What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Conscience’

The concept of Conscience, and conscience in itself is in my view, one of the most important concepts and experiences that a human being can aspire, seek and/or experience. Is at the critical point of understanding one existence and purpose, however

What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Conscience’

There is in our culture and ourselves a high need of freedom, certainty and discernment on what we do. The own individuals sense of purpose and their own social nature, which seek for love and approval, creates a complex inter-relational web where each individual is formed.

But reality is always there, showing us that we are not as free as we think we are. Certainty on what we consider right or wrong more often is challenged up to the point where we are not sure of those values anymore, and the discernment we need to not to fall in this desolated world seems to fall short from our hearts.

This self-awareness, that it can be easily track down in the philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno or Søren Kierkegaard, expose the conflict between ourselves and that strive of “do good / avoid evil” (synderesis) and society.

Commonly called conscience, in this essay firstly I will outline the most common definitions of conscience, secondly In the light of the knowledge introduce by psychology in the last century I will assess the main challenges to the previous definitions, thirdly I will expand of what Christian tradition understands for conscience To finally draw conclusion on what do we mean today when we say conscience.


“It is that moral faculty which tells people subjectively what is good and evil and which manifests their moral obligation to them.” (Peschke, pp203)

From this basic definition we can infer a simple differentiation between the manifestations of moral obligation and the action that fulfils it.

For Karl H. Peschke in his book Christian Ethics, conscience can be divided also as moral faculty, which from traditional scholastic theology can be consider “as a particular instance of the operation of reason.” and “process in which the general norms of the moral law are applied to a concrete action.” (pp203)

From this point of view, Peschke define conscience as the courier between the law and how to apply it to a concrete individual situation. “Conscience accordingly is considered a judgement of the practical reason.” (Peschke, pp 203)

From different traditions in Christianity, the Augustinians and Franciscan understood conscience briefly as “the place of the loving colloquy between God and man, therefore the voice of God.” also “Conscience is the Devine centre of a person, where he is addressed by God, in it he is aware of God and the soul”

“It is that center of the soul where man encounters God and is the least accessible to the contamination of sin.” (Peschke, pp 204)

And from most recent approaches, theologians define conscience as “Not just one faculty, but the result of an interplay between intellect, will and man’s total personality.” other Franciscan theologians place conscience in what it is called the “scintilla animae” or the ground of the soul. “They consider it a reality deeper than reason and will and distinct from both, the centre of the human person.”(Peschke, pp 204)

But there is another component to conscience that plays a crucial role beyond the definition of “synderesis”, for Bonaventure it also has a volitive quality, an urge to the person to do good when he realize it.

So far synderesis is an impulse that every man born with however, practical moral knowledge is something that develops with experience, education, study etc. Peschke argues that within this process the moral law becomes a personal possession acquired by “the practice of the good” (pp 206)

We can also go to the bible to find numerous reference either in the New and Old Testament, however the word conscience it is not used as such, words like “mind”, “loins” and “heart” are used instead.

So far we can distinguish two areas from the definitions of conscience, on one hand the natural and common human tendency to seek to do good and avoid evil (synderesis) and on the other the acquisition of moral values and their practice in society.

Although mostly all moral theologians are inclined to see these two areas as one this ligature posits a rather simplistic way of understanding the tradition of Natural Law where all these definitions came from, therefore the confusion on the definition of conscience.

Before we jump directly into a further explanation of the concept of conscience, we have to explore a few aspects of Aquinas thought on law and the types of law that exists in his philosophy.

For Aquinas the definition of law

  • “Is to prescribe or prohibit. Such executive commanding issues from the reason, as already noted. Consequently law is a function of reason.” (Summa q 90 pp5)
  • “Law can be present in two manners, first as in the ruling and measuring principle, in this manner it is in the reason alone. Second, as in the subject ruled and measured, and in this manner law is present wherever it communicates a tendency to something.” (q90 article 1 pp7)
  • “To be a principle of human acts” (q90 article 2 pp9)
  • “Law is nought else than an ordinance of reason for the common good made by the authority who has care of the community and promulgated.” (Summa q 90 article 4 pp 17)

It also recognizes three different types of law, Eternal law, natural law and human law. But as we sees before all this concepts are understood to humans by reason, as in general the laws for Aquinas are a theory of understanding the universe from where it is to what it should be.

