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  • 105. The True Meaning of a Person's Conscience

The True Meaning of a Person's Conscience

  • Category(s): Religion Essays
  • Created on : 05 January 2014
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The strength of conscience in our hearts and the utterings of our minds which must reflect the results of our deliberations.

1. Introduction

This is the heart of Catholicism and contrition. Conscience leads us to know and understand how we have erred in our actions and words and thoughts. A close and prolonged examination of our conscience in conjunction with prayer and Mass attendance will clarify our thinking and illuminate our insight. We exist in the real world and conscience has no meaning unless it bears down on our relations with our fellow men and women.

2. The workings of conscience

The law speaks of the unconscionable as the oppressive and overbearing – sometimes called undue influence. More frequently we are up against a position where others regard us as acting wrongly or improperly in our private lives or semi-public actions. Thus an individual may stand isolated morally and under pressure to change his ways. The whole concept of the Sacrament of Confession is based on examination of conscience in a thorough and informed way – therefore listen and heed those in your immediate entourage and wider circle. That is how you inform your conscience. At the end of the day the individual soul must take responsibility for discerning the dictates of his or her own conscience as Cardinal Newman (Blessed) puts it. This freedom is respected in the Roman Catholic Church as every good Catholic is taught from his earliest reasoning years. No one may decide a matter of conscience for another but guidance may be given in the formative years. Unless we stand alone in later life we are in danger of being cyphers and timeservers. If we are prepared to stand out we become leaders and opinion formers. Beware of popularity and flattery – they do not suit true Catholics who will risk being despised for the sake of Christ.

3. Further thoughts and retrospective intent

The words “retrospective” has cropped up in my mind regarding conscience. To retrospectively change is a legal term to describe altering the law to make something that has taken place previously subject to a subsequently enacted law. Such legislation can be highly controversial as imposing jeopardy on an individual who did not face it originally. As they say “moving the goal posts”.

The best example in recent years is the abolition of the ancient autrefois acquit rule which traditionally prevented an accused facing a repeat trial after he had been acquitted once. Parliament took away this right recently by legislating its removal some years after the “target” Stephen Lawrence accused had been tried and acquitted. This liberty was abolished to enable him to be retried for the same offence of which he had been acquitted. As things stood at the time of the first trial he could not be retried on account of his acquittal by the Jury initially in that trial of murder. Parliament could have made her legislation only effective from the date of passing of the Act but she chose to apply it backwards to take away this accused’s protection from retrial as it had stood several years before and remained effective. He was duly convicted of murder at the second trial – the High Court having permitted such trial to proceed in these highly unusual circumstances. I digress a little to demonstrate “retrospective” is a legal term inapplicable to the examination of conscience.

Clearly the individual examining his conscience cannot embark on such mental gymnastics as in this retrospective legislation exercise. What he has done wrong is sacrosanct and he cannot alter. His later realisation of his fault (contrition) does not involve the retrospective imposition of sorrow or sin upon him – that sin was there all the time but the sinner did not appreciate it and accept his fault until later. This realisation cannot be retrospectively imposed. Contrition is fixed in time when it dawns and leads to sorrow then and there but it cannot be applied retrospectively several years back in time. Of course sorrow once arrived at continues indefinitely and remains with the offender but you can only say “sorry” to your neighbour once for the same offence. The process of actions/words/thoughts constituting the sin and the later contrite attitude, confession and the act of recompense is at the heart of religion – Judaism, Christian and Islamic. As some say it is part of the natural law and ingrained in mankind whatever their belief or lack of belief. If we deny the contrition process we fly in the face of Christ Himself who personifies the natural law of time immemorial and the New Testament: Good news both of which proclaim sorrow for sinning.

4. The Law makers

The law makers have their statute books and Judges their case law but they cannot legislate or rule for contrition. You may legislate and condemn a man but only he may be contrite. You cannot make a man sorrowful now for a crime tried against him several years ago of which he was acquitted – whether he admits his guilt or not. The second trial grinds through the dust and defeats its own purpose. He would have been contrite at the first trial if so motivated. Clearly you may not inflict that sorrow upon him retrospectively.

When it comes sorrow perhaps prompted by the legal process enables the work of conscience to be complete. Conscience is at the heart of natural law. I would argue from the polemic above the abolition retrospectively of the autrefois acquit Rule in our jurisdiction was contrary to natural law. The purpose of our criminal law in accordance with natural law is to punish wrongdoing and encourage the wrongdoer to admit his guilt (contrition). This retrospective enactment effectively exposed this Defendant to the repetition of this criminal trial process and thereby the potential dictate of contrition once more, several years after he was acquitted. That is unfair, unchristian and overbearing, not to mention oppressive verging on unconscionable. You cannot divorce the Crown Court trial process from morality which derives its power from conscience. Without properly attuned conscience criminal justice founders. These misguided prosecutors of this Stephen Lawrence accused were not only activating the second criminal trial unjustly against him, they were also acting morally incorrectly in putting him in jeopardy of contrition yet again. The second trial ran foul of the whole process of forgiveness by God at the heart of conscience which is the foundation of our criminal Justice in England and Wales. God had been asked to forgive this Defendant once at the first trial which resulted in an unrepentant and acquitted Defendant. Let the man go his way I say. He will have to face the Last Judgement. You should not badger him to say sorry – it becomes undignified and reduces the Trial process in value and worth significantly risking ribaldry.

5. Conclusion

Conscience drives each one of us – no one is totally amoral not even the worst offender. Yes we all have amoral attitudes or sinfulness in ourselves but there is always someone who matters to us however “steeped in gore” we may be. There has to be a redeeming feature. Conscience will teach us to have no fear.