(In)Formed Conscience: the Role of Virtuous Habits


Francois Chifflart – “Das Gewissen” (“The Conscience”)

Have you ever noticed that your conscience is less bothered by certain vices than by others? I know mine is. There are some big sins that would probably set off all kinds of alarms, but then there are those that we may continually commit without much pause or remorse. Why do some unvirtuous behaviors make us uncomfortable and others not?

I think it’s less because we have uninformed consciences and more because we have unformed ones. We basically know (intellectually) the difference between virtue and vice, what sin technically is and is not. But our intellectual understanding of sin doesn’t have a direct correlation to how comfortable we are or aren’t with our offenses. I find that the more habitual my vices, the more comfortable I am with them. On the flip side, when I commit a sin of which I am not in the habit, I feel the internal churning of that incongruity.

By way of analogy, it’s similar to the disordered feeling I have when the whole day goes by without my bed being made. I am a habitual bed-maker. I almost always make my bed first thing in the morning. So it is the most unnatural feeling to walk into my bedroom later and see that bed unmade. I’m uncomfortable with it, and that discomfort will usually lead me to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

On a much larger scale, this is exactly what our reaction should be to sin in our lives, at least this is the goal to which we are aspiring. We should be terribly uncomfortable with it; it should conflict with our normal mode of operation. If it doesn’t? Well, then we have an insight into possible areas of habitual sin, and our consciences are going to set off very quiet alarms (if any at all) because of it.

I recently had a priest tell me that he doesn’t hear greed confessed a lot anymore. Is that because the human race has suddenly–in our increasingly materialistic/consumeristic culture–stopped loving possessions and wealth? Not likely. More probable is that individuals have simply become accustom to their desire for these things. Greed, in a variety of forms, has become normalized and habitual in our lives, and our consciences are more comfortable with it.

When our consciences have become numb to sin, they won’t convict us as they should. In order to rely on our conscience to properly convict, we can’t just inform it with truth from Scripture and church teaching; we have to form it through habit–the daily actions of our lives. We need to develop virtuous habits that align with these truths, habits that create a new normal, habits that make us more uncomfortable with and acutely aware of our sin. The blessing that comes from being uncomfortable with sin, with having a well-formed conscience, is that we can then hear and respond to the Holy Spirit’s call for reconciliation.

Image attribution: By François Chifflart (1825-1901) (repro from art book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons