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The Editors of U.S. CATHOLIC Interview Sidney Callahan
Have you ever wondered what your conscience is and how exactly it guides you?  If making moral decisions is simply a matter of following our conscience, then why do Christians agonize over so many of the choices they make in their lives?  And how can two conscientious people come to separate decisions on the same issues?


Conscience is not a thing; it's an activity.  It's your active, inner sensing of right and wrong that moves you to make individual decisions but also guides your whole life direction.  In other words, your conscience acts to make you a certain kind of person.  That is your overall, lifelong project.  Conscience isn't just negative, either; it isn't directed toward wrongdoing alone.  It's also positive.  It actively tells you to do certain things and to live by certain ideals.

I believe that your entire being, both your conscious and unconscious life, is what we traditionally call the soul.  It is the whole existing human being's life as known to God.  The human spirit, what psychologists call the self, is that part of the soul that is knowable to us and others.  It is that part of the soul that makes choices and has an outward identity.  Therefore, it is the spirit, or self, that directs the activity of conscience.  And the urgings of your conscience are based on the influence of all the parts of your being -- your free will, your reason, your emotions, and your unconscious motivations.

Your conscience is often called the light of the Holy Spirit within you.  Thus, the human spirit, or the conscious self, is drawn to the divine Spirit.  We are called toward spiritual responses that are based on reality and truth.  That is why you reflect in conscience before you act.  It is your arbiter of reality and truth.  Your conscience is formed by what it knows to be reality or truth and responds to the good.  You process information, arguments, and impressions.  Your moral decisions are based on this knowledge.  Therefore, it is very important to keep your conscience well informed.  A conscientious person is someone who is trying to keep his or her conscience informed by constantly seeking the true and the good.


No, you must care about the knowledge you gain.  You must act upon what you know to be right; otherwise, you will be denying the truth and turning away from God.  You must also be constantly vigilant that you are not deceiving yourself or misinterpreting the truth.  With every decision that you make, you must ask yourself:  is this good in the long run?  In the long run will it hold true and make me deeply happy, or is only a superficial part of me convinced of the truth in this action?  What does the most central me wholeheartedly want and believe?  You must be open to the truth and aware of all the factors that affect your vision of the truth.

When experts talk about making ethical decisions, they often fail to take into account the role of such important areas of human experience as emotion, aspiration, affection, and relationships with other people.  They assume ethical decisions should be based solely on deductive reasoning.  I'm a very rational person myself, but I think ethical decisions are based on reality; and reality encompasses much more than deductive reasoning alone.

 For example, I just wrote a paper on surrogate mothering.  I objected to the idea that reproduction could be looked at strictly in terms of a contract between two parties.  Some ethicists have come to the conclusion that surrogate motherhood is morally acceptable as long as the principles of autonomy, liberty, and procedural fairness are observed.  In my mind, this approach is much too narrow.  To answer the question about surrogate motherhood, you must consider what it means to be a parent and a child.  You can't just take abstract principles that are good principles in their proper place and apply them to an interpersonal situation of this particular complexity.


On fundamental morality most people probably would be in agreement.  Most people everywhere would agree that it is better to do good than evil.  But the question is, then:  why, if we agree on general principles, do we fly in completely different directions on particular issues?  It might be because we're working with different facts; or, more important, we're weighing the same facts differently.  Because of our individual backgrounds and personal values, we hold certain facts to be more significant than others.  For example, in the abortion issue, one person could choose to be pro-choice because he or she holds the right of privacy and a woman's individual freedom above the right of the unborn.  The other person, given the same set of facts about the issue, could choose to be pro-life because he or she holds the right to life above all other fundamental rights.  Both people are convinced they are taking the right stance.

In situations such as these there is often nothing for people to do but follow their conscience and let God be the ultimate judge.  In the end it may be that one person was actually more open to the truth than the other, partly by being more aware of what influences affect his or her moral decisions.  Self-awareness is essential in making ethical decisions.


