The fear of being influenced

            The fear of being influenced is one of the most characteristic fears of our age. It is healthy for a man to be on his guard against undue influence or bad influence. But the fear of influence of any type is clearly unhealthy. Today it has practically reached the level of being a neurosis. It is unhealthy among other reasons because in practice it is quite impossible for a man to avoid being influenced. All he can do is to try to distinguish between positive and helpful influences, and negative or harmful influences; and to welcome the former and resist the latter.

            We are being influenced whether we like it or not or are aware of it or not. We are being influenced by fashion, by views expressed in newspapers or on television, by the comments and even the attitudes of our friends, etc. We are being influenced in our thinking, in our standards, and therefore also in our consciences. For if conscience can be defined as a faculty of moral judgment that distinguishes between right and wrong, it evidently must judge according to some standard or standards. There is a basic innate standard lo conscience, what we might call a certain instinct of rightness and wrongness (the scholastic 'synderesis'). But in the main these standards are developed precisely under the influences that surround us and affect us from earliest days: home, school. environment, friends. reading, etc.

            No one goes through life with unchanged moral standards. Some of the standards one originally held are matured and confirmed and intensified. Others perhaps give way to completely new ones. And so our conscience the elements of judgment which make up our criterion of right and wrong is constantly being formed and reformed.

            All education, just as all advertising or all political propaganda, is designed to influence. The aim of education is to inculcate a grasp of facts or principles that will make a person better prepared for life. Moral education, concretely. is designed to inculcate principles of conduct. In this sense moral education is the aim of parents, teachers, youth leaders, civil rights campaigners, etc.

            All education which seeks to inculcate some moral or civic code is aimed therefore at forming conscience, at increasing our sensitivity to right or wrong. However, the influences operating on the development of conscience are not necessarily always formative. They can be deformative-as, for instance, in the case of the parent or teacher who implants racial prejudice, or a sense of social snobbery or of class warfare.

            So there is a right way and a wrong way of forming the individual conscience. There are right norms to be inculcated; or wrong ones. People of course differ as to which exactly are the right norms, and which are the wrong; what exactly makes for a right, an enlightened, conscience in one man; and what makes for a wrong or erroneous conscience in another.

            The traditional Catholic idea is that a conscience is right when it tends to judge in accordance with objective truth. It is wrong when the principles by which it judges are, objectively speaking, false. [1]

            Formation of conscience, therefore, is that process by which true principles of conduct gradually become operative in a person's mind, by which his mind gradually takes hold of true principles. Deformation of conscience is the process by which false principles gradually come to shape and govern the working of the mind.

When conscience protests

            The grasp of right principles is the first condition of the sound formation of conscience. But an equally important condition is to live according to these principles. In other words, conscience also tends to be formed by living according to conscience: and conscience tends to be deformed by living contrary to conscience. To hold certain principles in one's conscience, and then to act against them, is of the essence of moral evil or sin. Every man who knows himself has had the experience of sinning, of choosing something which his conscience tells him to be wrong.

            In such case, when the will chooses against the conscience, it may not be content with a break-away movement. Ir may attempt a take-over. It may try to manipulate conscience, to bend conscience to principles that suit its choice.

            Let us examine this further. Conscience judges that something is morally good, and ought to be done. For instance, a man feels he must tell the truth, even though, in his circumstances, he finds this very difficult. But the will is free. In his will, he may decide otherwise. He may choose to lie. To lie, of course, in such a case appears to the will as something good (not as a moral good, but as a good in the sense that it offers some immediate relief or satisfaction). Conscience may oppose this choice of the will, retaining a clear awareness that, at a deeper level, such a choice is not good. Or conscience may, after a debate, acquiesce for a moment, allowing that it seems good. But usually this acquiescence is short-lived. Once the will is satisfied in its object, its demands subside, the mind can review the situation in greater freedom and objectivity, and then conscience speaks with its voice of judgment: 'That was wrong'. And so the will stands accused. A man cannot shake off the awareness, 'I did wrong'.

            But if a man acquires the habit of sinning, if he lets his will habitually choose wrong in a particular area of conduct, then the temptation will be strong to want to find a way of silencing the accusing voice of conscience, and so letting the will out of dock...

            This is the crisis point. The will may, so to speak, 'plot' against mind and conscience. It may try to make the mind dwell on 'reasons' that seem to justify the conduct in question. And it may succeed in its attempt.