As a man of faith understanding that “the universe is governed by God’s mind” and “since God’s mind does not conceive in time, but has an eternal concept” thus Aquinas call this law Eternal law.

Therefore all the laws who rules humans are a consequence of the eternal law, and nature and its order becomes important, Eternal law is above natural law and this is more important than human law. Meanwhile all of these concepts are acquired by reason “reason cannot fully grasp the meaning of God’s command”. (q91 article 3 pp27)

Aquinas also acknowledged that this perceptions of the law are not sufficient mostly because they are human interpretations. “The human reason is not of itself the measure for things. Yet principles instilled in it by nature provide general rules and measures for what men should do. It is of these human deeds, not of the nature of things, that human law is the measure.”(q91 article 3 pp 27)

Furthermore, a proper interpretation of Aquinas thinking about all law interpretations held high science as a means to understand what divine and natural law is to human law. “That is why human laws cannot have the inerrancy that marks conclusions of demonstrative science” (q91 article 3 pp27).

For Aquinas science is a basic tool to understand the laws of nature and with it by analogy we can understand the eternal laws and by seeking the common good we can promulgate human laws.

Today’s there is a popular feeling of moral uncertainty and moral relativity in terms of Christian Ethics. The development in science and technology lead us to a very difficult place where the old understanding of what it means to be a human clashes with a new understanding of what actually really happens.

In the matter of reproductive technologies, euthanasia, sex behaviour, medical ethics, psychology, scientists are moving faster in understanding natural law than the moral theologians and meanwhile the first ones are developing the principles from what they see and experience from the world, the latter still seeing the world from the perspective of a man who lived another.

The irony lies that meanwhile as we shown that Aquinas was aware of the limitations of his understanding of his present world, current moral theologians defend and held Aquinas views from what they think is his own perspective.

But how this new understanding affects the concept of conscience?

The discoveries in human psychology and the formation of the conscience and the values as we will see later, posits questions on what is the role of synderesis, where does it start or ends, when is a personal value or a general moral value?

Origin of conscience

Current psychologies schools for Peschke define conscience as a “merely the reflection of opinions which man has acquired from the social environment and from other influences to which he has been exposed” (Peschke pp 213)

Early schools of psychology, i.e., Sigmund Freud, sustain that there is three basic structures in our personality; the id, the ego and the superego.

  • The id, “instinctual drives largely dominated by the pleasure principle.”
  • The Ego, “the conscious structure which operate in the reality principle to mediates the forces of the id, the demands of society and the reality of the physical world”
  • The Super ego, “the ego of another superimposed on our own to serve as an internal censor to regulate our conduct by using guilt as its powerful weapon.” (Gula, Christian ethics pp 111)

Richard Gula argues that there is a common confusion among moral theologians between conscience and super ego. The reasons are, as we see before, that the traditional concept of conscience partially but mostly formed from reason and education.

He briefly states the differences in nine points.

Super ego

1)    Commands for the sake of approval and fear of losing love
2)    Turned in toward self in order to secuere one’s sense of being valued
3)    Static, repeating the prior command, unable to learn or function in a new situation
4)    Orientated primarily towards authority
5)    Primary gives attention to individual acts
6)    Orientated to the past – the way we were
7)    Punishment is the way to reconciliation
8)    Transition from guilt to self-renewal becomes easy when confessed to authority
9)    Disproportion between the feeling of guilt and the values at stake


1) Responds to others, co-creates self values.
2) Openness toward the other and the value calling for action.
3) Dynamic and sensitive to the demand of values.
4) Orientated primarily towards value.
5) Primarily gives attention to context
6) Orientated to the future – the sort of person one ought to become
7) Reparation comes through structuring the future
8) Self-renewal is a gradual process
9) The felling of guilt is proportionate to the value at stake and to the degree of knowledge and freedom. (Gula, Christian ethics pp 127)

Another psychologist, Karl Jung, dissent with Freud’s definition of ego and super ego, he also argues that there is more than the individual in the formation of conscience than the self and social, nature and spiritual structures and belief play a more important role.

Peschke define Karl Jung definitions as “Through the ego man is aware of himself and has access to all those spiritual realities which can be called to consciousness.” or “A kind of superstructure of the ego is the “persona”. It is an outer cover of man’s personality, whose purpose is to hide the individual’s true nature and at the same time to make a particular impression on the surrounding world” (Peschke pp 214)

They might seem today little semantic differences between one and another, however, the different semantics, psychology opens the door to a new understanding of human nature, with these studies it is clear that the individual character and the ability to make choices it also play a role in what we call conscience.