It's very hard, but the church has set up all kinds of ways for us to know ourselves better.  We can learn a lot about ourselves and consequently others through prayer, meditation, examining our conscience for Confession, worship, reading Scripture, living in community, working with other people, and being in committed relationships.  There are also formation programs and psychotherapy to help us.  We've gotten very sophisticated in this culture about methods for self-examination, growth, and change.

Of course, you must maintain a healthy balance between thinking about yourself and focusing on the outside.  If you're a highly self-conscious, psychological person, you can become obsessed with scruples.  You may begin to worry about every thought you have or action you make.  You feel an inordinate amount of guilt because you are not perfect.  If you find yourself caught in this neurotic, circular self-consciousness, you just have to say, "God, I can't think about this any more.  Please just make me a good person and make me love more."  You simply have to throw yourself on the Spirit in worship and start attending to God instead of worrying about your own state.  Otherwise you could lead yourself into really serious sin.


Ultimately, it is breaking the command to love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Once you do that, you indulge in all the ramifications of turning away from God, such as revenge, self-deception, and self-destruction.  But there are all different degrees of sin.  I think it is rare for people to commit mortal sins, that is, irrevocable denials of God.  I don't think most people are integrated enough, or know themselves well enough, to do that.  Probably only really strong characters could commit mortal sins.  It would take such extreme self-understanding and knowledge of good and evil to freely turn away from God and choose evil.

For most people the act of turning away from God is not a completely free and conscious decision.  More often than not we merely are weak and allow ourselves to be deceived.  Our ability for self-deception allows us to convince ourselves that what we know to be wrong is right.  We can rationalize and defend our transgressions to the point where we can completely block out what we don't want to hear or don't want to know and so lose our sense of sin.


I think that some people are much more predisposed by temperament to be evil or bad and others are predisposed by temperament to be good.  Thus, part of the genetic throw you get is not only your brains and your looks and your talents but also your temperament.  For some people, their rebellious-aggressive temperaments are such that it is much more difficult for them to be good and to be morally socialized.  That is why we can never condemn others because we don't know what they started with or what they had to work with.

Psychologists used to believe that people started with a tabula rasa, an empty slate, just waiting to be written on.  Now, we know that everyone comes pre-wired for all kinds of things - for language, sexual behavior, guilt, shame, altruism, empathy, a sense of fairness and justice, selfishness, and even self-deceit.  We are also greatly influenced and conditioned by our environment.  We are inculcated with systems and scripts from the time we are born that can sometimes take a lifetime to recognize.  Your family, especially, has a tremendous influence on you as does your socioeconomic status, your sex, your heritage, etc.

All of this is not to say that a person's actions are completely determined.  As Catholics we believe that human beings are responsible for their actions.  That is why it is essential for us to strive for self-knowledge.  It is our duty to be conscious of our weaknesses so that we may avoid them.  But we must also be careful that we don't try to deny our darker sides.  We must learn to accept the good and the bad in ourselves and realize that God loves us no matter what.  Often in our proud attempts to deny our capacity for evil we end up committing more evil.  We try to distort reality, which leads us into deeper and deeper self-deception.

In the end we must realize that in order for us to get control of ourselves and somehow reconcile the good with the bad we need God's help.  There are simply certain things in life that we can't accomplish on our own.  We must pray and ask for God's guidance to become the person that God wants us to be.  The first step in recovery is to come to grips with the fact that there are certain things about yourself over which you have no control.  You must hand yourself over to a higher power and accept the things you can and cannot change and pray for the wisdom to know the difference between the two.


It depends on what your motivation is.  If, in the spirit of love, you are bringing a serious matter of conscience to the attention of another person or persons, then, yes, it is right for you to point out the error in somebody's ways.  In fact, it is your Christian duty to admonish the sinner, or remind a person of what he or she really knows to be right.

Nagging implies a desire to control people for their own good.  When you condemn someone, on the other hand, you're ending a relationship.  In condemning someone you are presuming that you know what God thinks about a certain matter.  "Judge not lest ye be judged" refers to condemnation, not moral judgments.