            For of course the will can choose an intellectual act as the object of its desire. Just as, for instance, it can choose to dwell on the truth taught by the Church - and on all the supernatural and human motives in favour of accepting it as true - so it can choose to dwell on some error, and on the arguments that seem to support that error .

            Conscience will protest initially. It will put up a fight; all the more strongly because it is a fight where the ultimate issue may well be its own survival, its own independence and freedom.

            But if the will wins, and if a man lets his will win time and again, they by dint of dwelling on the attractive points of error, he can cloud his own mind and deaden his conscience. If a man lets his conscience down in this fight, he ends up not with a free conscience but with one that is enslaved to his (bad) will; one that is ready to fall in with and approve anything the will wants. Such a man has lost his freedom of conscience.

Supremacy of conscience

            That great Englishman, Cardinal Newman, is frequently invoked today, and rightly so, as one of the main modern exponents of the 'supremacy of conscience'. His Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874) contains the famous phrase, 'If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards'. [2]

            To understand this vigorous expression, one should recall that conscience is not a sort of intermediary between God and man, as Calvin suggested, nor is it simply a moral sense or instinct, peculiar to each individual. Conscience is a judgment of our reason which indicates what is right or wrong in our conduct. Our mind is capable of knowing both the true nature of things as well as the fact that they can only find their fulfillment in God. And on the basis of this knowledge, conscience commands us imperatively not to turn created things, or ourselves, away from God. Therein lies its supremacy. But this point must be seen clearly in the light of the fact that knowledge is necessarily conditioned by reality: that any 'knowledge' which ignores or mistakes the real nature of things, as established by God, is not true knowledge. The subjective supremacy of conscience, therefore, is closely related to and dependent on that other objective supremacy of reality (God and the universe) which is its basis. In drinking to conscience, therefore, one is wise to drink also to our responsibility to keep the vision of our mind - that 'window' through which we look out on reality - always clean and clear, so that it never admits a distorted image of things (some people nowadays seem to have closed the window altogether, and - shut up inside themselves - they imagine they actually see what in fact they are simply dreaming).

            Newman, indeed, in defending the supremacy of conscience, he is very explicit as to what sort of conscience can be regarded as supreme, and as to what must be our attitude towards its supremacy: conscience understood 'not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a Divine voice speaking within us' (ibid.). Many of those who invoke Newman today, on this matter of the rights of conscience, fail to echo his emphasis on the duties of conscience, on the duties owed towards conscience.

            In the first place, there are duties of conscience. Conscience has its duties, as well as its rights. It has the duty to search for truth, to look for genuine moral norms and standards which really point the way towards what is right and good. It has, in other words, the duty to seek out the authentic 'voice of God', the true moral laws that govern both the natural and the supernatural orders. This, for instance, means that in case of doubt, I cannot conscientiously act out of whim or just according to what most suits my convenience. I am bound, in conscience, to do all in my power to clear up my doubts before acting (by studying the case, by means of consultation, etc.). And, in general it is the duty of conscience to form itself properly (study, reflection, knowledge of the laws of God and the Church, etc.).

            In the second place, there are duties towards conscience, essentially the duty to obey it. In his Apologia, Newman writes, 'I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light' (Ch. IV). No doubt he felt he was speaking from personal experience. And anyone familiar with his life knows how he suffered from his immensely sensitive obedience to his conscience, how he suffered as it brought him to the light.

            Today, more than ever, it is necessary to say that the man who really listens to his conscience and is prepared to be faithful to it, will often have the sense of obeying a voice that leads him in a direction a large part of him does not feel like following. We are of course speaking of the man who takes his conscience seriously, who looks up to it and respects it and for this reason is prepared to acknowledge its supremacy and obey it.

            Newman writes elsewhere that if we wish to find religious (or moral) truth, we must 'interrogate our hearts, and (since it is a personal individual matter) interrogate our own hearts, interrogate our own consciences, interrogate, I will say, the God who dwells there', and to do so 'with an earnest desire to know the truth and a sincere intention of following it' (cf. Ward, Life, II, 330).

