“What is truth?” (Jn 18:36-38). Pontius Pilate posed this question to Jesus, and it is one that our post-truth world continues to ask. Given the demise of classical metaphysics, those who do not believe in God often do not believe in objective truth either. If objective moral norms cannot be discerned either from reality, or from a God who has revealed himself to humanity, then life is nothing more than what we make of it. To the extent that we do choose to live by moral principles, such norms are wholly constructed: either by the broader society for purely pragmatic reasons, to ensure group survival and harmonious co-existence, or, by the individual according to their highly malleable personal preferences.
Among these self-constructed norms, freedom is of paramount importance. We are a “pro-choice” society: not just in terms of abortion, but in terms of just about everything. Since the 1960’s and the sexual revolution, we value the freedom to have sex with whomever we want, whenever we want. Since the 1970’s, and the therapeutic revolution, we value the freedom to chart our own path in life, based upon our own individual preferences. Finally, since the completion of the no-fault divorce revolution in the 1980’s, neither our spouse’s needs, nor the needs of our children, need impinge upon our personal happiness. Consequently, even if we are already married to someone else, our culture advises us, “You have a right to be happy. Follow your bliss wherever it might lead.”
Regardless whether one chooses to commit adultery, or to change one’s gender identity (so that it no longer corresponds to one’s biological sex), as long as one professes strong feelings in defense of one’s decision—“this is what makes me happy; this is who I truly am”—then one’s personal choice is considered sacrosanct by the culture. If it is good for me—meaning that it pleases me—then it is true for me. It is my truth, and no can else can judge me for it. This worldview is what Pope John Paul II criticized as freedom as an end in itself: freedom not limited by anything, not even truth (See: Veritatis Splendor, §84).
Christians, by contrast, believe firmly in the objectivity of the truth. Truth is real. We can discover it, and we can shape our lives in accord with it. However, our ability to know objective truth—and subsequently conform our lives to it—is limited by our creaturely existence as well as our fallen nature. Baptism frees from Original Sin, but the wounds of sin remain, so we still tend to make bad choices (See: Ibid, §4).
Sometimes we make bad choices out of weakness. We know the right thing to do but are afraid of the consequences: how it might inconvenience us, cause us pain (either physical or emotional), or cause us to lose something important that we dearly value. Other times, bad choices stem from ignorance: either invincible, which removes our moral culpability before God, or vincible—at least partially our own fault.
A common cause of vincible ignorance is self-deception. If I strongly desire a certain outcome, then I might engage in rationalization to justify my bad behavior. For example, if I am a married woman who is feeling lonely and is chatting with strangers in an internet chat room, and one of them begins flirting with me, then I might rationalize to myself that having virtual sex with this person would make me feel less lonely, and that it is important to take care of myself: especially if my husband is not meeting my needs. Although I should be thinking to myself that adultery is wrong, and this would be an instance of adultery, therefore I should not do it; instead, I do not even allow the concept of “adultery” or “cheating” to enter into my mind. Rather, I fixate on how needy I am feeling and the moral importance of self-care.
By focusing on the good aspects of this situation, and ignoring the negative aspects, I convince myself that there is nothing wrong with my act. (Of course, I do not bother to ask my husband how he would feel about it). Thus, I act immorally out of ignorance, but it is an ignorance that was self-imposed. I could have known better, and I should have known better, but my emotional neediness and desire for pleasure interfered with my ability to evaluate the situation correctly.
In order to avoid such conundrums, so that we can make good moral choices rather than bad ones, we need to possess moral virtues. Training in virtue empowers us to do the right thing without difficulty, without struggle, and despite feeling conflicted (because I am giving up some good), or afraid (because it involves pain). The knowledge that I am doing the right thing is itself pleasurable—even joyful—without taking away either sadness or fear. If, by contrast, I am vicious rather than virtuous—if I am self-centered, desperate to escape fear, or disordered in my desires for money, alcohol, food, or sex—then such vices will lead me into temptation: at least on occasion. I might even engage in self-deception and convince myself that being selfish, cowardly, greedy, selfish, drunk, gluttonous, or lustful is in fact the correct way to behave in this situation.
According to Thomas Aquinas, good decision-making typically involves four steps (ST I-II 12-17; II-II 47-56; and I-II 74-78). First, I have to want to do the right thing. If I am a good person; if I possess all the moral virtues—if I am chaste, sober, and just rather than lustful, drunk, and selfish—then I naturally will seek to accomplish good things. Second, I need to consult the relevant authorities—experts who know more than I do—about how best to accomplish my good end. Third, I must decide what to do by considering any relevant moral principles, and then applying them to my situation. Finally, I must execute the good decision that I made. The intellectual virtue of prudence empowers us to reason well in steps two through four.
