The word conscience, has, perhaps, never been as popular as it is today in the Philippines. On newspapers, radio, and television, people mouth it as though it were synonymous with integrity, honesty, and credibility. Protagonists on both sides of the recent impeachment issue in Congress had invoked their consciences as they justified their votes. The main actor in the ongoing show in the Senate entitled “Fertilizer Scam” keeps saying: “My conscience is clean”. Those who are pushing for a Con-Ass to amend the constitution also claim that they are doing that “in conscience”. Those who are against the controversial reproductive bill and those who are in favor both declare: “Our conscience impels us to do this.” And the woman doing her laundry with her favorite detergent proclaims: “Malinis pati konsyensiya ko.”

There is a reason to fear, however, that the word conscience, even if it is often invoked, has somehow suffered a depreciation of meaning and value. We live at a time when many words have been watered down to the point of meaninglessness. For instance, hope used to be a theological virtue. Now it is the name of a cigarette. Charity is invariably associated with sweepstakes. Redemption is applied to centers where one claims a lottery prize. A miracle is anything unusual, like miracle rice and miracle drug. During weddings, I used to tell the groom: “Put your trust in her”. Not anymore. Trust is now the name of a contraceptive. Faith is the name of a singer or a rock band. Love is inseparable with sex.

When words are devalued, the power and influence of the reality they symbolize are also diminished. We shape our words, but our words also shape our consciousness.

What conscience is

We have learned in school that conscience is the human faculty that enables a person to recognize the moral quality of an action that he will do, is doing, or has already done. If an act is good, his conscience motivates him to do it, affirms him while he does it, and gives him the feeling of satisfaction or achievement after he has done it. If an act is bad, conscience warns him to avoid it; disturbs him while he is doing it; and gives him the feeling of guilt after he has done it. Conscience is the subjective norm of what is right or wrong. But the word “subjective” should not be taken in an absolute sense. Otherwise, our moral judgments can become what John Henry Newman describes it: “Conscience has rights because it has duties. But in this age, conscience has been superseded by a counterfeit: the right of self-will.”

Newman’s words remind us that we often equate what we want with the urgings of conscience. Today, who are the models of decision-making of our youth? More often than not, it is the hedonist Faust who celebrates his day by seeking gratification here and now, who thinks that he only lives once, therefore he must get what he wants at whatever and whoever’s expense, even if it means the ruin of future generations and the destruction of the environment.

This tendency to equate conscience with self-will is somehow worsened by modern psychology’s absolutization of choice, and the media’s reliance on surveys and statistics as the sole standard of right and wrong.

Psychologists want us to believe that a sin or a crime is a mere mistake or deviancy owing to wrong choices occasioned by external forces. This somehow shifts responsibility from personal human decision to other exigencies. As a result, although there is a deafening clamor for respect for individual choice, very few would like to take personal and collective accountability when such a choice proves to be wrong. It is easy to deceive others; but the next easiest is to deceive ourselves.

When people die in capsized overloaded ships, when poorly built subdivision houses crumble at the slightest tremor, when floods and electric outages paralyzed our economy, when garbage becomes as ubiquitous as the pictures of government officials, when towns are ravaged by floods because of deforestation, when endless scams costing billions of pesos deplete our ability to have faith in government and church, who admits responsibility for all these? We still have to see one super rich government official admitting that he has enriched himself while in office. We still have to see one big, or small fish in the recent scams declaring publicly: “I am guilty”.

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Surveys also offer us an easy alternative to the authentic voice of conscience. Statistics condition our minds into believing that number determines what is good and bad. Because 89% of jeepney drivers go full speed when the traffic light goes yellow, people start thinking that it is all right to do so, as long as you are not caught. All you have to do when you break a law is to look at the statistics as to know how many are doing what you are doing. Kidnappers look for other kidnappers, thieves for other thieves. Perverts unite with other perverts to create the illusion of strength, and because of their overwhelming number, they make people believe that it is the normal people who are abnormal.

Conscience needs to be educated

Although conscience is a subjective norm of morality, it must be molded according to objective rules and laws. A well-formed conscience tells us that right is right even if nobody is right; wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong. Before conscience can speak, it must have been informed by a moral conviction arising from our natural capacity to know right from wrong, or from instruction by competent moral authority. The proper education of conscience is therefore a must. When moral education is lacking, it is naive to assume that when faced with the two options, one requiring sacrifice, and the other coinciding with his personal inclinations, a person will decide objectively. Only a person with a mature conscience can decide with integrity when confronted with a difficult situation.

