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Conscience Formation, Spiritual Formation, and The Holy Spirit

A dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, who is be...

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David Ludescher, a regular OT reader, has put to me some important questions on the formation of conscience. These arose in response to my post on empirical research findings on the current state of British Catholic belief, and some observations I made on the implications for our understanding of the sensus fidelium (on sexual ethics and priestly ministry in particular).

These questions were put in a comment box, which I have reproduced in an independent post for easy reference. Just follow the link to read the questions in full. This is my response:

David, I cannot offer a “methodology” on the formation of conscience. I’m not sure such a mechanical, formulaic approach is possible or desirable. (If it is, I do not have one). I do however, have a few important principles that I apply, and some specific techniques and strategies that I apply, or have applied in the past. These I am happy to share.

Before getting to the important issue of conscience formation, just a word on how it applies to the sensus fidelium. I agree completely that this is not a concept that is useful for personal conscience formation. In raising it, I did not in any way want to imply that our decisions should be based on the results of opinion polls – that would be mere ethical mob rule, which is poles apart from my own thinking. However, it is important in assessing the validity of claims that one or other belief is part of “church teaching” – or is simply part of Vatican doctrine.

Your primary request was for my thoughts on resolving the first question you put:

So, how does a Catholic, wishing to be a faithful Catholic, Christian, and human, go about determining a methodology for discerning how to inform one’s conscience?

I fully accept and agree with your assertion that the primary influences on conscience should be (a) Holy Scripture, (b) assisted and guided by the teaching of the Magisterium. However, there are some serious caveats against relying on these alone, which is why (c) the final arbiter is the individual person – an observation which raises its own difficulties. I take these in three bites, before moving on to two other important considerations.

Holy Scripture

is a vast assemblage of texts, written in languages, literary idioms and historical contexts remote from the language and conditions we are used to. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has warned that there are grave dangers in simplistic readings of specific texts. Rather, a proper understanding of Scripture requires that we approach each with a true understanding of several contexts: the context of the passage in the Bible as a whole; the historical context in which it was written; and the modern context in which we wish to apply it. We also need careful attention to the language and literary idiom in which it was written. Few of us have the skills to properly apply all of these skills in our own study of Scripture. This is why we need the help and advice of specialists, notably in the form of the magisterium.


That alone does not resolve the problem, as much the same difficulties arise. The full magisterium is an even greater assemblage of texts, written (except for the earliest materials) largely for specialists, and in language that is foreign to us. This is why we have the Catechism, which is an attempt to make the magisterium available in a more accessible form to non-specialists. The Catechism has the opposite disadvantage – in its simplification and distillation of a vast body of work, it has lost much of the subtlety and nuance of the full teaching.

There are also more serious difficulties with the entire concept of relying on the Magisterium. Unlike Holy Scripture, there is no claim that it is divinely inspired, nor is there any agreement (that I am aware of) on a fixed, unchanging selection of work that is agreed to be canonical to the exclusion of all others. We know that some key theologians and their works are fundamental, but we also known that some teachings that were once thought to be inviolable have been abandoned, while some secondary writers come in or out of favour, have been  forgotten or been  rediscovered.

We also know that it is human nature that the people in any institution will have a tendency to exaggerate their own importance. So, in evaluating the Magisterium we need to adopt at least some caution, if not outright scepticism, to Church claims about the importance of its own authority.

I have stressed some of the difficulties of simplistic reliance on Magisterium, especially as reduced to the Catechism, but I emphatically do not reject it. I welcome and value the teaching authority of the church: but that is teaching authority, not legislative power. Any good teacher will welcome and encourage a student who criticizes the teacher, provided that he can do so on well-reasoned grounds. Such critical evaluation of the magisterium in its application to conscience formation is appropriate to adult, educated Catholics.

The Individual Person.

Here we have the ultimate conundrum: if Scripture is too vast, remote and complex to yield to simple interpretation by non-specialists and requires the help of the magisterium; and if the magisterium is even more complex and inaccessible to ordinary people, requiring ultimate evaluation by the individual – where is that ordinary Catholic to find the resources to provide that evaluation?

External Knowledge

The first answer, I submit, is to recognize that the magisterium, as produced by Vatican-approved theologians, is not the only source of human knowledge, or even of theology. There was a time when the only theologians were priests or monks, and more specifically bishops and abbots. There was even a time when virtually all (West European) human knowledge was produced or preserved in the Church. Those days are long gone.

Today, we have countless important theologians outside of the Catholic clergy: both in other Christian denominations, and Catholics outside the priesthood, as religious women and lay people. There voices too should be read and considered.  We must also recognize that there is knowledge outside of theology: history, physical and biological sciences, anthropology, medicine and psychology all have useful things to say about the human condition. Some of their findings impact on theology – and so on conscience.

