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What is conscience? Does it coincide with will and awareness, with understanding and wanting? With the warning or the intention? What does it mean to recognize oneself as sinners or do we have to recognize sin, that is, what is pleasing God is what is not? For example, when I go to confession I don’t know what to confess. Is it good or bad because it means that I have no awareness of my sins and if so what can I do to become aware of it?

A priest answer

1.     BY conscience we mean that set of moral principles in the light of which we formulate the judgment on the goodness or malice of human actions. Some of these principles are identical in all men and are learned as soon as our intelligence wakes up and becomes aware of its actions. These very first principles constitute that reality which the ancients called synderesis. They flow from our nature and emanate from a threefold inclination: the inclination to self-preservation for which we consider everything that favors self-preservation good for us and we consider bad what attends it; the inclination to the conservation of the species that pushes to form friendships, indeed, that particular type of friendship that is expressed in marriage and in the family; the inclination to know the truth and to live in society. These principles are identical in all men.

2.     Saint Albert the Great says : just as in the field of speculative truths there are principles that man must not acquire, because they are naturally given to him to help him in the knowledge of the truth, so, at the level of practical knowledge, there are universal principles that direct action and help practical intelligence to discern honest from moral evil. They are not acquired through study, but they are the natural law inscribed in the spirit of man. For St. Augustine these are maxims of law, such as ‘fornication must be blamed, we must not kill, we must pity the infirmity of the afflicted’ … “(Summa de creaturis, II, 71, 1).

3.     For St. Thomas the very first moral principles that constitute synderesis are indestructible and are identical in all men: “But synderesis presupposes an act [prior] in time, for it belongs to synderesis to speak out against evil and stir on to good.”(De veritate 16,2) and it “is salso in infidels as regards natural light” (in II Sent.,39,3,1 ad 3.)

4.     Consciousness belongs to intelligence. It is a habitus or set of principles in the light of which we express the judgment of moral goodness or malice. Judgment is an act of intelligence.

5.     On the basis of these principles many others are formed. They are learned from teaching and education. A good portion is also made up of human laws or regulations which in this case prohibit or declare certain actions lawful and punish others.

6.     In this second area there may be errors, gaps for which it is necessary to form or educate the conscience to pronounce righteous judgments.

7.     You tell me that when you go to confession you don’t know what to say. Most likely and thank God in your life there are no serious sins because they would immediately emerge. But there are so many venial. It would be enough to recall how much the Liturgy of the Church makes us say at the beginning of the Holy Mass: I confess … I have sinned a lot in thoughts, words, works and omissions. Saint Ambrose in a prayer before Mass confessed that he had not well guarded neither thought nor language. We too are in the condition of Saint Ambrose, without mentioning the omissions for which we did not respond promptly to the divine inspirations. In your next confession also tell the priest that you have not always guarded the thought and the language, nor have you always readily responded to the divine inspirations.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I entrust you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo