When God created humanity, part of His plan was that we wouldn’t just live here on earth, but that we would someday live with Him in heaven. In order to get to heaven we need to be on the same page as God. We need to love and respect holiness, and strive to be holy. In order to show us what it means to be holy, and help us get to Him when we die, God created the 10 Commandments. These basic rules show us not just how to get to heaven, but how to thrive and be happy here on earth. Even the Israelites realized that the Commandments, which were groundbreaking at the time, were a gift to them that God did not give to other nations (Psalm 147:19-20.) God had a plan, and that plan needed guidelines. When we don’t follow the guidelines we work against God’s plan. This brings chaos and misery to us and our society. We only have to look at our current culture to see proof of that.
Not following the guidelines, and the spirit behind them, is not being holy. It is separating oneself from God. That is sin. Deliberately choosing to do something that you know displeases God, not just hurts your relationship with your Creator, but hurts you. But we have a tendency to sin that was passed down to us from the choices Adam and Eve made, and this makes it harder for us to choose holiness.
God knew that we couldn’t accomplish this on our own, so He sent us Someone who we could relate to; another human, who would not just explain to us again how to follow God’s guidelines, but also take the penalty due us from our Sin. That person is Jesus.
BUT, God also placed in us a practical intellect that would be able to sense and deduce right from wrong. To deduce when we have parted from the guidelines, and to guide us back to the straight and narrow road that leads to heaven. Like a divine compass. This practical intellect is called our Conscience.
Most Catholics (73%) say they follow their conscience, but most don’t even know what that really is. They think it is common societal wisdom or their feelings on the matter, but that isn’t correct. The Catholic Dictionary says conscience is “a specific act of the mind applying its knowledge to a concrete moral situation. What the mind decides in a given case depends on the principles already in the mind.”
In other words, to make good moral decisions we have to have formed our conscience by learning what God thinks. Not what society, the big newspapers or TV networks, or pop psychologists think – but what GOD thinks. This is taught to us through the Catholic Church He left on earth to help us, because it is really all about staying in relationship with Him, and cooperating with the plan he set in place for us as a people, and individually. We need to gain as much knowledge as we can in order to know when something is right or wrong.
That “knowledge” is attained by a lot more than just reading a few newspaper articles, listening to talk shows, or chatting with family and friends. This is exactly what I did for a good portion of my life, falsely believing I was being led by my “own conscience,” when in reality I wasn’t going very deep at all. I was not venturing beyond surface emotions and opinions, and certainly not following Church teaching. I can also honestly say there was little or no prayer involved and no consultation with those knowledgeable in the faith.
It’s really quite ironic. Well, “shocking” might be a better word for it, especially for someone trained as a journalist, as I was, who was very good at research and digging deeper when it came to covering an important story. But when it came to making serious moral decisions in my life, all of that training was never applied. I just did what I felt was right at the time for me.
Today, when we have so much information quite literally at our fingertips, we have no excuse for claiming ignorance about what the Church teaches when it comes to serious moral matters. It’s not all that difficult to find out what the Church teaches on any given topic, and yet how many of us bother to go beyond the headlines of a few sensational articles about what the pope said or did, to seek real knowledge about our faith?
Now don’t get me wrong. The Church doesn’t tell us that we can’t read or watch the news, or listen to our favorite talk show in order to help us gather information. But the Church does tell us that such sources are only the beginning. When it comes to forming our conscience properly as Catholic Christians, everything needs to be done in light of our relationship with God. If we’re serious about that relationship, we will take that formation to God in prayer.
Now, we have to be careful about reliance on the secular media for information on faith-based issues — or, really, relying on the secular media for information on any major issue nowadays. (As someone who spent half of her professional life in secular newsrooms, I can tell you that this is a mistake.) The media, in general, have become very sloppy and very much agenda driven; and their agenda is hardly in line with Catholic values.
Studies going as far back as the early 1980s show that a majority of those who work inside America’s newsrooms are either agnostic or atheist. A majority also strongly support legalized abortion on demand, so-called same-sex marriage, and artificial contraception, just to name a few of the hot-button issues. In a perfect world, their personal opinions shouldn’t matter. Journalists should be able to cover stories by at least attempting to report on both sides without revealing what they believe or feel. But those days, for the most part, are long gone. The studies confirming media bias are too many to list here. Religion isn’t important to them unless it’s an opportunity to criticize religion — in particular, the core teachings of the Catholic Church, beliefs also shared by evangelicals and other people of faith. Some in the media industry (even the Executive Editor of the New York times) admit as much, saying they just don’t “get religion.”