Theologians once accepted without question that creation occurred precisely within a space of seven days. In the light of palaeontology and cosmology, most people now accept that the “seven days” of Genesis are not to be read so literally. In the same way, we need to consider the findings from secular knowledge when evaluating traditional teaching on many issues of theological ethics.

But all of this is simply expanding the sources we need to draw on,  and we cannot possibly expect to have more than a superficial understanding of any single one, let alone the full range of sources I am now recommending: Holy Scripture, Magisterium, church history, secular history, natural history, anthropology and social science, medicine, psychology, and even more.

The task would be impossible, except for the most important source of all.

God, Heard Through Prayer.

I started by rejecting the concept of a mechanical “methodology” for conscience formation, which I did primarily for the connotations of the word as all “head stuff”.  One of the treasures that I took away from the dozen or so years of experience I had in a Jesuit parish and in the Ignatian –based Christian Life Community (CLC), is the importance of balancing “head” and “heart”. All of the foregoing is essentially intellectual head-stuff, but the Lord speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts.

Central to the Ignatian approach to decision-taking is the idea that we need to apply both. First, we must apply our intellects to gather and assess the factual information as best as we are able. Then (or in parallel, in an extended decision), we take  the factual material to prayer, and allow the Lord to speak to us directly in our hearts. It is entirely appropriate, I believe, that conscience is often described as the “still small voice” within us. It is the voice, I believe of God in God self – if only we can learn to hear it.

The Jesuit theologian has written that we all have the potential to find a direct experience of God. When we do, there is nothing that the Church, or even Scripture itself, that can countermand what we learn directly from the ultimate source. And so, to approach this final state of conscience formation, we need to set the neglected task of spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation.

For me, this is a badly neglected area of Catholic education. Perhaps times have changed since I was at school, perhaps it is something that cannot be really appreciated until we have reached a certain maturity. Whatever the reason, I suspect that most Catholics underestimate the importance of prayer not simply as a means of talking to the Lord, (or just asking for favours, in prayers of petition), but as a means of listening for guidance.

How we learn to do so is a vast subject itself, which I do not have either the space or the expertise to go into. But noting its importance, I can now summarize my approach to the formation of conscience:

  • Use Scripture, and the Magisterium, to the best of our ability. We will never achieve full understanding, but we can constantly extend the knowledge that we have.
  • Extend and balance that understanding with additional information, we can access it, from secular source.
  • Add in the one area where we are all experts – our own experiences. Share these with others, and learn also from their stories.
  • Take the whole lot to regular prayer – and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking directly to your heart.

7 Responses

  1. Terence,

    I am humbled and grateful that you would take the time and energy to respond to my questions.

    • David, I am glad to do so. These are important questions, which we all need to consider. Taking the time to think through the issues in a formal way has also been helpful to me.

      The subject is particularly important and topical right now in the UK, as a major theme for commentary on the papal visit. (On the visit itself, I have not been saying to much, as there is just too much to absorb. I will have my say in pieces, as I digest it).

      Somehow we need to find a balance between blind adherence to rule book Catholicism, and an anything – goes substitution of personal ideology for authentic conscience. Finding the balance demands that we regularly question and challenge our own assumptions, and have them challenged for us.

      When I worked professionally presenting and interpreting market research results for my grocery clients, I used to quip that I did not always have the right answers for their marketing problems, but I hoped to ask the right questions. I am grateful to you for putting to me the right questions.

      • Terence,

        I really like the Open Tabernacle for challenging me in my faith. You seem to have a particular gift for presenting “liberal” issues in a thoughtful way without producing a knee-jerk reaction in me.

        I like National Public Radio for these same reasons.

        I have additional comments. However, I would like to think (and pray) about what you have said before responding.

    • Terence,

      Having thoroughly examined your thoughts, I have little to add to how to develop conscience.

      Nevertheless, it appears that Catholics can and do have what appears to be significantly different “consciences” on the same questions. (I put conscience in quotes because I’m not sure what percentage of Catholics can be said to have examined their consciences in forming an opinion on most topics, nor to what extent the opinion is an opinion about the correct social response.) Your own post points out these differences.

      Assuming that most Brits disagree with the current Magisterium on a particular issue, what conclusions can individuals draw about the value of the Brits’ opinions? And what conclusions should the Vatican reach about their own teachings?

      I am deeply troubled by the thought that the Church is losing members over disagreements on morality. On one hand, I can see the wisdom of having the Vatican loosen its hold on the teachings, and even abandoning the teachings in favor of a more open policy. This is essentially the approach the ELCA took with its decision to let individual congregations decide on whether to permit gay pastors to lead congregations. On the other hand, I would consider it intellectually dishonest, and even untruthful for the Vatican to pronounce that same-sex and opposite-sex marriages hold the same qualities of sacramentality or possible sacramentality.

      • David, thank you for taking my thoughts so seriously.