But the proper formation of conscience does not happen in a vacuum. It develops through human experience that is both individual and collective; through our reading of the signs of the times; through our prudent application of self-evident moral principles, and the teachings of competent authorities; and finally, through God’s grace.

The sad thing is, the family where the formation of conscience begins, is itself in danger of extinction. In the November 24 issue of Time Magazine, the present generation of Filipinos is described as a “motherless generation” because of the exodus of more and more women abroad. In 2007, 8.7 million Filipinos (more than 10% of our total population) are working abroad. Last year alone, 146,337 Filipino women left the Philippines after being hired to work abroad. This motherless generation is likewise bombarded with consumerist values. Consumerism has become a kind of a religious urge promising happiness, fulfillment, and salvation. With money from abroad, Filipinos, especially the youth, become members of the mystical body of consumers who are saved from bad breath, dandruff, and pimples. Consumerism has become a form of eschatology, technology is its rubic, television movies, and advertisements provide the rituals.

Rizal’s idea of conscience

It is unfortunate that Rizal’s character and belief have often been judged in terms of how the Spaniards and nationalists looked at him. His person, convictions, and even his heroism, appear to have been presented to modern Filipinos in terms of such conflicting views. Our idea of Rizal and his work is either based on what the Spaniards wished to correct of destroy, or what nationalists think are Rizal’s patriotic sentiments or views. The result is, our knowledge of Rizal is often a caricature: either he is a free thinker and a stubborn proponent of the absolute autonomy of reason, or a firm believer who never wavered in his faith.

We have to understand that like other heroes, Rizal does not possess a one-dimensional character. Besides, it is a mistake to look at heroes in this way. Heroes are not flawless characters. A hero is a product of his circumstances, the challenges he faced, the principles and convictions that molded his unique response to such challenges. A hero does not cease to be a hero simply because he is not the saint we want him to be. He is a creature of time, of piece-meal intellectual and emotional progression.

For Rizal, conscience is a God-given “lamp of intelligence” that serves as a person’s moral guide. The person may have recourse to the opinion or judgment of others, to extrinsic authority, but, in the end, the decision rests on judgment made in the light of one’s own God-given conscience. “It is up to my conscience afterwards to decide whether to follow it or not, for in this matter, one has to bear the responsibility for his own actions.”

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Rizal considered the existence of conscience as consequent to his belief in God’s existence. He wrote in one of his letters: “How can I doubt God’s existence when I am so convinced of my own? Whoever recognizes the effect recognizes the cause. To doubt God’s existence would be to doubt one’s own conscience and consequently everything else. But then, would life have any meaning at all?”

This remark is significant, considering what many historians often call as Rizal’s “wreckage of faith”. If we sift through what is often labeled as Rizal’s rationalist rhetoric, we see elements that are unmistakably Catholic: the primacy of conscience, firm belief in God, boundless trust in divine providence, the profound experience of God as loving father, sense of mission, strength of conviction, recourse to prayer, and an openness to dialogue.

Freedom of Conscience

One controversial issue related to Rizal’s character and conviction is his idea of freedom of conscience. It is often said that Rizal invoked this freedom to justify his break with the Catholic Church. Simply put, he seemed to have said: “I would rather follow my conscience, rather than the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

We have to recognize the fact that, if ever Rizal questioned and even parodied many Catholic beliefs and doctrines, this was in connection with his political and reformist pursuits. When he embarked on the socio-political and cultural transformation of the Filipino people, he found what he believed was a solid ideological basis in the ideas of the 19th century philosophers. As Fr. Raul Bonoan, S.J. aptly puts it: “Rizal’s incursions into religious questions were impelled by his preoccupation with the dignity of the individual, the progress and redemption of his people, the need to foster the sentimiento nacional or the sense of nationhood, the task of forming the whole archipelago into a compact body, vigorous and homogenous.”

In other words, the philosophers’ ideas gave him sufficient intellectual basis for his fight for reforms and his own personal search for truth. Here we see a sublime feature of Rizal’s character: his intellectual honesty. He knew that reformist sentiments, without any frim rational basis, would simply melt into sentimentality. He therefore studied and analyzed the philosophers’ teachings, not in a manner by which politicians or ideologues shop for ideas to justify their crackpot policies, but in a manner by which befitting a philosopher: aq lover of truth. Rizal firmly believed that fidelity to truth gives a person a certain invincibility. This made him fearless in fighting for his convictions.

