I have, on a few occasions, found myself involved in discussions of Christian morality, and I often hear two assertions that frustrate me greatly. The first is that conscience is the ultimate moral authority. The ultimate moral authority is actually God. We are, however, bound to act in accord with our conscience, and no individual should be forced to act contrary to their conscience. However, one’s conscience has to be properly formed, and it is possible for an improperly formed conscience to demand an immoral act. Following an improperly formed conscience cannot make an immoral act moral.
The second assertion is similar: that if a person doesn’t know that an act is a sin, then that act isn’t sinful for that person. I certainly agree that knowledge is a prerequisite for mortal sin, but, as in the case of an improperly formed conscience, ignorance of the immorality or sinfulness of an act does not make the act moral.
I was reminded of this today when I read today’s non-Gospel reading from the Lectionary. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor 5:4, NIV translation) Paul, it seems, has made every human effort to comply with the will of God, and yet he acknowledges that he might have judged wrongly, and that his honest mistakes will not be without consequence when he is judged.
Ignorance is not bliss, because it is not an excuse. We should seek to form our consciences so that a clear conscience becomes a sign of innocence.