        On the disagreements within the Church, I agree with you that this should not be cause for people to leave. This is also why I find the stance of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of our English church. He has made a number of statements before, during and after the papal visit which together highlight the validity and possibility of disagreements among Catholics. The essential characteristic of the Catholic, he says, is not blind obedience to Church authority, but a search for truth (and the task of discerning that truth, presumably, is where conscience comes in.) None of us (including the CDF) has an automatic, guaranteed pathway to access complete and perfect truth. Conscience and existing teaching will guide us towards that goal, but it is surely not surprising that on some matters our imperfect grasp will lead us to varying conclusions.

        The areas of teaching where there are the greatest disagreements with the Vatican teaching are around sexual morality – but Nichols says this is not the greatest priority of the Church ,pointing out that in terms of representations on public policy, by far the most frequent interventions by the English bishops have been on poverty and education (and for that mater on the Iraq war, although he did not mention that.) It is also important to remember that standard teaching divides Church doctrine into different orders of teaching (a subtlety which the Catechism ignores). My friend and colleague Martin Pendergast, who knows much more about this than I do, has written that these matters are placed in the third order, which allows substantial room for disagreement.

        I don’t believe that the fact that there is disagreement by the British should mean anything at all to an individual Catholic directly. What matters is the voice of one’s own conscience – and that should not be based on what everyone else thinks. However, the fact that the British disagree overwhelmingly on contraception, as do the Irish, the Americans, and every other nationality that has been polled on the subject, should be sending a clear message to the Vatican: they should accept either that the teaching does not have the support of the sensus fidelium, or at the very least, that there is an urgent need for them to demonstrate their evidence that the SF exists.

        In the absence of such evidence, I submit there is a good case for Catholics to accept the prima facie case against, and hence to assume that the teaching has no validity.

        Finally, on the old chestnut of same-sex and opposite-sex marriage, I am not aware of any significant body of opinion anywhere that would argue they should have the “same qualities of sacramentality”, nor would any sane person expect such a statement from the Vatican. However, that is not what the case for “gay marriage” is all about – rather, it is for comparable legal treatment by civil authorities for all civil marriages, which have no sacramental value whatever. Here again, I like Archbishop Nichols, who said that the position of the British bishops on our civil partnership legislation was “nuanced”, recognizing that there is a case for the legal recognition of these relationships. Personally, I believe there is also a case for some church recognition of committed same-sex relationships, and rejoice that some churches do offer church weddings for all couples, but do not see that as an essential aim for all churches.

        Your reference to the ECLA brings me to one crucial issue on the Magisterium and its acceptance by the faithful: the Lutherans, like the other major Protestant denominations, and true to the practice of the earliest Church, provide for the participation of all groups in decision taking, and in the formulation of doctrine. This in itself gives credibility to decisions and increases the probability of acceptance. It is overdue that the Catholic Church should likewise recognize the absurdity of its claims that a small body of Vatican bureaucrats hold a monopoly on Catholic truth.

      • Terence,

        I only have time to make some short comments.

        I do see many people leaving or falling away from the faith because of moral and sexual issues. I also see people using the sex abuse scandal as a rationale for why they aren’t faithful. While some leave and find another faith, I think many just leave and wander aimlessly between agnostic and community belief. The Church has a responsibility to reach out to these people, perhaps not in teaching, but in sacraments and in charity. I think that I have this responsibility also, even if it means that I have to assume the role of an apologist. Once I assumed the role of an apologist, the teachings gained more clarity.

        As I reflected upon this, it occurred to me that the Church’s teaching emphasizes truth too strenuously, or put another way, individuals cannot be taught the truth; they must learn it. Individual conscience have a tendency to rebel against the truth if the truth doesn’t fit the desired outcome.

        For example, in the area of sexual ethics the Church;s teaching is often interpreted as forbidding contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, and out-of-wedlock intercourse. Rooted in these teachings is the respect for human life, and the sexuality that makes it possible. Many individual cases may exist for the exception that sexuality should exist outside the marriage relationship between a man and a woman. And, the exceptions appear to destroy the rule. The easy approach is announce that the conscience has been examined, and the rule doesn’t apply.

        However, if the rule is interpreted as a principle, the exceptions disappear and the exceptions become part of the principle. When God announced, through Moses, that, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, there were probably many naysayers in the crowd demanding to know why they were forbidden to indulge themselves at their own pleasure. Jesus tightened this rule even more. So, as a matter of moral principle, adultery clearly needs to be regulated and controlled.

        While I agree that secular marriage is different than sacramental marriage, I have had a difficult time developing different consciences to deal with the legal, ethical, and moral implications. I think the Church has had some of the same difficulties. Advocating the Church’s message is part of spreading the Gospel. However, it crosses the line when the Church advocates for a particular legal or secular outcome. The most that it can, and should do, is warn of the inherent moral dangers associated with the outcome.

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