Naturally, we think of the Conscience as acting as the motivation to judge between whether an action is in accord with the law of love, or at odds. Like the archetypal sense of guilt one has after having wronged another. However I noticed that the conscience can also steer people into feeling guilty over matters unrelated to Love. In the book “Your God’s too small”, the author sites the example of Resident Policeman who is the conscience imposing a sense of guilt and shame ruining ones fun. The book also describes that the conscience is often the product of ones upbringing, culture or some form of authority or external entity. For example, a culture where one is expected to dedicate their lives to their job may feel inferior and lazy compared to one who works more hours to their job. Or a society where slavery is considered okay, a person may feel no guilt about treating a slave poorly, but would feel guilty over dishonoring a nobleman.
Is the conscience infallible? Is my own interpretation of external authorities or writings infallible? Is the view of the magisterium or others’ judgments infallible. No, all epistemologies involve the perceptions of fallible people.
But I find in my experience that Paul’s view is valid that helpful knowledge is implanted in us all, and his implication that we should not sear our conscience by ignoring it.
I sometimes still have a hard time with how wired the conscience can be in imposing feelings of guilt over matters that are not immoral. Like how many churches consider drinking alcohol wrong, even though nothing in natural law states that spirited beverages are inherently evil, so long as one is not getting drunk. Now I will admit that it would not be good for an alcoholic to drink. Yet someone who is in a legalistic church may easily feel guilty about enjoying a drink, even if they can have a drink without getting drunk.
Yes, Joe I totally agree with your concern here. Consciences are quite capable of being mislead. Indeed, Paul can argue for respecting the conscience of the “weaker” brother, when there is no mistaking that Paul believes those weak in faith are legalists whose consciences feel guilty over things about which we should enjoy freedom. Nonetheless, it does not follow for Paul that we can safely ignore or trample on our conscience, because it is one vital instrument, albeit a fallible one, by which God guides us, especially as we get in touch with his voice planted within us.
I definitely agree with the importance of the conscience, or there would be no way to even recognize goodness to begin with. Plus, the conscience seems to understand the sacredness of the world, and at the deepest level knows this. I have thought about this and I remembered in a book by the Linn Ministries on Spiritual Abuse and Religious addiction that in reference to this group prone to addiction known as the “Responsible Pharisees”. I have begun to think that legalism and the mislead conscience is from a corruption and idolatry of responsibility. It seems like every evil is a perversion of a good. In the cases of the corrupted conscience, people become overly responsible to the point they torment themselves and others, and become quite hostile and malevolent towards those who are not as “responsible” as them.