Conscience, the Bible, and the Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1785:

“In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, 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” (cf. #1777, 1782-1784, 1786-1794).

In short, Catholics hold that a properly formed conscience is necessarily brought about by the input of the Bible and the Church. It can’t be separated from that. The notion of “conscience formed by the guidance of the Church” is entirely a scriptural one.

Our consciences are clearly formed by many outside influences: upbringing, culture, friends, moral teachings inculcated in the normal course of life, and the Bible itself and whatever ecclesiastical authority we attempt to abide by.

The Catholic argues that the Church is fundamental in forming an individual conscience, and that it won’t conflict with the Bible.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t relegate doctrine to conscience alone (theoretically tied to the Bible alone). To the contrary, Paul is quite clear that there is one doctrine, one truth, one “faith” (“the faith”) and that this is in line with the Church. Whatever the individual arrives at through conscience, St. Paul would say has to be in line with “the faith,” “the truth,” “tradition,” “the gospel,” etc. We see that in the following passage:

St. Paul and other writers, again, do not disconnect an informed Christian conscience from the guidance of the Church:

Acts 23:1, 6 (RSV): “And Paul, looking intently at the council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.’ … But when Paul perceived that one part were Sad’ducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial.’”

Paul here shows what he means by having a “good conscience.” It was formed in the context of tradition. He identifies with the mainstream doctrinal school (Pharisaism), over against the Sad’ducees, who denied the resurrection, and angels (see 23:7-8). He ties in conscience with “the truth” and “doctrine” and “the faith”:

1 Timothy 1:3-5: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (cf. 3:9; 2 Cor 4:2).

1 Timothy 4:1-2: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared …”

Titus 1:13-15: “This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth. To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”

The writer of Hebrews also follows suit:

Hebrews 10:22-23: “… let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (cf. 13:17-18)

Likewise, when St. Peter refers to “conscience” it is in the context of a non-optional Christian doctrine: baptismal regeneration:

1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience …”

We see, therefore, that the Catholic approach, stated in the Catechism, is harmonious with the biblical worldview.

Dave Armstrong has been a published Catholic apologist since 1993. Dave has written or edited 48 books on apologetics, including several bestsellers. If you’d like to help keep his influential teaching apostolate going as a much-needed monthly supporter, write to Dave at [email protected]