The sense of 'right and wrong', and the responsibility this implies, is a basic human experience. Many cultures liken conscience to a 'divine voice in the heart'. People sum up the essentials of conscience when they acknowledge that a person is responsible for their actions, 'according to their lights'. This presentation explains the teaching of two great Catholic authorities (Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman). For them, conscience does not provide a complete blueprint of right and wrong; it provides acts of judgment, arrived at by of a very complex process.
This process involves: 1) self-evident principles, that are very general and few in number; 2) the application of these principles to the complexity of life situations; and 3) a judgment concerning the action that is contemplated. The self-evident principles give rise in all human cultures to codes and sanctions (e.g. concerning homicide, justice and human sexuality). The application of these principles ('moral science') depends upon the resources available to the person at the time. Though many think of conscience as an evaluation made after an action, the essential judgment of conscience takes place before the action. Conscience concerns, not only 'right and wrong', but also the gravity or seriousness of the action.
Conscience should not be confused with feelings or emotions. These normally support the judgment; but can be seriously misleading. If conscience is recognised as upholding positive values, rather than avoiding guilt, it can be an important factor in personal development. Good conscience does not displace God's law, but is essentially a mediator, giving access to God's law. It is with reference to this function that Newman speaks of 'the supreme authority of conscience'; and Vatican II teaches that in the final judgment of conscience the person is 'alone with God'. Given the complexity of the process of conscience, it follows that the judgment of conscience 'frequently errs, without losing its dignity' (Vatican II). A person acts in good conscience when they make their conscience decision responsibly, in prayerful humility before God. We are not only responsible before our conscience, but also responsible for our conscience.
Emotional disturbance can disrupt the conscience process in varying degrees (psychotic breakdown, severe anxiety states, 'scruples', for instance). The bias involved in decisions that touch us personally, while it cannot be avoided, must be honestly acknowledged in a healthy judgment of conscience. Today's cultural upheaval - because it deprives young people of the authority with which traditions were handed on in the past - profoundly affects their conscience process. In today's situation the witness and hope of Christians is important.
We can be grateful that Church teaching today takes conscience seriously – upholding the principles we have been explaining. (See especially the Pastoral Letter of Australia Bishops 1974). Today – as they interpret the responsibilities of life in a very complex world - both pastors and faithful need to be open to the Spirit of Christ, the great moral educator.