Notably, this four-step process is the roadmap for how all practical decision-making takes place: whether it involves relatively neutral topics, or topics that have a more direct bearing on our salvation: such as whether to lie, cheat or commit adultery. In either case, for Aquinas, conscience is not a separate faculty inside of us, in addition to our reason and will. Rather, it is the act by which human reason discerns the relevant moral principles, and then applies them to the particular case, in order to make a correct decision (See: ST I 79.13).
To possess “a good conscience” thus means to be able to judge situations correctly: to assess them from the standpoint of objective morality. But this requires sustained effort. We cannot be too hurried to think through situations carefully. We cannot be too prideful to ask for help: to consult the relevant authorities. We also cannot possess any vices that impede our ability to judge, choose, and act correctly.
Accordingly, for Aquinas, immoral action has one of three possible causes. First, I reason correctly—prudently—about what to do, but then fail to execute it. I have a good conscience—a well-formed conscience—but I am too weak to obey it. Second, I know in principle that my proposed act (i.e., stealing money from my grandmother’s purse) would be morally wrong, but my corresponding vice (i.e., greed) is so strong that it interferes with my ability to make a correct judgment. I thus engage in self-deception. Either I do not consider the relevant moral principle (i.e., “do not steal”), or I apply it incorrectly to the case at hand (concluding falsely that “this act would not constitute stealing”). Rather than viewing the situation objectively, I see it the way that I want to see it: the way that would justify my desired outcome. I have an “erroneous” conscience because my judgment of conscience erred; it was not correct.
Third, I steal because I do not actually know that stealing is morally wrong. I come from an entire family of thieves, drug dealers, and other types of criminals who frequently modeled and actively endorsed such behavior. Not only do I have an erroneous conscience; my conscience also is “malformed.” I cannot discern the difference between right and wrong in these situations, no matter how hard I try.
Ideally, the formation of conscience takes place in our families, and then is further reinforced by our parishes, our friends, and our communities. If my parents teach me the difference between right and wrong—for example, the principle that sex should take place only in marriage—then that is the beginning of my conscience formation. If the Church youth group I attend as a teenager subsequently repeats this same principle, and so does the Catholic campus ministry where I go to college, and so does the young adult group I attend at my neighborhood parish when in my 20’s and 30’s, then that formation is deepened. If furthermore my close friends and the people I choose to date all happen to be practicing Christians who believe similarly, then my conscience will be strengthened even more. Accordingly, whenever I find myself in dating situations that involve very strong sexual temptation, my reason will be empowered to make the correct judgment: “Do not have sex with this person.” Thanks to a well-formed conscience, I know the right thing to do. That knowledge enables me either to do the right thing—to avoid having sex—or at least to go to confession afterward if I do succumb to the temptation on account of weakness.
But not everyone’s conscience is well-formed: even if one happens to be a baptized and confirmed, practicing Catholic, who comes from a good family. Sometimes this occurs because parents fail to teach their children everything they need to know about morality: either because the parents themselves are confused about what is true; or the parents attempt but fail to explain the topic adequately; or they get busy with other things and never address it. In addition, children and teenagers are very strongly influenced by their peer group, so friends with malformed consciences could lead them astray from what their parents do teach them. Also influential are the other people they meet, the television shows and movies they watch, and what they happen to read on the internet. The more negative influences in one’s life, the more likely it is that one’s conscience will become malformed.
Given that immoral behavior can result from either ignorance or weakness, pastoral care oriented toward a virtuous lifestyle change should always involve a multi-pronged approach:
- Teaching parishioners the truth, in order to remedy their ignorance;
- Helping them to root out vices and develop corresponding virtues; and
- Involving them in a supportive community (either inside or outside the parish) of moral exemplars who model virtuous behavior through the witness of their lives.
This final step is indispensable in situations where the proposed lifestyle change would be counter-cultural.
To maximize receptiveness to such intentional conscience formation, I recommend the following guiding principle: Pastoral care must present not only what the Church teaches and why, but also in a manner that is both aesthetically appealing (illuminating the inherent beauty of the truth) and loving: by striking the correct balance between affirming the person and challenging them.
To begin with, pastoral care should present and explain Church doctrine: those aspects relevant to the parishioner’s situation. Some clergy and lay ministers intentionally avoid this task, because they do not wish to offend people who are living alternative lifestyles. Instead, cognizant of the fact that many parishioners are still in the “seeker” stage of Catholic faith—despite being regular Sunday Mass-goers—they prioritize helping the individual to know Jesus personally, to develop a personal relationship with him, and finally to consciously commit to living as his intentional disciple. Once such a relationship has been firmly established, they reason, then the person will be more receptive to hearing and assimilating difficult teachings.