If you're a moral person, you've got to make judgments.  You know that some things are worse than others, and you have an obligation to try to right wrongs.  But such judgments are not condemnations; they are shrewd assessments of what's going on in a particular situation.  That's where admonishing the sinner comes in.  When you admonish someone, you are gently pointing out what appears to be a serious failing in that person.  You're calling the person back to a better self.  You don't tell the person specifically what to do; it is up to the individual to act in his or her conscience.  You're just helping that person become aware of a problem.

By admonishing the sinner you are saying:  "I care about you and your ultimate good, and I will tell you what you'd rather not hear, even at risk of pain, trouble, or your rejection of me."  You are in a situation of love with other people; you can't help but care.  As Christians we can't give up on one another even if our attachments cause us suffering.


I guess the purpose is to be the best person that you can possibly be and the best person to live with, too.  I believe virtue is good for you and makes you happy and sin is bad for you and makes you a mess.  We're made for happiness, which means we're made for virtue.  When we don't act the way we should, we sense that something is wrong; and things start going very badly for us.  Most normal people begin to feel guilt and shame.  If we didn't, we'd have a world full of psychopaths; we wouldn't be able to learn or have a sense of self.  The emotions of guilt and shame come with moral standards and are the consequence of immoral actions.  So, who wants that?  Most people would rather be happy, which comes with being good.

I also believe the welfare of society depends on how morally good its individuals are.  Individual morality influences a group, and a group's morality influences an individual.  If the moral fiber of individuals begins to break down, then the moral fiber of society begins to fray; and thus, the integrity of other individuals in society begins to disintegrate.

That is why developing the best conscience possible is so important.  The more conscious you are, or the better conscience you have, the more aware you will be of the suffering and injustice around you.  You can only effect change when you realize that there is a problem.  Your conscience and consciousness constantly have to be raised.  You then must work to inform others of a situation, and it is through the energy of a small group that society changes and progresses.  Groups can have a great positive force because when you get people together you have the moral resources of many instead of one.  You also have everybody's instincts for moral correction working for you.  All kinds of interesting movements were spread through the efforts of small groups, including Christianity.

Of course, groups, no matter how good their ultimate intentions or goals, can also exert severe pressure to conform.  If you don't conform, you can really be made to suffer.


If you're a Catholic, you have an obligation to follow your conscience and the voice of God within.  Now, you must inform your conscience by listening and seeking counsel and so forth; you don't just automatically know everything.  You have the church as your guide, as a teacher.  But ultimately you have to follow your conscience.  According to Aquinas, it is better to be excommunicated than to go against your conscience.

There does reach a point when you can't always be studying and reading to inform your conscience.  In order to act, every now and then, you must reach little plateaus and say, "Well, this is all I can do right now.  I can do no other."


The better person you are, the better your conscience will be.  Thus, the more you can trust it.  But you will always have your suspicions about certain sticky decisions you have to make that aren't crystal clear cases of right and wrong.  You know you've fooled yourself before, so you'll want to be very careful and try to consider all angles and really examine your conscience before you act.  But regardless of whether you trust your conscience deeply or not, you still must follow it.  Throughout your life there will be times when you will be uneasy about a decision you've made that you will later come to see was right.  There will be other times when you will be absolutely convinced of the truth behind an action only to discover later that you made a big mistake.  Such assessments of your actions keep you humble; you know that you're always open to growth and improvement.

To become a mature person and an adult in your faith, you must learn to make decisions and take responsibility for your actions.  You cannot abdicate the control you have over yourself.  Not even to those you consider wiser than yourself.  No one can make moral decisions for you.  When you get to the final conversation with Jesus and he asks why you acted in a particular way when you knew it was wrong, it's not going to help you to say, "Well the church said it was okay."


Yes, when they are acts of reflective conscience.  You know, the Nazi motto was:  "My honor is my loyalty."  If you think about that, it is really satanic because it is saying that your honor is not to principles, or to the good, or to God -- it is based solely on your loyalty to the group and its leader.  If the group leader tells you to kill gypsies, you kill gypsies; if the leader tells you to bomb some city, you bomb the city.  That is moral suicide.  You are abdicating responsibility for your actions, and that is terribly wrong.