The conscience develops from childhood to adult from a must conscience to ought conscience; “Must conscience” is the conscience to conform authority, society or the Super ego; “Ought conscience” conviction from an inner value. (Peschke pp 216)

The must and ought conscience imply a development which needs guidance beyond the synderesis, in that process Peschke also argues that moral value from authority is necessary because a mature conscience not always is achieved, thus conscience not always operates.

For Peschke the “must conscience to the largest extent reflects the moral law of the community.”(Peschke pp 218) and submission to the laws is necessary because it is a way of acknowledging what is not mature from me.

If we analyse Peschke’s arguments, having in mind that for him “perfect maturity of conscience, such as realized by those saints… is certainly rare and cannot be considered the situation of the average Christian” (Peschke, pp 219), seems to me that the closest we can get to that perfect conscience for Peschke is just abiding the law unless you are a saint.

If we consider the definition of the super ego given before and his submission to the law principles, It can be inferred that his thoughts are imposed by the sources of moral truth, such us the authority of the magisterium for example and his idea of conscience would be a product of the super ego imposed to him.

I have the impression that it is always the same problem when it comes to a problem between science and religion.

My main problem with current moral theologians is, If we are built with that ability to discern between what it is right or wrong (synderesis), and because of that discernment, we freely create a law (natural law which is our understanding of what it is the eternal law), then when we realize that we might have done a misjudgement in our interpretation of the natural law, we claim that the law cannot be wrong (ignorance) we call the authority of the law, instead of going back to the sources (nature) for new answers to find out what it is right or wrong (synderesis + discernment) that it is the only truth acknowledged by faith.

The separation of the three main elements of conscience not necessarily means that they operate correlatively the process also it is simultaneous, but the formula, figuratively, of how much from each aspect we take in our conscience it is personal.

Character and choice.

Richard Gula argues that these are two aspects mostly are left aside by moral theologians in what it is concern to the formation of conscience.

Individuals make moral choices, and every single individual has a particular way or formula. This very particular way describe the kind of choices we make follow from the kind of character we have. “Character gives rise to choice”(Gula, Reason informed by faith pp138)

There is an inseparable connection between the two; one does not show without the other. My character is perceived through my actions and my actions are a consequence of my character.

The choices I make are determined by the way I am, how I process and understand the values that surround me, and my experiences. For example, the character of a hero is to go and help those in need because firstly he can and secondly he feels an obligation towards those he can help.

Character comes with a particular vision, a particular way of seeing reality. Which it is foregoing any moral decisions because to be able to take a stand, first we have to discern what it is.

Richard Gula argues that “From vision comes choice. We respond to what we see. The response we make is shaped, too, by the sort of persons we have become. In fact, being a good person has a greater influence on the choices we make than any system of principles or methods of making a decision.”(Gula, Rif, pp 147)

Up to this point, we have seen from a Psychology and a Christian perspective of different aspects about what it is conscience. From this point taking Richard Gula’s morality definition of Christianity “A fundamental axiom of Catholic morality is that morality is based on reality”(RIF, pp147) I will explore some current views between Theology and conscience.

From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 16 the Catholic Church holds “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.” And from the Declaration on Religious Freedom, n. 3 “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives, of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. it follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.”

For the Church conscience is one of the three pivotal foundations of the personal experience along faith and freedom. If everyone comes with this ability the main theological and philosophical question would be why and when we have to make a law or a moral rule which clear in our minds what it is already given by God?

Between the boundaries of Exhortative to Normative ethics I feel that the Church leans towards the latter although cannot denied that the core of conscience according Gula’s views of Catholic tradition is an expression of the whole person, the person coming to a decision, and the person commitment to values.

Although today will be naïve to believe that all the people will reach a “mature conscience” or a discernment about themselves and the others so perfect that reaches saintly status, Church pastoral policy focuses on those which cannot achieve such maturity.

As we saw from Aquinas law’s, human law are there for the common good, and in that sense the Church have done plenty, however can we say that these laws or morals combined with the knowledge as per how conscience is formed leaves room to freedom or faith?

