Authority and truth are in crisis today. And so, therefore, is conscience.

            Authority is in crisis. The modern man`s attitude towards authority is highly critical. The very idea of authority seems offensive to his sense of freedom and personality. His instinctive reaction to authority is to reject it.

            Truth is in crisis. Modern man is sceptical as to the existence of any real or objective truth - about man, about his destiny, about the worth of his actions.

            There is perhaps one truth modern man still believes - in the truth of science. This is the one God he still believes in and follows - though recently he has begun to lose his conviction that he is following a benevolent God who will lead him to his own fulfilment and happiness. He is in fact beginning to be afraid of this God of science and technology. His God still leads on self-confidently. And man still follows - but at a distance, more and more reluctantly, with a growing sense of being alone and lost, of not being able to know himself or help himself. For this is the tense paradox of modern man. As never before he has discovered and mastered the truth about things. The truth about himself has never seemed to elude him more.

            Yet man remains the one being in the universe that makes conscious choices. He cannot escape the burden of choice. Nor - without deceiving himself - can he escape the sense that his choices matter, at least for his own life. Therefore, inevitably, he looks for some standard by which to measure the worth and direction of his choices. Having rejected the standard of external authority and that of objective truth, the only standard that remains to him is his own conscience. But if he takes the idea of conscience seriously, if he examines his own conscience seriously, he will find that his conscience too is in crisis.

            If there is no external authority that can be trusted, if there is no objective truth in things (or if conscience cannot grasp it), then conscience itself is in a critical state. For there is nothing to show that conscience can be taken seriously. There is no proof that conscience itself can be trusted.

            Can I trust my conscience'? The man who takes his life seriously must be in crisis unless he can find a positive answer to this question.

            Can I trust my conscience? It is true that some people today answer the question with a confident and unqualified Yes to the point that they appear to endow personal conscience, in its role as a guide, with the very quality they indignantly deny to the guidance of Church or Pope: the quality of infallibility. 'Supremacy of conscience' is a principle they frequently invoke, using it precisely as if it meant infallibility of conscience, whereas it does not and clearly cannot mean any such thing. Trust in conscience is simply a dogma for them,

            a blind and irrational dogma, for they can give absolutely no reasons to support it. It is only by being superficial that they can seem content with their unthinking trust in conscience. If they were to question their own position, to probe a little below the surface, if they were in fact to question their own conscience, sincerely and in depth, they would plunge themselves into crisis.

            Can I trust my conscience'? The man, the 'modern' man, who trusts no external authority, who believes in no objective truth, and yet who wishes to take himself seriously, who is prepared to take the voice of conscience seriously, has no grounds to give any other answer to .his question than No. There lies his crisis.

            Can I trust my conscience? The Christian answer is Yes--and No. I must follow my conscience, and if I follow it sincerely--testingly-- I can be confident that it will lead me to a growing knowledge of the truth. But :he Christian concept of conscience is at the same time impregnated with the idea that conscience is a fallible guide. It may go wrong. It may take the wrong road, and take me with it. Therefore I need constantly to test the principles operating in my conscience, lest false principles -pride or prejudice, for instance-begin to dominate it and to lead me astray.

            If man is in crisis until he can find an answer to the question 'Can I trust my conscience?', the Christian answer 'Yes; and No' clearly solves the crisis only in part. This is as it ought to be. A man should always follow his conscience (when it speaks clearly), but he should never be satisfied with it. It can too easily be misinformed[1]. As we have said, conscience may be supreme, but it is not infallible. It can in fact never give good service to anyone who is not aware that it is indeed a guide to be followed, but a fallible guide. Only if a man learns to appreciate both the greatness and the delicacy of conscience, only if he learns to obey it and to question it, to listen to it and to form it, will conscience serve him well.


[1] We have a grave duty to follow our conscience. We have, however, an equally grave duty to form our conscience. These two duties bind us always. Further, they are co-relative duties; i.e. insofar as we are not continually trying to form our conscience, we are, to that extent, depriving ourselves of the right to feel at ease in following our conscience.