During the many years that I have been teaching philosophy, I have taught an ethics course only once. However, in some other courses that I have taught, I have tried to provoke the students to reflect on what a conscience is and what factors contribute to the forming of a conscience.
I offer them the following definition of conscience: A conscience is the habitual way that a human consciousness judges in moral matters.
Everyone has a conscience. Some of the factors that contribute to the forming of a conscience are parents, siblings, schools, books, newspapers and magazines, television, films, friends and, of course, religion.
I stress that because conscience is a habit, it does not change easily. In trying to impress on the students that consciences do not change easily, I frequently use three examples from my own life. One example is from Sunday liturgies, one deals with nuclear war, and the third deals with capital punishment. In one parish in which I celebrated Sunday Eucharist regularly, one of the parishioners told me about a lady who was very prejudiced.
I decided that I was going to try to help the person to see that her bigotry was not acceptable because of her Catholic faith. Prejudice is a sin. Every time I saw the lady at a Sunday Eucharist, no matter what the topic was for the homily that Sunday, I made sure that I mentioned in my homily something about the evil of prejudice. I did that for several years.
Eventually I discovered that I had not made a dent in the lady’s outlook. None of my homilies dissuaded her from her prejudiced outlook.
Prejudice is irrational. It does not make sense. None of the exhortations I made in my homilies bore fruit. The only apparent benefit from my failed homilies is that the failure emphasized for me that conscience
is a habit and it does not change easily.
For years, I presumed that a nuclear war could be moral. I am not sure what changed my mind, but I know that my conscience did not change easily. I think people like Dorothy Day and Father Dan Berrigan
challenged my conscience. I now think a nuclear war cannot be moral. Nothing can justify the killing of millions and millions of people.
I am not a pacifist, but I think that if a nuclear war broke out, I would have to oppose it and engage in passive resistance.
Examining my own conscience, I discovered a tendency to sin of which I was previously unaware. The tendency is so contrary to what I write and preach about that I was surprised that it took me so long to
Having recognized it, I have taken steps to combat it, which is what we should do when our conscience informs us of something in our lives that should be corrected.
When I discuss conscience with students in my philosophy classes, I often contrast my view of conscience with Sigmund Freud’s view of the superego. The only philosophy that Freud knew was mechanistic. Though he spent his life freeing clients, when it came time for him to explain his theories, Freud claimed that we are not free.
If Freud had studied existentialist philosophy, he would have had a better philosophical source to use in explaining his theories. Existentialism’s stress on freedom might have illuminated Freud’s therapy
I try to distinguish my conscience from what Freud called the superego. I suspect that at one time in my life when I suffered from terrible scrupulosity, it was superego, a blind censor, which was making me feel
guilty when I had not done anything immoral.
My suspicion, and it is just a suspicion, is that a number of Catholics have stopped celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation because they are no longer plagued by their superegos, no longer bothered by unhealthy guilt.
What the Church has to do is help people appreciate the sacrament in a new way, a way that will help all of us toward examining our consciences in a healthy way and try to correct not imaginary sins, but what really is getting in the way of our journey toward God.
Ultimately, we need a Christocentric conscience, one that is based on our love relationship with God and our surrender to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Such a conscience will liberate us so that the sacrament of reconciliation will really be a celebration.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute
talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.