            Conscience is a precious but delicate guide. Its voice is easily distorted or obscured. To dictate to conscience is to silence and, eventually, to destroy it. Conscience must be listened to, and listened to sensitively. It needs to be interrogated, even to be cross-examined. And only those who habitually interrogate their conscience and are ready to pay heed even to its awkward answers, will not cheat their conscience or be cheated by it.' [3]

Conscience: our security system

            All sin turns us away from God and closes us in on ourselves. The self-centredness of sin, therefore, is the enemy not only of our eternal salvation, but also of our human development and happiness here on earth. To be overcome by sin is to be wounded, to suffer damage, in one's integrity and personality. We are in constant danger from this enemy, but nature has equipped us with a basic defence system, which is our conscience - our intimate sensitivity to good and evil.

            The man who understands the importance and delicacy of conscience will be more concerned for its health than for the health of his body. A malformed or warped conscience is a diseased conscience. And a diseased conscience is the moral equivalent of a diseased nervous system. There are moments - moments when we come into contact with physical pain - when we all regret the sensitivity of our nerves. In such moments we may be tempted to regard our nervous system as a nuisance, and to wish we didn't have it, or that it didn't work. Yet, for normal living, the absence or failure of the nervous system could prove fatal. The man whose nerve endings do not function, who feels no pain and therefore withdraws from no pain, may not suffer as other men do. But he is in greater danger of going himself real harm, of burning or wounding or freezing his hand or arm beyond any possibility of recovery.

            Similarly, when a man's conscience has gone, one may say that his essential security system--the built-in system of nature--has broken down. Morally he is defenceless, against selfishness and the whole process of human frustration. Humanly, without any sensitivity to right or wrong, he is a sub-man.

            A man's conscience is healthy when his moral principles are right and in accordance with objective truth. When a man's moral principles are unsound or wrong, his conscience is sick or diseased. When a man has no principles at all, his conscience is dead.

            A healthy conscience is not an absolute safeguard against wrong-doing. A man with a healthy conscience may still sin, but he will be aware of it. His conscience will send out distress signals and he will notice them. It will keep calling for a change of course--for a change of heart or conduct and can bring him back to normal.

            Even if the will has become quite infected and undermined by attachment to sin, as long as the mind remains healthy the will may, with God's help, be won back. But if the mind itself goes, if sin or error actually reaches the mind and infects it, falsifying its truth, warping its principles, darkening its light... our Lord's words, 'If the light that is in you is darkness' (Mt 6:24), are a warning against this possibility. A man's conscience can be darkened. This can happen without his fault. Or he can, culpably, darken his own conscience. In either case his conscience is like a maladjusted computer; it will misinterpret and mishandle the information fed into it and consistently offer, as correct, the wrong answers.

Conscience is personal and singular

            Conscience is one's own sense of the rightness or wrongness of things. Conscience, therefore, is personal. And it is singular. I can say, my conscience tells me this is right or that is wrong. I cannot really say what other people's consciences tell them, and less still can I be guided by the consciences of others.

            Is there such a thing as a 'collective' conscience about moral matters? Perhaps; but it is a conscience that one can never properly examine. One can only adequately examine one's own conscience. Of all the types of opinion polls, therefore, those about matters of conscience probably have least value. If it is difficult enough at times to know the sincerity of one's own conscience, it is quite impossible to check the sincerity of a supposed collective conscience. In any case, even if opinion reports or polls truly reflected what other people sincerely feel in their consciences, they can provide no sure guide for me in my actions, since I will be judged not by whether I followed the consciences of others, but by whether I followed my own conscience, i.e. by whether I listened to it sincerely, respected it and obeyed it. [4] In Newman's words, it is our own hearts, our own consciences, we must interrogate.

            Moral responsibility cannot be collectivized. It remains personal and singular. To try to take refuge behind the presumed consciences of other people, pretending to oneself that in this way one's own individual responsibility is diluted, is to fool oneself and to introduce a fatal element of insincerity into one's own moral life.


            Sincerity: this too is undoubtedly a key factor in the formation of a sound conscience. But there is a strong tendency in all of us to deceive ourselves, and we would be wise not to take the sincerity of our conscience for granted. It can be achieved--but only if we are ready to submit our hearts to that constant interrogating of which Newman speaks.

            As already pointed out, a man's conscience may be sincere and may yet be informed (malformed, deformed) by wrong principles. Nevertheless, the man who habitually questions himself (i.e. the man who, in a sense, habitually tests his own sincerity) will sooner or later gain new light to correct his principles where they are mistaken. Newman again remains an outstanding example.