In one of his letter to his mother, he somehow affirms what many theologians always taught, namely, reason and faith need not be seen as contradictory: “Wjhat I believe now, I believe through reason because my conscience can admit only what is compatible with the principles of thought… For me, religion is most sacred, most pure, most sublime, which shuns all human adulterations; and I believe what I would fail in my duty as a rational being were I to prostitute my reason and accept an absurdity. I believe that God would not punish me if in approaching him, when I were to use his most precious gift of reason and intelligence. I believe that the best way for me to honor him is to present myself before him making use of the best things that he has given me…”

As evident in his writings, Rizal did not swallow everything that the enlightenment philosophers taught. He sifted through their ideas, appropriating those which he considered valid, and discarding those which he found outrageous or unreasonable. It is unfortunate that his Spanish critics viewed his link with the philosophers from their peculiar idea of Catholic apologetics which seemed to be premised on the paranoid fear of the autonomy of reason, the dangers posed by the rejection of Church’s authority, and the damage caused by human pride. They failed to see in Rizal a human being sincerely searching for ways to affirm the dialectal unity of faith and reason, grace and free will, man’s misery and God’s mercy.

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Also, his Spanish critics still valued the post-Reformation tendency to identify God’s salvific work with the visible Catholic Church. Rizal rightly saw (even before Vatican II expressed it in no uncertain terms) that God’s grace extends beyond the visible manifestations of the Church. He had to see it that way, because the Catholic Church that he grew up with did not seem to measure up with his conscientious search for truth.

Rizal emphasized freedom of conscience because he was impelled by his intellectual honesty to look beyond what the visible Catholic Church could offer him as ways to truth and salvation. Freedom of conscience is not the license to believe what one wants to believe. For Rizal, it is the deep conviction that both faith and reason are at the service of a higher value, which is truth. In one of his letter to Pastells, he wrote: “I believe that I am in the hands of God, that everything that I have and everything that happens to me is his holy will. Someone would say it is the devil’s will, but I do not think so, for it has been my custom since I was a child to ask that his will be done. So I am content and redesigned.” What better words to describe the journey which Rizal took in search for truth? For him, the object of his quest was not an idea. For Rizal, truth is a Person whose will he always tried to discern and obey.


While Rizal might have reflected the Enlightenment’s boundless confidence in reason, it was not to be seen as detrimental to development of his mature faith in God. In fact, with his firm belief that the truth of reason cannot contradict the truth of faith, he gave us a model of a man who lives according to his conscience. It is often said that a just man is a law unto himself. Or, as St. Augustine puts it: “love and do what you will”. A well-formed conscience, like that of Dr. Jose Rizal, sees that the divine and moral laws have one common element: respect, or better yet, reverence. Justice and love, the basic virtues that regulate human relationship and society, are basically founded on respect. While justice demands that we respect the other as other, love requires that we respect the other as one like us. Justice makes us aware of the necessary distance which we must not trespass lest we violate the rights of others; love or charity allows us to see such distance, far from being alienating, as creating the space which makes possible human communication and friendship.

It is ironic that the very people who wanted to make Rizal “listen to his conscience” seemed to be the very ones who deprived him the respect he deserved. As Fr. Bonoan writes: “Distracted by Rizal’s unorthodox remarks, (Fr. Pablo Pastells S.J. was blind to the basic catholicity of Rizal’s view on conscience and paid, at most, scant attention to Rizal’s own testimonies of admirable inner disposition, fidelity to conscience, and honest desire to do what was right in God’s eyes.”

Viewed in the light of Rizal’s idea of freedom of conscience and his unrelenting struggle to defend this, his famous retraction could perhaps be best understood the way Nick Joaquin did when he writes: “It seems clear now that he did retract, that he went to confession, heard mass, received communion, and was married to Josephine, on the eve of his death—but our minds resist the picture of so principled a man as Rizal (suddenly) renouncing the liberal and libertarian ideas by which he lived. The fact is: he did not renounce them, and he did not have to renounce them, to make a retraction… In short, a retraction in no way demanded a surrender of the intellect, only a renewal of the heart.”

In our age of compromise, dishonesty, and deterioration of our moral and religious values, contemporary Filipinos, especially writers, government and church leaders, would do well to learn from Rizal’s sublime example of intellectual honesty and freedom of conscience.


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