We have a responsibility as members of the Christian community to seek common understanding and communion in that which makes us Christian. We therefore reaffirm the primacy of the individual conscience and accept the responsibility for its continuing formation in community. From that attentiveness to conscience and its continuing formation in community emerges a shared ethic.
We use the word "conscience" in several ways, corresponding to the various dimensions of conscience. Broadly, conscience is our experience of responsibility as we exercise our freedom. One dimension of this is our attraction to what is good. Another dimension is the body of knowledge and values we use in making our decisions. A third, the most practical expression of conscience, is the personal, considered judgment that individuals have to make on what they ought to do or not do. Christians see themselves making this judgment in the gracious presence of God as they seek to be like Christ.
Such attention to conscience and its formation is important if we indeed claim to remain Catholic while disagreeing with Church authorities. The Catholic tradition neither identifies nor separates authority and conscience: since both authority and conscience depend upon God, neither can dominate or ignore the other.
In the Catholic tradition, "authority" refers to the sources presumed able to give instruction on God's will; e.g., scripture, tradition, Church officials, various experts, and collective human experience. Authority is always presumed to have insight into God's will because it represents the accumulated wisdom of the Christian people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet authorities can obviously disagree on how the Spirit is guiding God's people. They can also make mistakes in identifying the movement of the Spirit. Thus, according to Catholic tradition, individuals are not only free to go against authority's recommendation but also morally required to do so if they have responsibly concluded that it is mistaken and that dissent, in theory or in practice, does not violate others' rights or endanger the common good. As Vatican Council II stated, "Deep within conscience humans discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For humans have in their heart a law inscribed by God. Their dignity lies in observing this law, and by it they will be judged." (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 16).
Forming conscience goes deeper than decisions or knowledge and values. It reaches to the heart of how we become the persons we are and want to be. A formed conscience consists of the freely made commitments and the freely established loyalties by which we shape character and become virtuous. For us as Christians it means that we do not live without a model or in isolation. We commit ourselves to Jesus Christ, and we remain loyal to the community of faith, in which we are caught up in the mystery of Christ.
We strive in Christ who lived and died and rose to include us in a communion so filled with life that we are called members of the Body of Christ. We accept the Christ who is vulnerable and sensitive. We experience the Christ who promises and comforts and consoles. We rely on the Christ who liberates and supports and heals. We commit ourselves to the Christ who is ever faithful and truthful and open. We live the Christ who loves and sustains and fulfills life.
The story of Jesus' life and death shapes our vision as Christians. We are challenged to live as Jesus lived and do what he did (see John 13:15). Jesus discussed scripture with others and challenged interpretations which contradicted his own insights. Jesus shared his faith and prayer with many different people. By conscience he judged his actions and he concluded how God wanted him to act. Through these means, both personal and communal, Jesus envisioned and then lived according to that vision in order to realize God's reign.
We form conscience in community, not in isolation, and so we must reconsider and reclaim the resources that the community of faith has found helpful over the centuries. When we study scripture together, we grow in knowledge and wisdom. When we seek each other's counsel, or when we identify individuals whose lives reflect holiness and commitment to the Gospel, we test the validity of our individual reflections and find that they become stronger for having been challenged. When we, as People of God, engage in dialogue over questions of ultimate meaning and when we worship together, we reflect on our experience and find communal wisdom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who has anointed us (Constitution on the Church, 12).
Forming conscience is the lifelong process of becoming like Christ. We are called to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34). That is always more than we are capable of doing, but that is no reason for discouragement. As we renew our own determination to live as Christ, we realize and accept the reality of the imperfect, the partial, the human.