It seems to be a conflict between freedom and authority; on one hand Pastoral documents of the Church holds personal conscience as the secret core and sanctuary of  man but on the other officially gives the magisterium a supra status of authority against human conscience asking for “religious assent” and “the submission of will and of mind”

On Gula’s words these are a call “for a serious effort to reach intellectual agreement that what is taught is an expression of truth. Also, it means that we must strive for a personal appropriation of the teaching so as to live by it out of personal conviction.”(RIF, pp 156). Furthermore “When faced with questions which pertain to dissent from non-infallible teaching of the Church, it is important for catechists to keep in mind that the presumption is always in favor of the magisterium. (Gaudium et Spes, n. 190)

On Gula’s perspective, using the Magisterium as means of institutionalized authority has advantages and disadvantages.

The disadvantages:

  • Need cooperation and interactivity
  • Being a human process makes it fallible
  • It does obscure the human character of the process of formulating moral teaching.

The advantages:

  • Provides structure to the insights and various perspectives “so as to reach as complete an expression of truth about the moral life as possible”
  • To help us to understand the gospel for our times (RIF, pp 154)

The cohesion within teaching and interpretations might be the appealing side of this arguments, on the other hand we have seen the consequences in history when authority is considered above human freedom (Nazi Germany, Stalin regime, the dictatorships in Latin America on the 70’ etc.) and from this perspective the argument of authority (the presumption always in favor the magisterium) over human conscience it is by far less appealing.

From here the arguments goes outside the scope of this essay, although a free and thorough examination on the Church Magisterium its authority against and throughout conscience it is not just needed it is also imperative.

In Aquinas terms and paraphrasing his ideas, may be it is a good time to revise the current understanding of natural law or the discernment of who really are to re-write the human law for the common good and in faith and conscience achieve a better understanding of what it is the eternal Law.


There is among moral theologians a fairly consensual definition of the elements that belongs, develop and form conscience.

From the basic concept of synderesis, where everybody born with the ability to discern and love what is good and avoid evil, going through our education when we learn to interact with society and ourselves finding approval and the values through authority till then after finding ourselves deciding whether or not our decisions is correct using our spiritual guidance from loving good and avoid evil, all the elements in hand from tradition and education to finally take a conscience decision which translate into an action.

Developments in psychology at a certain time change our understanding of this process and these discoveries challenged certain areas of authority in moral matters. Psychology basically introduces the idea that there is much of self-created human understanding in moral values attributed to conscience than values coming from God.

Instead of working around a new discovery and finding out how God actually created it, Most theologians felt impelled to defend the moral values through authority but not reason, when the same tradition they are set to defend it is based in reason instead authority.

As we saw in this essay Conscience is the individual process which develops from a natural will of doing good and avoid evil towards the accepted values either those we acquired through experience or society that help us to discern right from wrong.

As what it is for me, I would like to answer this question with an analogy.

The three elements which play a role in the formation of consciences; synderesis, character and society; interacting between them like the mystery of the trinity; Father; son and Holy Spirit.

Father = Society – Super Ego
Son = Character – Id
Holy Spirit = Synderesis

None of them can interact without the other, but each one can be also understood on its own, and I think this is the reason why, from tradition, conscience is the area where God talk to us and it is inviolable and we should always follow our conscience.

I would like to finish with some thoughts on discernment from John Climacus in The Ladder Of Devine Ascent.
“This present generation is wretchedly corrupt. It is full of pride and hypocrisy. It works as hard as the fathers of old, but it has none of their graces. And yet there has been no era so much in need of spiritual gifts as today. Still, we got what we deserved, since God is made manifest not in labours but in simplicity and in humility.” (Climacus John, pp 236)
“Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.”

“Discernment is an uncorrupted conscience.” (Climacus John, pp229)


Peschke, Karl H; Christian Ethics Moral Theology in the light of the Vatican II Volume I; 1986; C. Goodliffe Neale Ltd.
Gula, Richard M; Conscience; 1999; Christian Ethics An Introduction; Editor Bernard Hoose; Cassel.
Gula, Richard M; Reason Informed By Faith;
Aquinas, Thomas; Summa Theologiae; Volume 28 Law and political theory; 1966; Blackfriars.
Climacus, John; The Ladder of Devine A

Aquinas, Climacus, conscience, Philosophy, religion

Mariano Gutiérrez Alarcón

This is Mariano's Blog, here is a compilation of all my interests, as eclectic as they are, my main intention here is articulate them all in one place, and a better platform to show my work and my thoughts freely.

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