Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Forming a Catholic Conscience

by Dr. Mark S. Latkovic


In this article Mark S. Latkovic reminds parents of one of their greatest responsibilities: "…the sacred duty we have to help our children in their quest for the good of moral truth." He explores the roles of conscience, free choice, and character; he also explains the stages of moral education and how to form a Catholic conscience in our children.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


29-32 and 52-54

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, 2515 McAllister St., San Francisco, CA, August-September 2000

I. Our Need For Moral Truth: The Role Of Conscience, Free Choice, And Character

Although we have now just begun a new millennium, I think it is safe to say that while the "Christian conscience" will face never-before-encountered challenges, i.e., "new things," conscience itself will remain unchanged. However, in order to form soundly the consciences of our children, we as Catholic parents will need to take into consideration these "new things." Nevertheless, the moral principles that we will use to help form their consciences about these "new things" will also, like conscience, remain the same.

When children are born they come into the world as persons who are not yet the beings that God wants them to be. They have not, obviously, reached that level of development or maturity that, by nature, they are capable of achieving. Thus, they are in need of such things as love, nourishment, security, and education. These needs of our children correspond to real goods of human existence--goods which they need to become "complete" or "whole" persons. As parents, we are called by God to meet--in cooperation with others--these needs of our children, i.e., to help them attain the real goods that God desires for them. The pursuit of these goods--truth, knowledge, beauty, justice, holiness, and the like--is the very point of the moral life.

One of our greatest responsibilities as parents in this regard--and it is the central theme of my paper--is the sacred duty we have to help our children in their quest for the good of moral truth. 1 Part of this task involves teaching our children that their "ends" must be, as Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) expresses it, "genuinely good, since the pursuit of evil ends is contrary to the rational nature of the person." 2 Wojtyla goes on to note that "the purpose of education ... is just that: a matter of seeking true ends, i.e., real goods as the ends of our actions." 3

Hence, the task of helping our children to form their consciences involves helping them to see what in fact are the goods of human nature, that is, those goods, which perfect them as human beings. Knowing what these goods are is the first step in conscience formation. Why? Because it is only by participating in these goods that our children are able to become complete beings. But we must participate in them wisely, under the guidance of Christian moral principles.

This process of becoming complete beings implies that we are able to determine the kind of beings that we are to be--either good or evil. We are, in other words, able to make free choices about the kind of character we give to ourselves. However, as Germain Grisez notes, our "ability to make free choices would be useless... if we could not know which choices are good ones. But we can; judgments distinguishing good choices from bad ones are called 'conscience.'" 4 Because they are essential prerequisites of moral good and evil, Grisez calls conscience (and free choice) basic "existential principles" of morality. 5 By means of his conscience, as Vatican Council II taught, "man sees and recognizes the demands of [God's] divine law." 6

Since there is such an important connection between free choice, conscience, and character, there is also a great need for parents to help guide their children as they develop and exercise the power of free choice. For it is only through the exercise of good free choices over time and in a consistent manner that moral goodness is achieved. As William E. May has declared: "Moral goodness is within one's power, with the help of God's grace; and moral goodness is an essential part of integral human fulfillment, of being fully the beings God wills us to be." 7

II. The Stages Of Moral Education: Forming The Moral Conscience Of Our Children

So, how does one come to use one's freedom responsibly? How does one acquire or develop the moral virtues? What does it mean to "form" one's conscience? Servais Pinckaers, O.P. states that there are three fundamental stages of "education in freedom," as he calls it, comparable to the three stages of human life. Childhood corresponds to "the stage of discipline," adolescence to "the stage of progress," and adulthood to "the stage of maturity or perfection of freedom." 8

In the first stage of moral education the child must be formed to accept the "discipline of life, based on rules, which are the moral laws." 9 Discipline involves the communication of knowledge and the formation of mind and will, within a growing harmony between the child and parent. However, as Pinckaers points out, true discipline will be anything but authoritarian. True discipline, he writes, "appeals to natural dispositions, to a spontaneous sense of truth and goodness, and to the conscience of the child or disciple." 10

Moral development during this first stage is a delicate matter, as any parent of small children knows. The child often rebels against, or at least resists, any restriction of his or her freedom at this stage. This is why the first stage is so vitally important in the work of developing the child's conscience. Raising our children to be moral beings entails leading them to see that discipline, law, and rules are not meant to destroy their freedom or put straightjackets around its exercise. "Their purpose is rather to develop his ability to perform actions of real excellence by removing dangerous excesses, which can proliferate in the human person like weeds stifling good grain, and by guarding him against unhealthy errors that could turn him aside and jeopardize his interior freedom." 11

During this first stage, the Ten Commandments are particularly central as an expression of the moral law. As Pope John Paul II shows in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, these commandments are the foundation and beginning of authentic freedom. Without them, we are neither able to respect the good of our neighbor nor, indeed, our own good for that matter. Jesus himself speaks to the issue of our Ultimate Good when he tells the rich young man of Matthew's gospel: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments (Matt. 19:17)." In speaking this way, John Paul II notes that "a close connection is made [by Jesus] between eternal life and obedience to the commandments: God's commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it." 12

Of course, man--whether child or adult --can refuse to obey the commandments of God's moral law, but he cannot pretend that this disobedience will make him happy. "Denying them does not remove them from his own nature," as Ramon Garcia de Haro states, "but rather leads it to ruin and in this way damages society also." 13 Garcia de Haro likens this situation to that of an engineer who ignores the laws of gravity. In doing so, "he does not bring about the annulment of his own needs but rather risks the collapse of the work he is constructing." 14

As parents who are concerned about our children's eternal salvation, instruction in the Ten Commandments must be considered the sine qua non of the early stages of moral formation. However, I agree with Fr. Pinckaers when he argues that, in teaching the Ten Commandments, we should emphasize the twofold commandment of love of God and neighbor. They are, he writes, "the living seed of the moral law and give inspiration and positive meaning to the other commandments." This is crucial, for, as he continues, the child "needs to experience God's love and the love of his teachers, even though they may be strict and demanding, if his formation is to be successful and fruitful." 15

Moreover, the appropriateness of teaching the Ten Commandments to our children at this early stage is demonstrated by the fact that the beginner in the moral life, i.e., the child, must learn at this point to deal with temptations, avoid sins, and struggle against dispositions opposed to charity. It is precisely the negative precepts of this revealed law, which safeguard the newly planted seed of love of God and neighbor taking root in their hearts. 16

The second stage of moral education corresponds to young adulthood. It is characterized by taking responsibility for one's own moral life, by a great degree of personal initiative, by the development of sensitivity to moral values, and by the deepening of an active interiority or spiritual life. This stage is also characterized by progress in the performance of various virtues, notably the practice of charity.

We begin, at this stage, to gradually put aside physical pleasure, the expectation of a reward, and the avoidance of punishment as the primary supporting motives for doing something good. Although central in the first stage, these motives now "yield to love of virtue for its own sake, and to love of others for themselves, which is friendship." 17 The young man or woman also learns to practice many different kinds of virtues even though they may be difficult and often overlooked by others.

If the Ten Commandments are the chief text of the first stage, then it seems justifiable to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the text most fitting for the second stage. Fr. Pinckaers speaks of how the Sermon moves us from the limited moral theory of legalism to one of progress, "based on a generosity that always exceeds the demand with the spontaneity of true love." 18 And he reminds us of how the precepts of the Sermon surpass (without excluding) external deeds to penetrate to the inner self or core of the person, 19 the "heart," in the biblical sense of the word, 20 which implies the work of conscience, i.e., discerning right from wrong.

The Council Fathers of Vatican II had in mind this understanding of conscience--as an awareness of the law of God written in the human heart (Rom. 2:14-16)--when they declared in Gaudium et Spes: "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. The voice of this law, ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this; shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one's neighbor." 21

The third stage of moral education-- which I will not treat in any kind of detail given our focus on the formation of the child--brings freedom to maturity. It is the period of adulthood at the moral and spiritual levels. Pinckaers characterizes it by two features: "mastery of excellent actions and creative fruitfulness." 22 The human person now performs his actions "according to a plan, a higher goal which will profit himself and others... [That his moral freedom is perfected] is shown by the response to a vocation, by devotion to a great cause, however humble it may appear to be, or the accomplishment of important tasks in the service of one's community, family, city, or Church." 23 As a description of the life that the adult Christian is called to, probably none surpasses St. Paul's invitation to the Christians at Ephesus: "[B]ecome the perfect man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself (Eph. 4:13).

Spiritual writers in the Catholic tradition have expressed these three stages in the language of the "purgative way" (first stage), the "illuminative way" (second stage), and the "unitive way" (third stage).

III. Forming A Specifically Catholic Conscience In Our Children

The passage on conscience quoted above from Vatican Council II's Gaudium et Spes indicates that conscience can refer both to one's considered judgment about the morality of a particular act and to one's awareness of the basic principles of morality, e.g., that one should do good and avoid evil. The two meanings of conscience are obviously connected, for, as Monsignor William Smith has noted, the conscience operates by applying "either general or particular moral knowledge to any prospective and particular action." 24

Monsignor Smith also speaks of how conscience is often described in helpful metaphors as "the voice of God, as an inner voice, as a still small voice within one's so-called heart of hearts." 25 While these expressions can be useful in explaining the nature and meaning of conscience to our children, Catholic moral teaching clearly affirms that "since the judgment of conscience is an act of the intellect, it cannot merely be a feeling or a personal decision to act or live in a certain way." 26 Hence, while it cannot be denied that feelings are important and do have a role to play in making good judgments of conscience, the Christian moral life requires "the conviction that given acts either are or are not truly in accord with correct moral standards." 27

Because the judgment of conscience is one's best and final practical judgment about the morality of a proposed course of action, a person has an obligation to act in accord with his or her conscience. However, this duty to follow our conscience must include the responsibility we have to properly inform it. It is necessary to do this because, as we know from experience, our conscience is not infallible, i.e., it can err in its judgments. Thus, as Christian parents, we will need to help our children base their judgments of conscience upon a solid foundation of "moral principles understood in the light of faith." 28