In the same way, your faith is something you own; you are responsible for it.  You cannot just blindly follow the teachings of the church.  You must try to the best of your ability to ensure that your actions or omissions are what you truly believe to be the will of God.  There is no easy, automatic standard like:  if it feels good, it must be right; or if it feels bad, it must be wrong; or if the church tells me it's right, then it must be right.

Doubt and dissent do not necessarily mean disloyalty.  The church may not be a democracy; but it is not a guerrilla underground, either, run by some elite corps whose members must distance themselves from the masses and insist upon absolute obedience and secrecy for security's sake.  Doubt and dissent are therapeutic.  They keep us from self-deception.  If you constantly accept everything you are told and assume that things never change, then you have lost sight of living reality.  You are no longer in tune with the truth with which you have a Christian duty to be.  Change is good; it is essential to Christian life.  We are all called to be transformed by the Good News.  Transformation is a continuous process.  Your consciousness should continue to change and develop throughout your life.


When you make a commitment, you are saying that you have enough trust in yourself to have the power and control to be able in the future to abide by what you now want to sign up for.  You are committing yourself to make something happen.  It's not just that things go along, and you're the same person at the end of your life; and if you're not, then you won't be able to be bound by any past promises.  You make a commitment that you will make a marriage last, for example, or you will be faithful and loyal to God despite any future adversity.

Making commitments is what it means to be a person.  It is the difference between people who take charge and shape their lives and people who drift along letting life shape them.  By making commitments you, in fact, make yourself much more open to change.  You become someone who can accept diversity and take on different forms without losing your fundamental identity and sense of self.  People who are afraid of change find it much more difficult to make commitments.  For Catholics that posses quite a problem because commitment is a fundamental part of the faith.  As a Catholic you must believe in God's promises and God's fidelity; and God's actions should inspire you to be committed and faithful to God and to others.  So, from a psychological and religious point of view, being able to make commitments is an essential part of being human.


Psychology helps you to know yourself - to understand how your mind works and what motivates you.  And knowing yourself is the key factor in developing your conscience and avoiding sin.  Our faith, in fact, makes many psychological demands on us.  We are called to be transformed, to die to ourselves, and become slowly changed.  Such transformation, in my opinion, is addressed to the psyche, the mind and heart; it is a psychological command.  Therefore, understanding the mind more can help us follow such commands.

Faith also makes good psychological sense because the more in touch with reality you are, the more sane you are.  From a Christian's point of view, reality is God; therefore, the more in touch with God you are, the more healed and balanced and psychologically healthy you should become.

In recent years, psychology and religion have been meeting on many more levels.  Nowadays, Freud's ideas that all actions are predetermined are no longer generally accepted.  Human beings are thought to be basically good and able to overcome their inherited traits and predispositions.  That, of course, has always been Catholic thought -- that human beings are wounded but not depraved and that one is responsible for and free to choose one's fate.  So you see, psychology and religion have much to teach each other.


One crisis that seems to be slipping up on us is the economic crisis.  When I look around, it seems to me that the craziest thing is the way the economy is run and the way work is arranged in this country.  The fact that people can be homeless because they can't find work and other people have so much money they don't know what to do with it just doesn't make sense.

People have accepted such extreme imbalances without question.  But now I think we're becoming more conscious of the injustice of it.  I would guess and I hope that in the next twenty years the economic makeup of our society will be the area in which there will be the greatest change.  Down the road, I think we will say to ourselves:  how could we have accepted the fact that there were 40,000 homeless people in New York City?

People can become hardened to the injustice they see around them.  I hope in the years to come that our heightened sense of horror over the way the economy is run will overcome our habituation to seeing so many poor and homeless people.  That's why it's so nice to have new generations:  they aren't habituated yet.  They come into the world fresh, and they wonder and question and challenge.  So, there is hope and a chance for progress; and that is the Good News.


Sidney Callahan, Associate Professor of psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, is author of WITH ALL OUR HEART AND MIND: THE SPIRITUAL WORKS OF MERCY IN A PSYCHOLOGICAL AGE (Crossroad), and a member of the National Board of Directors of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC).
Reprinted by ARCC with permission, U.S. Catholic, Dec. 1988.

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 10 March 2001
Last updated 10 March 2001
Electronic version copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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