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Forming our consciences for citizenship

What Pinocchio can teach us about the process

“Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 17)

By Mark Schmidt
Special to The Witness

The title of the bishops’ document on faithful citizenship includes a priority to form one’s conscience. But what is our conscience? What does it mean to form our conscience? Why is it important? How do we go about doing it?

Do you remember the story of Pinocchio? It’s the story of a marionette made by a puppeteer named Geppetto who is given life by the Blue Fairy. Pinocchio is a rambunctious and curious boy and very soon the Blue Fairy realizes that Pinocchio will need something, or someone, to help him avoid trouble. In hops Jiminy Cricket. The Blue Fairy appoints him as Pinocchio’s conscience. Poof. In an instant Jiminy Cricket is thrown headlong into a task that he is not at all prepared for; trying his hardest to help Pinocchio understand right from wrong but never succeeding.

Almost immediately, Pinocchio finds himself in dangerous circumstances, and every time that Jiminy tries to guide Pinocchio toward good choices, Pinocchio heads in the opposite direction. There are even times when Jiminy loses his temper and gives up on Pinocchio, abandoning him to his own passions and desires. It is little wonder that Pinocchio gets into so much trouble with a conscience that hasn’t been strengthened or fostered at all. Not only that, but even when Jiminy does guide Pinocchio on the right path, Pinocchio ignores him for things that are more appealing, because Jiminy simply is not strong enough to get Pinocchio to listen, leaving him in even more dire straights.

Is this what a conscience is? Just a little voice that automatically knows what is best? Or is the conscience just a feeling you have?

Not exactly:

Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. (FCFC, 17)

Just like Jiminy Cricket, if we do not prepare our conscience, if we do not train it and form it according to the teachings of the church and human reason, it will certainly let us down; and perhaps even guide us in the wrong direction. We have to put our conscience through a sort of “finishing school for consciences.” We need to feed the conscience on the teachings of the church, strengthen it by our prayer life in communion with the universal church, and we need to follow it when it guides us towards good and away from evil. This is especially the case when we fulfill our obligation to participate in the social and political world around us.

If our conscience is properly formed and strengthened as Jiminy should have been the more likely we are to choose the good and do what is right. As the Second Vatican Council states: “the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality.” (GS, 16)

The U.S. Catholic bishops help us in this task by producing the document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” every four years. Unlike common voter guides, this document offers us a broader understanding of our role as Catholics in society, especially when it comes to political involvement.

Instead of telling people who to vote for, the document offers reflections on teachings of the church regarding particular ­areas of political policy as well as guidance on how each Catholic ought to approach the voting booth and civic engagement.

The bishops tell us:

The formation of conscience includes several elements. First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics, this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences in the light of the truths of the faith and the moral teachings of the Church they can make erroneous judgments. (FCFC, 18)

There are two resources that are very helpful when it comes to discovering what the church teaches on a particular issue. The first is the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the second is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Faith. Both are available as free resources online, though, hard copies make finding particular topics a little easier with their extensive index in the back.

Available online here:

As we prepare not only for this election but all political and social involvement, feed your conscience a healthy and hefty diet of these two books and make sure to wash it down with plenty of prayer. That conscience of yours needs all the help it can get.

You can find the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” and other resources at

Schmidt is the director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.