In light of the need for objective standards of morality, the words of Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle, and William E. May are helpful in clarifying what it means to form an upright conscience: "First, one must grasp the implications of the basic principles of morality; second, sensitive to all the significant features of one's situation, one must learn how to apply these norms so as to form reasonable judgments of conscience." 29

Moreover, the Catholic parent, knowing that the mind of Christ on moral matters is expressed by the Church, will try to learn, accept, and live what that body teaches through the more-than-human authority of the magisterium. Therefore, Catholic mothers and fathers should consider it their duty to catechize their children in the moral truths of the Catholic faith. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught: "[I]n forming their conscience the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth." 30

Finally, God's revelation in Scripture and Christian tradition as interpreted by the Church, the examples of the saints as embodiments of the Church's teaching, as well as the natural law, should be understood by the Catholic not as "extrinsic sources of information or as external constraints upon his or her conscience." 31 Rather, the intelligent and mature Christian (the one we want our children to become) should accept the revelation of Christ, as Lawler, Boyle, and May put it so well, "as the fundamental framework in which he or she organizes his or her life and understands his or her existence." 32

If we are to raise-up good and holy children in this new millennium, we need to not only assist them in forming their consciences, but we too will need to insure that our own knowledge of what the Church teaches is both adequate and accurate. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a sound reference point for our instruction in the moral teaching of the Catholic faith. And as we go about teaching our children the basics of "right and wrong," we will need to be mindful of sound moral pedagogy, e.g., we must avoid legalistic presentations of the Church's teaching. Positively, in this regard, we must present the Church's moral norms as moral truths, which guide us, and our children on the path to true happiness.

Moreover, many challenges will have to be faced by Christian parents--some old, some new. I think here, for example, of all the moral issues which pertain to such subjects as human sexuality, education, and technology. What is clear to me is that we will need to rely on each other in facing these issues; and more so now than ever, since the culture cannot be counted on to help us in our vocation as the primary educators and formators of our children. Indeed, as we know from experience, the culture we live in often acts in ways, which deform us, and our children!

Why must we take such great care in the formation of our conscience and the consciences of those that God has entrusted to us--our children? I believe that Cardinal John Henry Newman answered that best over 100 years ago in the previous millennium. "[Conscience]," Newman wrote, "is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." 33

Let us pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to enlighten this "aboriginal Vicar of Christ" in each of us, so that we may help enlighten it in the "little ones" that God has given us as to prepare for citizenship not only in the City of Man, but also in the City of God.


1 Cf. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2; Living a Christian Life (Franciscan Press, 1993), Chapter 5, especially Question A, pp. 246-250.

2 Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), p. 27.

3 Ibid.

4 Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1: Christian Moral Principles (Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), p. 73. Cf. Ramon Garcia de Haro, La Yida Cristiana: Curso de Teologia Moral Fundamental (Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, S.A., 1992), Chapter 6.

5 Cf., ibid.

6 Vatican Council II, Dignitatis Humanae, #3.

7 William E. May, "People's Needs, Moral Truths and Priests," in The Catholic Priest as Moral Teacher and Guide (A Symposium) (Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 75.

8 Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 1995), p. 359.

9 Ibid., p. 360.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #12.

13 Ramon Garcia de Haro, Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium: A Course in the Theology of Marriage (Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 112.

14 Ibid., note omitted.

15 Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 362.

16 Cf. ibid., pp. 362-363.

17 Ibid., p. 363.

18 Ibid., p. 365.

19 Cf. ibid.

20 Cf. ibid.; Benedict Ashley, O.P., "Elements of a Catholic Conscience," in Russell E. Smith (ed.), Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation (Pope John Center, 1991), pp. 39-57; and Xavier Leon-Dufour, "Conscience," in Leon-Dufour (ec.), Dictionary of Biblical Theology, updated second edition (The Word Among Us/St. Paul Books and Media, 1995, originally 1973), pp. 90-92.

21 Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, #16.

22 Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 366.

23 Ibid.

24 William B. Smith, "The Meaning of Conscience," in William E. May (ed.), Principles of Catholic Moral Life (Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), P. 364. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 79, a. 13.

25 Ibid., p. 363.

26 Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., Joseph Boyle, and William E. May, Catholic Sexual Ethics: A summary, Explanation, and Defense, second edition (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998), p. 98.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., p. 104.

29 Ibid., p. 105.

30 Vatican Council II, Dignitatis Humanae, #14.

31 Lawler, Boyle, and May, Catholic Sexual Ethics, p. 106.

32 Ibid.

33 John Henry Cardinal Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," V, in Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (Longmans Green, 1885), P. 248, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1778.

Dr. Mark S. Latkovic is assistant professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich. and Acting academic Dean. His articles have appeared in the Detroit News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Linacre Quarterly. He received his M.A. degree from the Catholic University of America and his S.T.D. from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. His last article in HPR appeared in April 1997.

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