Follow Your Conscience

We’ve all heard the catch-phrase, “you have to follow your conscience.” Unfortunately, many people are under the mistaken impression that “following my conscience” means “doing what I want to do.”

Consider, for example, a married woman who asks her Catholic friend for advice on whether it’s permissible for her and her husband to use contraception. The friend might tell her, “you have to follow your conscience.” But if she offers no further explanation of what the conscience is and how it works, this advice is likely to result in the woman assuming that what she wants to do in this regard is the same as what her conscience is telling her to do. And that, of course, would be a mistake. While it’s absolutely true that each of us must indeed always follow our conscience (cf. CCC 1790), we must also recognize that each of us has the obligation to properly form (i.e. educate) our conscience (cf. CCC 1783-1785).

The Catechism explains that, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment.... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.... His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

“Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law” (CCC 1776-1778).

So, with these teachings in mind, let’s examine some scriptural passages that teach us both about the importance and function of the conscience -- that inner voice inside each of us that warns us to avoid evil and to do good -- as well as about the joy of a clear conscience and the misery of a guilty conscience.

The best place to start our study of the conscience will be to look at what happened to Adam and Eve when they committed the original sin. As you can see from Adam’s response to God, their guilty consciences were bothering them. (Sound familiar?)

Genesis 3:7-10 -- “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Wisdom of Solomon 17:11-13 -- “For wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned by its own testimony; distressed by conscience, it has always exaggerated the difficulties. For fear is nothing but surrender of the helps that come from reason; and the inner expectation of help, being weak, prefers ignorance of what causes the torment.”

Isaiah 48:22 gets right to the heart of the matter: “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.’” This warning serves two purposes. First, it shows us that good living will lead to a clear conscience and lack of stress over past sins. And second, it points us to the fact that in eternity, those who have loved God and tried to live according to his teachings will enjoy peace. Conversely, those who spurn God’s laws and live wickedly will suffer for eternity with no peace of soul. And that will be hell.

Proverbs 3:21-25 -- “My son, keep sound wisdom and discretion; let them not escape from your sight, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely and your foot will not stumble. If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes.”

Proverbs 10:8-9 -- “ The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a prating fool will come to ruin. He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.”

1 Timothy 1:18-19 -- “This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.”

Romans 2:12-16 -- “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

1 John 3:19-22 --”By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at

Additional passages:

Deuteronomy 28:65-67; Job 15:20-25; 27:6; Proverbs 15:14-15, 28:1; Psalm 112:5-10; Sirach 34:13-16; Luke 23:30; John 3:20-21; 1 Romans 2:9; Timothy 1:5, 3:8-9; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:15-16

Related Sections in the Catechism: 1776-1802