Fuddle and Fif
Alfred Wilson, CP

Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, 1946

IT IS an indisputable fact that of all fanatics the most difficult to deal with are religious fanatics. Religion tends to gather around it pious people who are supremely obstinate; scrupulous people who are morbid and unreasonable; and eccentric people who justify religiosity by saying that "their conscience is different" and by quoting intuition against --- and even despising --- commonsense. Religion, as history shows, often produces a crop of illuminati, irrationalists, and intolerant private pontiffs.

These are disturbing facts, well worth careful study. Many take it for granted that anti-social abnormalities are the natural outcome of religion; and on that account they despise and hate religion as the enemy of sanity and social progress. If we could rid religion of fanatics and eccentrics, we should have gone a long way towards converting the world.

Eccentricities, when they are not due to personality, are occasioned by misunderstanding of religion, especially by misunderstanding of the meaning of the word "conscience." Shakespeare has expressed a very common idea of conscience in the much-quoted lines of Hamlet:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought:
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. [1]

Conscience is regarded as a sickly, emasculating thing, which causes morbid introversion, produces characters who shy at shadows, and destroys all strength of character. Nothing could be less true. Fidelity to conscience requires and produces the heroic courage of the Saint. Disastrous misconceptions of conscience have arisen because it is so often confused with fuss, feeling, fuddle, funk and fif. Yes, these are the ingredients of which many consciences --- or what unfortunately pass for consciences --- are compounded.

Although "conscience" is a vital word very much in use, there are not many who could give a confident and accurate definition of it. Small wonder that people get fuddled about examination of conscience when they do not know what they are supposed to be examining. It is a pathetic fact that of those who examine their consciences regularly, the majority "know not what they do." Small wonder that their vain fears and irrational obsessions prove strangely difficult to dislodge. Experience teaches that many people entertain about conscience, not merely woolly notions, but even definitely wrong notions. In such a vital matter, haziness, not to mention error, is lamentable and disastrous. Fuddle about conscience leaves the door wide open to obstinacy, intuition, scruples, fanaticism and fif. (By fif is meant a tendency to substitute emotional intuition for reason.)


Conscience is not a special faculty.

Needless to say, conscience is in the soul. If you recall your catechism, you will remember that in the soul there are three powers --- memory, understanding and will. No mention of a fourth power called conscience. In the soul there are two faculties, intellect and will. Neither philosophy nor theology mentions a third faculty of the soul called conscience.
Yet many people (one might safely say "most people"), if they reflected, would find that they cherish the notion of conscience as a special faculty, a kind of spiritual instinct, an inner voice whispering categorically of right and wrong, a mentor in the soul making instructive suggestions analogous to revelation, inspiration or immediate direction from God. Anyone with these ideas should pause to ask himself what and where his supposed special faculty is and how it operates. No such special faculty is known to theology.

Theology knows of two, and only two, faculties in the soul, intellect and will. Therefore, if conscience is in the soul, as obviously it is, it must be found in these two faculties.
In other words, conscience is not a separate reality, existing on its own. It is not a fixture, a permanent thing. The mind and will are permanent, not conscience. Conscience is a transient act elicited by the mind in conjunction with the will. It is simply the mind and will in operation about a practical (as distinct from a speculative) moral issue, an act, not a habit.

There is the same difference between conscience and the soul as there is between a punch and a fist. The punch is an action of the fist, a thing the fist does. Similarly, conscience is an action of the soul, a thing the soul does. Precisely defined, conscience is the practical moral judgment of the intellect --- the intellect being simply the soul itself, considered in its activity of knowing things. [2]

Conscience is defined in the textbooks as a dictate of practical reason deciding that a particular action is right or wrong.
Whenever, in sermons, I have enunciated that definition, I have noticed animated question marks on the faces of my listeners, registering doubt and the suspicion that this was a new-fangled and unorthodox definition of my own. No! the definition is not copyright. It is the stock definition of the textbooks.

Conscience is based on reason and is, in fact, almost the same thing as right reason in actual moral matters.

Conscience, good my lord,
Is but the pulse of reason. [3]

Here is an illustration of the working of conscience. On a very hot day in July, X. is out in the country, hiking. As he sits down to rest, weary and parched with thirst, he espies a tempting bottle of iced beer which is not for sale. Every moment the beer becomes more tempting, and something like this goes on in his mind. "Stealing is wrong," says the mind, enunciating a general principle of morality. "But," continues the mind, "if I took this bottle of beer, it would be stealing." "Therefore," concludes the mind, "if I took this bottle of beer, it would be wrong." Thereupon, the will, if it is rightly disposed, interjects: "Don't take it," which is a practical dictate of the mind.

