradition's

suppon of the dignity and inviolability of conscience:

On his pcn,

man perceives and acknowledges tbe imperatives

of tie divini

law tlrough the rirdiation of conscience. In all his

activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order thrt hc may come to God, for whom he wrs cr€etd. It follows that

tre is not to be forced to act in a manner cbntrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accor-

daoce with his conscience, especially in maners religious (f)eclara- tion on Religious Freedom, n. 3).

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not irnpose upon hinrself, but which holds him to obedience. Always zummoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of

conscience can whel necessary spcak to his hean rnorc specificdly:

do this, shun that. For man has in his hean a law written by God.

To obcy it is the very dignity of man; accordiog to it he will be


Conscience is th most scret core and sanctuary of a man.

There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.

(Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 16)

While the dignity and inviolability of conscicnce in our tradition is

incontestably clear, the rneaning of conscience in the minds of many is not so

clear. What does the Church intend to uphold when speaking of the inviola-



ble digaity and Mom of consciencc? To what docs the Church refer when spcaking ofconscicnce as our "most sccret core and sanctuary"?

Whereas in the prst we tried to re*rict conscicncc to a firnction of the

will or of dre intcllect, today we undersand coqscicoce as an cxpression of

the whole person. Simplv put, conscience is 'me coming to a decision


includes not only crgnitive and volitional aspecs, but elso afrective, intuitive,

anitudinal, and sornatic rspects as well. Ultimately, conscience is the whole

the ludgment one must meke in light of

person's commitment to vdues end

dret commitment to apply those values-

In light of this holistic sense of conscience we can appreciate the three

dimensions of conscierrce to which the Roman Catholic tradition ascribes: (l)

ryrderesis, the basic tendency or capacity within us to know and to do the



norgl scieflcc, the process of discovering rhe particular good which


of the good rvbich "I must do" in this p::nicular situation. 1'o simplify

matters, Timothy O'Connell refers tr these dimensioos as consciencdl, conscience/2, and conscience/3 resSrctively.r These are not three differcnt

reelities, nor three distinct stages through which conscience moves in develop-

ing from infancy to adulthood, but simply the three senses in which we can

undersand the one rerlity ofconscience. The accompanying ctart summerizes briefly the principal characteris-

tics of each sense of consciencc in our theological nadition,

As the chart indicates, conscience/l (.yz&renir) is e giveo characreristic of being human. This is the capacity for knowing and doing what is good and avoiding what is evil. The very existence of this orientation to the good makes

possible the lively disagrecment over what is right or wrong in each instance of moral choice. The great rrray ofmoral disagreement which we experierrce

in our lives does not ncgete the presence of conscience/1, but afrfirms it,

ought to be done or the evil to be avoided; (3)

coasciorce, tbe specific

Because we have


we share a general sensc of moral value and the

genenl sense that it makes a differcncc to do what is right and to avoid what.

is wrong. We cannot live morally without conscienc€/|, yet it is not sufficieat in and of itself to enable us m choose what is right in eech specific instance.

We also need con-ieocrc/2 (mcel science). Thc force of conscicnce/l €mpowers us to search out the obiective moral values in each specifc sirua- tion in order to discover the right thing to do. Discovering th€ opcrative

moral values and the riht tiing to do is the worh of conscience/2 . Its primary

t4sks are accurate perccption end right moral reasooing. For this reason, consciencd2 reccives a great deal of ettention in moral educetion and in moral debates. It is the realm of moml blindness and insight, moral dislgreement and error. It needs to be oducated, formed, informed, oramined, and trans- forirrcd. In a word, conscbace/2 is subiect to the process called nthe forma-







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tion-of conscience." Th9 goals of this process are correct seeing

and right

thinking. In its accountebility to morel truth, conscience/2 is illumined and

rssisted in many ways to perceive and appropriate this truth. This means that conscience/2 is formed in community and draws upon many sources of moral

wisdom in order to lmow whet it means to be human in e truly moral way.

Conscience/3 (conscience, in the more narrow sense) moves us from

perception and rcasoning to actioa. The generel orientation to the good

(conscience/l) and the process of considering tlrc relevant moral faitors

(consciencd2) converge to produce the

the commitment to do it (consciencd3). In coming to make this iu<Igment,

many can help trut

I can make. The characteristic of the always a iudgment for me. It is never a

iudgment of what I must now do rnd

iudgment whiih


is that ir is

no one can substitute for making the

iudgment of consciencdl


of what someone else must

do, but only what I must do. The quintessence ofthe dignity and freedom of

conscience is to be found in conscience/J: I must alwavs do what I believe ro be right and avoid what I believe to be wrong. If a periorr truly believes in his

or her heart (i-e., with