Related Content

Related Overviews

St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225—1274) Italian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican friar

St John of Damascus (c. 660—750)


Holy Spirit

See all related overviews in Oxford Reference »


More Like This

Show all results sharing this subject:

  • Religion


Show Summary Details



Quick Reference

The word now denotes the capacity for judging the rightness of actions, whether in general or in particular. Christians are agreed that it is unique to human beings and that its effectiveness is increased by experience and through grace.

Western medieval theologians differed as to whether the source of moral discernment lay in the affections and will, or in practical reason. The Reformers reacted against the idea of an uncorrupted natural power to discern good and evil untouched by the Fall and emphasized the dependence of the Christian conscience on faith. More recent thinkers have been divided on the reality and authority of conscience. Some have tended to discard the concept and speak only of moral judgement; others (e.g. Bp. J. Butler) have seen in conscience a kind of moral sense in the exercise of which people became aware of a Being higher than themselves. According to I. Kant conscience is the awareness of the universal claim of the moral dictates of reason (the Categorical Imperative). Religion is the recognition of this claim as the will of God, and it is by following the dictates of conscience that individuals realize their independence of conventional and social codes. Modern psychology regards conscience as the activity of the super-ego, which is formed in childhood and represses drives that are socially unacceptable. Nevertheless, a critical attitude to social pressures, combined with the sense that a person's freedom implies some sort of ultimate autonomy, has meant that the notion of conscience has seemed useful when an individual's sense of value conflicts with those imposed by the State or society. Moral theologians have stressed the need for conscience to be informed by attention to the teaching of Scripture and the Church; conscience thus informed is to be followed.

Subjects: Religion

Reference entries

View all reference entries »