Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

Conscience vs. Compassion

Everybody knows you’re supposed to follow your conscience. At least I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise.  The strange thing is that usually conscience is described as a kind of gut impression, feeling, intuition, or instinct. The most common formulation I’ve heard is “Well, this is just how I feel about it, and I’ve got to follow my conscience.” Very frequently conscience is posed in opposition to some kind of authoritarian dictate, as in “The Catholic Church says abortion should be outlawed, but that doesn’t feel right to me, so I’m going to go with my conscience on this one.”

Now the most striking thing about this way of equating conscience with feeling is its incongruity with the etymology of the word “conscience” itself.  The word “conscience” is a Latinate composite of cum + scientia (= conscience). Cum just means “with,” but scientia means “knowledge.” So to follow your conscience means to act according to your knowledge, not your feelings, instincts or intuitions. Which has some very interesting implications. For instance, it means that if you know that what the Catholic Church teaches is true, you are logically incapable of following your conscience in opposition to the Catholic Church – since you can’t follow your knowledge and act against your knowledge at the same time. Whereas if you can follow your conscience against the teachings of the Catholic Church, it means that you don’t know that the Catholic Church is a reliable source for true teaching. And if you call yourself a Catholic but you don’t recognize the Catholic Church as a reliable source for true teaching, then you need to consider whether there’s any point in having a Catholic Church, or in being associated with it, in the first place.

Okay, but getting back to etymology. “Conscience” means acting according to knowledge, not feeling. What would be the latinate construction that meant acting according to one’s feelings? Well, we just have to substitute the Latin word for “feelings” for the Latin word for “knowledge.” And, since the Latin word for feeling is “passio,” we can make our new word pretty easily:


Acting according to one’s knowledge:     cum + scientia =               CON-SCIENCE

Acting according to one’s feelings:         cum + passio =              COM-PASSION

That’s right! It’s “Compassion”! Compassion is etymologically the word that describes acting on feeling instead of on knowledge. When people say they’re following their conscience, they usually mean they’re following their compassion. But look at the massive difference in meaning: conscience is to compassion as intellect is to emotion. And, according to Catholic anthropology, the great work of virtue consists precisely in not letting your emotions lead your life, but in forcing your emotions to submit to your intellect. So compassion should submit to conscience, not vice versa.

What does this mean practically? It means this: BEWARE OF LETTING COMPASSION TAKE OVER CONSCIENCE’S ROLE! Compassion has in fact set itself up as the primary usurper of conscience, which explains why compassion is the leading cause of disobedience to the Church’s moral magisterium:


Why is Catholic teaching on abortion rejected? Because of compassion for pregnant women in difficult circumstances.

Why is Catholic teaching on homosexuality rejected? Because of compassion for those suffering from same-sex attraction.

Why is Catholic teaching on euthanasia rejected? Because of compassion for those in unpleasant medical or personal situations.

Why is Catholic teaching on contraception rejected? Because of compassion for parents who can’t imagine having any more children, or compassion for those who get sexually transmitted diseases.


The point is that although concern for the suffering of others may be a good thing in itself, it becomes a disaster if you make it your fundamental moral principle. If morality was centered on ending suffering, we’d be better off just dropping a bunch of nukes and ending all life and all the suffering that goes with it in one elegant stroke. Compassion, like all the other feelings, has to be controlled, resisted, and redirected by conscience.  As for our decisions, those have to be made not based on sympathy, but on our knowledge: our knowledge of the structure and origin of the universe, the structure and purpose of the individual human being, and the ultimate destiny of humanity as a whole. And, since the most detailed, sophisticated and coherent intellectual account of such matters is located in the Catholic Church, I’d recommend getting your knowledge there and then acting accordingly.

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2 Responses to “Conscience vs. Compassion”

  1. Alex says:

    I thought compassion meant to “suffer with”. I like where you are coming from. However, with the understanding that compassion isn’t an emotional motivation, but rather an act of humility then it isn’t really something to beware of. Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the multitudes and so it just stands to reason that when we do the same we are conforming our will to His.

    Just to clarify, I believe your premise is correct…emotions are not good leaders. I’m just not sure about your etymology. If compassion means to co-suffer then we are called to be compassionate without inhibition. Am I wrong?

    • So I think you’re right that the colloquial meaning of “compassion” would be suffering on behalf of a fellow sufferer, or concern for the suffering of others. My point with the etymology was simply that if we wanted to remake the word “conscience” in a way that corresponded to the way people think of conscience (i.e., replacing KNOWLEDGE with FEELING), we’d end up with “compassion.” And, as it happens, people generally do in fact use the word “compassion” to describe their motivation for opposing the Church’s teaching. Which to me is very interesting.

      And I think we DO need to beware of compassion in the same way that we need to beware of fear, desire, or anger. Why? Because these are very powerful emotions which can easily interfere with our ability to think and assess clearly. Fear, desire, anger and compassion all need to be controlled — and sometimes checked — if they are to facilitate instead of impede our moral behavior. So I guess I don’t think we should be compassionate without inhibition, anymore than we should be angry or fearful or eager without inhibition. These feelings have their proper place, time and degree, all of which should be determined by our moral judgment (i.e. conscience).

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