While such a strategy might be prudent as an initial stage, it cannot persist indefinitely. All human beings have a right to the truth, so withholding the truth would not be fully loving. It would not even be just; for justice requires that individuals receive everything necessary for their integral human development: physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. For the person who is in mortal sin, truthful assessment of their situation constitutes an urgent pastoral task: a matter of life and death, spiritually speaking. But even the parishioner who acts immorally because of invincible ignorance is owed the fullness of the truth; for eventual growth in holiness will require greater knowledge as to what holiness entails. In both situations, regardless of one’s subjective culpability before God, knowledge of the truth is indispensable for modifying one’s bad behavior toward other people: a pressing need in situations involving objectification or exploitation.
In some concrete situations, receiving a full explanation of the difficult truth itself is what motivates the person to live more fully as a disciple of Christ: so waiting to present that truth would be counter-productive. For example, a person immersed in the casual sex (hook-up) culture—who regularly experiences sex as something superficial, impersonal, and devoid of deeper meaning—might be uniquely positioned to grasp the beauty of the Church’s teaching by way of contrast. After all, the primordial desire for sex is not merely physical; situated within the heart of a rational creature, one’s deepest desire is for emotional intimacy, authentic friendship, unconditional acceptance, and the mutual gift of self.
Because the human vocation is love, only sexual encounters that are rooted in love and oriented toward communion can give rise to authentic joy, for joy is a fruit of the virtue of charity (See: ST II-II 28). The prospect of attaining such a profound treasure could provide strong motivation to leave behind one’s current way of life, characterized by a repetitive parade of lifeless, uninspiring, and vapid satisfactions.
Because truth, goodness, and beauty are intimately connected, illuminating the beauty of the good—especially in stark contrast to the ugliness of evil—will help the parishioner to grasp the truth of the good that is being proposed. Also, because fear of negative consequences provides only minimal motivation—especially nowadays given widespread rejection of Church teaching on eternal damnation, and the plurality of Christian denominations whose requirements for full communion are less demanding—the truth must be depicted aesthetically in its full glory and grandeur, or parishioners will not be inspired to transform their lives accordingly.
Finally, the truth must be presented in love, or it is likely to be rejected outright. Loving the person begins with seeing them as Christ would see them: as a son or daughter of God, made in God’s own image and likeness, for whom the Son of God sacrificed himself on the cross. The same degree of kindness, gentleness, respect, patience—and above all warmth—that naturally would be given to one’s own beloved sibling ought to be extended to one’s brother or sister in Christ as well: through words, facial expressions, and body language.
A loving encounter also displays genuine interest in the other as a unique person: asking specific questions designed to bring out his or her hopes, dreams, and fears; actively listening; and then responding in a way that conveys both understanding and empathy. Equipped with the relevant background information, the pastoral minister should then pursue an intentional strategy of validation: explicitly pointing out and praising every positive desire, action, goal, or behavior that the parishioner mentions—so that he or she will feel affirmed, understood, and cared for: and less prone to becoming defensive or dismissive.
Once a relationship has been established along these lines, the dialogue can proceed to explaining the “what” and “why” of controversial topics. But even then, the pastoral minister should convey the same warmth and gentleness as before: patiently listening without interrupting; summarizing and repeating back to show understanding; offering small pieces of Church teaching creatively packaged to respond concretely to the parishioner’s specific context and existential concerns; restating the same teaching in alternate formulations whenever such well-intentioned efforts fail; continuing to affirm whenever appropriate; and never becoming angry, defensive, or condescending. When particular interventions do succeed—when they have been received favorably with an open mind and heart—they can be followed with further encouragement and even challenge: to live out the Church’s teaching courageously and generously.
The more difficult topics—the ones mandating greater lifestyle changes, or inducing greater opposition on the part of the wider culture—will necessitate multiple conversations over a long period of time: perhaps months or even years. “Pastoral accompaniment,” to use a phrase favored by Pope Francis, thus involves not only planting the seeds—presenting the truth in a favorable environment—but also tending the garden: by providing access to ongoing nourishment (the metaphorical water, sunshine, and fertilizer); by repeatedly pulling pesky weeds whenever they appear; and by intentionally surrounding the fragile new plant with a protective enclosure: a Catholic milieu of faithful, supportive witnesses who will provide needed warmth from the frosty winds of the secular landscape. But even when pastoral ministers fail, even when our most thoughtful and attentive interventions are met with outright rejection, we need not become discouraged, for the one ultimately responsible for preparing the soil and bearing fruit is the Holy Spirit. We are merely his hired hands (See: Parable of the Sower [Mt 13:18-23]).
Editorial Note: A version of this essay, “Moral Decision-Making, Conscience Formation, and Pastoral Care,” was presented to the Catholic Women’s Forum, for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, DC on May 30, 2018.
 On the meaning of the concept of integral human development, see Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate; as well as the preceding conciliar documents, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II) and Populorum Progressio (Paul VI).
 See: Melanie Susan Barrett, Love’s Beauty at the Heart of the Christian Moral Life: The Ethics of Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), 13: “Without beauty, the good is no longer attractive, so we are not motivated to pursue it. As [Balthasar] puts it, ‘Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil’ (Glory of the Lord I, 19).”