One reason many Catholics do not consult Catholic sources is they don’t even know that there are such Catholic sources, including great documents by the popes and bishops, which are there to guide us in living and making decisions based on our faith.
Certainly, we’re all busy. It can be a bit overwhelming to think about carving out more time in our already jampacked day, to add one more thing to that ever-growing to-do list. But when something is important to us, we do take the time. We find the time for the things and people we love. We find the time and do the research, the thinking, and the analyzing when it comes to other big decisions. If we’re buying a new home, we are going to seek out a real estate agent with experience and knowledge of the neighborhoods we’re considering. We’re going to talk with people who live in those neighborhoods. We’re going to take our time finding the best schools in those neighborhoods and talk to administrators, teachers, even other parents. We’re going to do our homework.
And that’s what properly forming our conscience entails. It involves doing our spiritual homework. When we were growing up, it was our parents and other authoritative figures that helped us in our formation process. As children, we are given discipline and structure. At times, looking back, we can think that the discipline, structure, or rules were all fine when we were young; but as adults, we’re smart enough to make a go of it on our own. This is the approach I took. We consider this true freedom, having the ability to make up our own minds. Yet Pope Francis has explained that true freedom comes in being open to God and what he is trying to say to us, as opposed to silencing that inner voice:
“Jesus wants us free, and this freedom — where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience. If a Christian does not know how to talk with God, does not know how to listen to God, in his own conscience, then he is not free— he is not free.”
– Pope Francis
The Catechism also clearly states that formation of conscience, just like our relationship with Jesus, is a lifelong commitment:
“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 (cf. Ps 119:105), 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.” (CCC 1784–1785)
If we break down the last part of this Catechism quote, we can see the step-by-step process we should take in forming our conscience:
- We should take a look at what the Bible has to say about the decisions we’re trying to make.
- We should pray about our decisions earnestly, and frequently ask God if there are any areas in our life where we are making up our own rules instead of following His. A daily examination of conscience before bed helps us to see where we are doing well or have failed, and how we can do better tomorrow.
- We should ask for help from the Holy Spirit.
- We should turn toward those knowledgeable in the Faith— perhaps our pastor or someone involved in teaching the Faith.
- And last, but not least, we should use the teachings of the Church as our guide. If we come to a decision that is directly in conflict with what our faith teaches, then we need to go back to the spiritual drawing board.
So where do we go for information to form our consciences?
- The Bible, of course, is the first thing you should have. If you don’t have one, buy a Catholic Bible as soon as you can.
- Get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Catechism (which is in an easier question and answer format,) or read it online for free.
- Read your parish’s weekly bulletin. And don’t forget your parish probably has a website and Facebook page too!
- Read your local Catholic newspaper, examples are: Detroit Catholic, Florida Catholic, & Texas Catholic. Printed copies may be in the back of your church.
- Many parishes subscribe to “Formed,” which is online digital Catholic easy-to-understand content to help Catholics grow in their knowledge of the Catholic Faith.
- Visit the Vatican website and your diocese’s website to read information, and for your bishop’s blog, or documents on a topic. For an example, here is my diocese, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s website.
- Visit faithful Catholic press, such as Vatican News, Our Sunday Visitor, EWTN News, National Catholic Register, Ave Maria Radio, EWTN Radio, Catholic News Agency. The Resources page on my website TeresaTomeo.com has an extensive list of trusted sources of Catholic news, information and commentary.
- Online Catholic Media such as videos & podcasts by Ascension Press, EWTN’s YouTube Channel, Word on Fire’s excellent audio and video shows, and multitudes of great Catholic podcasts for every person and interest on iTunes & the Google store are available. Catholic Answers has an amazing website and audio and video programs, and an app to help you with any Catholic questions you may have. It should be one of your first stops to learn the faith.
- Visit your local or online Catholic bookstore, or visit faithful Catholic publishers for excellent books about the faith. Some examples are: Our Sunday Visitor Bookstore, Ignatius Press, Sophia Institute Press, Emmaus Press, The Word Among Us Press, & Ascension Press.
We are adults, and we should have more than just an elementary or middle school understanding of the faith. We should have an adult faith. To obtain an adult faith we need continuing education to help us pursue what is the greatest treasure, and the greatest goal of our lives – heaven. There are no do-overs.
Note: This is an adapted excerpt from Teresa Tomeo’s book “Beyond Sunday: Becoming a 24/7 Catholic” published by Our Sunday Visitor.