How often, I wonder, have people facing a difficult moral decision been told by a well meaning friend, “Just follow your conscience”. There is a sense in which this advice is correct and a sense in which it is wrong. It is true that each of us must do what we truly believe is right. But it is false to think that just because we believe something is right, that makes it right in itself. For example, in some societies today slavery is still practiced. People in those societies buy slaves because their consciences, influenced by the norms of that culture, see nothing wrong with owning another person. But who of us would say that this practice is right? In other words, doing what I truly judge to be right and doing what in itself is right is not necessarily the same thing. If someone honestly does what they think is right even when it’s wrong, they won’t be guilty of sin before God, but they will not be doing what God would want them to do because God always want us to do the moral law as he created it within us. For example, God does not want anyone to be owned by another person. He created each of us with the ability to make our own choices and to set the direction of our own lives. If that personal freedom is taken away by the mistaken conscience of another person, that act will always be an evil even though the person doing it will not be culpable because of their ignorance. What I am trying to say is that morality is not something relative to the feelings and wishes of every individual or even of different cultures. Morality exists in the mind and the creation of God and our obligation is to discover it and be faithful to it. Individuals or cultures can have blind spots and be badly mistaken in some areas. Just because our nation permits abortion does not mean that abortion is in conformity with God’s will. As a result, each of us always has an obligation, with the help of God’s revelation and the Church, to form our consciences well. What I “think or feel” is right and what everyone else is doing need to be scrutinized well if we are striving to be faithful to God.
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