It seems to me that one very misunderstood idea within Christianity is the idea of conscience formation. While people are generally willing to do what they feel is right, they are less apt to consider how they came to know right from wrong in the first place. People usually don’t think about what formed their conscience. None of us totally “think on our own.” We all borrow and exchange ideas, opinions, beliefs, values, principles, etc. We learn things from parents, schools, churches, media, politics, friends, etc. These sources all influence or “form” the conscience.
When presented with questions of morality and justice, which sources do we turn to? What if parents taught that something is immoral, but school taught that it is moral and normal? What if it is politically correct to normalize and embrace a certain lifestyle or behavior but Church teaching says it is wrong? Who or what gets to have the preeminent spot in the conscience? Out of all the competing forces inside the human heart, which one has the final say?
I have heard it said that if I follow the teachings of the Catholic Church I am not thinking for myself. I am blindly going along with oppressive, religious teachings that marginalize or hurt certain peoples and populations. Those who would make such an accusation apparently feel that I would be better off following their teachings instead of the Catholic Church. In other words, they want to do my thinking for me. They want to be the force that forms my conscience and teaches me right from wrong. Why should I submit my will to theirs?
There is also a popular notion that one should be able to pick and choose which Church teachings to follow and which ones to reject based on one’s conscience. However, the purpose of the Church is not to form the conscience and then produce a smorgasbord of rules for us to choose from in order to give us practice using our conscience. It’s not like the military where soldiers are trained and then put through simulated battles to practice their skills. The conscience is trained within the Church in order to fight battles that oppose the Church (i.e. Christ). Put simply, the Church teaches us how to be good so we can fight evil.
It doesn’t help much in the fight against evil to have a conscience formed by the world rather than by the Church. If the conscience is formed by the worldly, secular, politically correct culture, then following it will simply perpetuate the worldly, secular, politically correct culture. A conscience that has been formed in opposition to the Church has been deformed. It struggles to operate as a force against evil because it does not function properly. It is more likely to assist evil ends than good ends, even if it does so blindly.
When we encounter a teaching of the Church that is difficult, we have choices. One choice is to assert our conscience over and above that teaching, thereby potentially letting in the other conscience-forming forces that oppose good. The other choice is to obediently allow our conscience to be formed by the Church. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach the Church all things. Following Church teachings is placing faith in the promise of Christ. Faith requires a reasonable, obedient act of the will, not just feelings or hunches. A properly formed conscience is not a “gut feeling.” It is an obedient act of faith.
It also does not help the battle against evil to have multitudes of Christians believing and teaching different things. While Christians vie against each other with, “The Bible says this,” or “The Bible says that,” evil exploits their distractions. When all Christians are willing to follow the Church instead of their individual, misinformed consciences and private biblical interpretations, evil will cower.