Jiminy Cricket was no theologian or philosopher, but in the Disney Classic Pinocchio, the talking cricket was assigned to serve as the “conscience” for the puppet who was made a “real boy.” The innocent puppet that is familiar to all of us was instructed to follow his conscience in the pursuit of being a good boy. Unaware of what a conscience is or how it helps us to distinguish right from wrong, Jiminy is commissioned to help Pinocchio develop his own conscience. At first, the cricket, seemingly a bit cranky and frustrated, explains that “A conscience is that still, stale voice that no one listens to.”
In his attempt to teach Pinocchio what a conscience is, he begins stumbling over his words as he himself realizes that this isn’t quite as simple as one might first presume. “Listen here son, the world is full of temptations, temptations are the wrong things that seem right at the time. . . But sometimes . . . the right things may seem wrong sometimes, sometimes the wrong things might be right at the wrong time.” And here is where we come to the heart of the issue at hand: understanding what a conscience is and how to use it. Jiminy embraces a great teaching tool in breaking it down for Pinocchio using a little jingle that he makes up. We all know the song, “Give a Little Whistle,” but the lyrics are quite insightful and worth a deeper look.
When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong,
When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong,
Take the straight and narrow path, and if you start to slide,
give a little whistle, and always let your conscience be your guide!
Is There Even Right and Wrong?
Conscience is not just knowing right from wrong. One also needs to deal with issues of temptation and urges, of bad habits and influences, and also what we are dealing with more clearly in today’s society: namely, a confusion of what is actually right and wrong based on emotions, agendas, or ideology—what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described as a “Dictatorship of Relativism.”i
In his address to the Bishops of New England in September 1993, Pope John Paul II said, “One of the key pastoral problems facing us is the widespread misunderstanding of the role of conscience, whereby individual conscience and experience are exalted above or against Church teaching.”ii
Our work as catechists, tasked with the spiritual formation of those entrusted to us, is even more difficult than just a generation ago. Before us is the sacred responsibility of presenting the truth as something that is actually true, of explaining reality as something that is actually real, with the goal of forming hearts, minds, and consciences of disciples who live in a society that does not value that which is true, beautiful, and good.
The Soft Voice of God in Our Hearts
Jiminy Cricket was able to articulate in a simple way what the Second Vatican Council explained in the Apostolic Constitution Gaudium et Spes: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”iii
But the voice of God in the depths of one’s heart is not the only voice that one hears. As Pinocchio dealt with temptations, the peer pressure of those who would lead him astray, and the allurements of worldly pleasure, his conscience became just one voice among many, a voice that was easy to drown out. And so, we come to an essential part of this conversation—the proper formation of one’s conscience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly teaches us that “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC 1783). Think, for example, of the modern anti-Christian approach to conscience formation that is so prevalent in our culture: “Do whatever makes you happy,” “do whatever feels good,” “think of yourself first.” How does a child or a teen, or even an adult for that matter, even know what right or wrong is anymore? We are being conditioned to be governed by our passions and appetites and that which is easy as opposed to what is virtuous, holy, or pleasing to God.
The proper formation of our conscience is truly a lifelong endeavor beginning in a child’s formative years whereby “it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. . . . The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (CCC 1784). Knowing right from wrong in each circumstance is only part of the struggle of the Christian life; choosing to follow our conscience is often the narrow path of virtue and self-denial. The more we acknowledge and choose right over wrong, however, the easier it becomes because we are cultivating this interior freedom that we all deeply long for. The opposite is also true; namely, that if we continually give in to our passions and worldly desires, we actually become enslaved to them. This is the slavery from which Christ liberated us, and he continues to offer us his grace through the sacraments.
Ongoing Formation of Conscience
The Catechism concludes its section on the formation of conscience by offering some practical advice. “We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785).
The daily examination of conscience at the end of each day is truly indispensable. Taking a few minutes to prayerfully think about our interactions with others, our conduct at work or at home, the sins of omission, etc. provide the sacred space to engage our conscience and to address areas of our life that we might need to work on. There are many great examinations that provide thought-provoking questions to help us grow in both holiness and self-awareness.
If we are honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that this is not something that we can do on our own. We need help. We need to pray to the Holy Spirit, whom the Lord sent to teach, guide, and enlighten each one of us. When struggling through temptations or even the questions of what to do in a given situation, we need to pray to the Holy Spirit to teach us and to give us the strength to follow the example of Christ and the saints.
We also need the help of other people. Parents are the first teachers of their children and the first to help distinguish right from wrong. But as we get older, we also have other people to whom we look for advice and direction. Perhaps it is a pastor or a teacher, a friend or a spiritual director, someone who helps us to see what we are unable to see ourselves. Athletes have a personal trainer and a nutritionist to help guide them and to ensure that they are exercising with proper form and eating well. In the same way, we can benefit from the spiritual advice and direction of others as we pursue the proper formation of our conscience.
Most especially, we have the Church, our Mother, given to us by the divine mandate of our Lord himself. In moral dilemmas and complicated situations, we should always ask, “What does the Church teach?” The Church will never lead us astray; she will always offer sound advice and clear teaching. Like our earthly mothers, she wants what is best for us and that which will make us truly happy: communion with Christ Jesus.
Fr. Jay Mello, STL, is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, MA. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in 2007 and is currently the pastor of St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s parishes in Fall River.
[i] Joseph Ratzinger, Homily at the Mass “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice,” Vatican Basilica, April 18, 2005.
[ii] John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the United States of America on Their “Ad Limina” Visit, September 21, 1993.