            The greater importance our age attaches to conscience will always be beneficial provided we attach equal importance to examination of conscience. The traditional Christian practice of Examination of Conscience never mattered more than today. It is only logical to expect that it will be a more and more frequent theme of sermons, articles, discussion groups, etc.

            To place oneself in the presence of an all-seeing God is the best safeguard against insincerity, against even the most veiled temptation to self-deception in the depths of one's heart or conscience. God, who knows our innermost thoughts and motives and who loves us, will not let us deceive ourselves = provided always that we seek him and listen to him. He will ensure that the light of our conscience is light indeed, and not darkness which we have mistaken for the light.


[1] The question of the rightness or wrongness of conscience should be clearly distinguished from that of good faith, of the sincerity of conscience. A man may be perfectly sincere in his conscience. He may believe that the principles he follows in his actions are sound and true principles of human conduct and development. He may be quite sincere in this belief; and he may be quite mistaken. If he is mistaken, despite his sincerity, the principles he follows in his actions may lead him on to a frustrated and unhappy human life. Just as a man may sincerely choose a road he believes leads to Birmingham. But if he is mistaken in his choice, if the road he is following does not actually go to Birmingham, his sincerity will not get him there. This is not to say that sincerity is no safeguard to conscience. It is a safeguard-in the sense that the man who is truly and deeply sincere, and humble enough to acknowledge his need for guidance, will normally come to see where his principles have gone astray and be in a position to correct them. We will return to this point later.

[2] Cf. Ward, Life II, 404

[3] An episode in the Gospel (Mk 11: 27-33) shows the disastrous effect of insincerity. A group of priests and religious leaders of the Jews approach our Lord to interrogate him: 'What authority have you for acting like this? Or who gave you authority to do these things?' He is prepared to answer their interrogation, provided first they are prepared to be sincere and to interrogate themselves. He asks them first to tell him their opinion about John's baptism, whether it came from Heaven' (having divine approval), or simply 'from man' (and therefore commanding no special respect). But they do not give him their opinion, not their real opinion, not their opinion in conscience. They do not ask themselves what they really believe in their hearts to be the truth, to be right or wrong. They simply weigh up the consequences of different answers, trying to find one which might suit their convenience: 'If we say from heaven, he will say, "When why did you refuse to believe him?" But dare we say from man'?' ('for', adds the Gospel, 'they had the people to fear, for everyone held that John was a real prophet').

            Though religious leaders, they are not men of principle. They are 'practical' men, men of policy. As far as their own convenience goes, they reason intelligently. But they will go no further in their reasoning. They are men in whom convenience has taken the place of conscience.

            In the Gospel event they find no convenient answer to our Lord's interrogation. And convenience-or rather inconvenience-pleads ignorance: 'We do not know'.

            Our Lord's reaction to their insincerity is also significant: 'Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this'. It as if he were saying, 'If you are not prepared to be sincere, to look into your hearts and face the truth, then there is no use in our pretending to talk. I cannot communicate with you, nor you with me'. And so it is in practice. The person whose life is not ruled by sincerity, by readiness to face up to the truth or to the demands of conscience, however inconvenient or exacting, cuts himself off from divine communication. The man who is afraid to face his conscience is in effect afraid to face God, and only those who face God can be in touch with him.

[4] I will be judged according to my conscience in the sense that I will have to render account not only for the occasions when I went against my own personal moral convictions but also for the manoeuvres by which I managed to undermine my own objectivity, warping it to suit my passions or habitually turning a blind eye to compromising - but real - aspects of my conduct. A man may succeed in fashioning for himself a conscience to his own liking, but his protests of having been subsequently 'sincere' towards such a deformed conscience are not likely to stand up to God's judgment. Personal moral responsibility remains untransferable. As Msgr. Josemaria Escriva remarked: 'The advice of another Christian and especially a priest's advice, in questions of faith and morals, is a powerful help for knowing what God wants of us in our particular circumstances. Advice, however, does not eliminate personal responsibility. In the end, it is we ourselves, each one of us on our own, who have to decide for ourselves and personally account to God for our decisions': J. Escriva, in Conversations with Msgr. Escriva, Scepter Press, p. 111.