If the will is not rightly disposed, something else may happen. If the will does not like the conclusion reached by the mind --- and human nature being prone to evil, it often does not, as we all know from intimate experience --- it will force the mind to reconsider the issue. Then something like this will happen.

"Stealing is wrong," says the mind. "Granted!" says the will, through the prompted mind, "as a general principle. But in these particular circumstances, isn't there reason for an exception? No decent person would refuse to give you the beer in these circumstances, so is it really stealing? Yes, all things considered, I think you may take it."

When the will is ill-disposed towards truth, the mind is often induced to indulge in wishful, or, better, in willful thinking. When this occurs, we act against conscience. Conscience is always an affair of the mind, with the will butting in. Passions influence the will, the will influences the mind, and so "the wish is often father to the thought."

 Men vehemently in love with their own new opinions, though never so absurd, and obstinately bent to maintain them, give those opinions also that reverenced name of con. science. ..and so pretend to know that they are true, when they know at most that they think so. [4]

The will has a powerful influence on practical moral judgments, i.e., on conscience; and that is why we must keep a vigilant watch on it, guarding it against impulse and self-will. Hence, too, the peace of God is promised, not to the "clear-minded," nor the "high-minded," but to "men of good-will." "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good-will."

Possibly you are not conscious of any such process of reasoning in making your practical moral judgments. Probably not. In many moral matters, because you have thought out the issue before or been clearly instructed about it, the conclusion is immediately obvious and there is no need for a reasoning process. Conscience often gives its decision at once, without hesitation --- in a flash. From this we get the idea of a voice. The dictate of conscience is, however, always the conclusion of a piece of reasoning, made now or in the past.

Ethics and moral theology supply the general speculative principles on which our actual moral decisions are based. Reason then applies general principles to our particular case and draws a practical conclusion, i.e., decides what must or must not be done here and now in practice.

Sheed explains the matter with his usual lucidity:

... The intellect makes many judgments, and conscience only differs from the others by its special scope. If I answer the question: "Did Richard III 'murder the princes in the Tower?,' my answer is a judgment of my intellect; but it is purely a historical judgment, not a moral one; therefore, it is not my conscience. If the question is changed to: "Ought Richard III to have murdered the princes?" --- my answer is again a judgment of my intellect, and this time it is a moral judgment, a judgment of right and wrong. But it is not my conscience, for it is not a practical moral judgment. that is to say, it is not concerned with what it would be right for me to do here and now. But if the question is again changed to: "Ought I to murder the man next door whose manners are so maddening?" --- the answer is not only a judgment of my intellect and a moral one, but also a practical one. [5]

Conscience is, therefore, basically a matter of the mind, that is, of instruction, knowledge, clear thinking, mind-training.

Conscience is not an independent and self-sufficient guide. It is a judgment of the intellect, whose rectitude consists in its degree of conformity to objective truth. All men have the duty of conforming, as far as they can, to objective standards.

Conscience should depend not on what we think about things, but on what we ought to think about things. One of the greatest curses of religion is subjectivism. The subjective idea of conscience, the self-sufficient voice-theory, puts a premium on fanaticism, private interpretation, modernism, illuminism, and all those other fantastic pseudo-spiritual aberrations, which often have brought religion into contempt and diverted millions from it. Until the rational idea of conscience is made clear, there can be no cure for spiritual aberrations.

If a well-meaning yokel gets a fantastic pseudo-spiritual idea "into his head," nothing can be done about it, unless he can be brought to the bar of reason.

One youth "gets it into his head" that Christ was a pacifist; his conscience tells him so. His conscience is possibly a voice from the unconscious, originating in sheer funk. Psychology is very familiar with this kind of voice, e.g., a girl who died of starvation in a London hospital as a result of a self-immolation complex, told the house physician that "there was something at the back of her mind telling her it was wicked to eat."

One man "gets it into his head" that Christ was a prohibitionist, another that He was a nudist, another that He was a scientist, and so on, indefinitely; and even Catholics shrug their shoulders fatalistically and say: "Well, after all, "it's his conscience. You must respect his conscience. You can't force a man to act against his conscience." And so Christ is made a mockery and His religion travestied, in the name of conscience.
Pathological symptoms must not be glorified with the name of conscience. Of course, you cannot force a man to act against his conscience, but you ought to be able to convince him that his conscience is wrong; and if he is not amenable to reason, he should be treated, not as a martyr for justice' sake, but as a spiritual invalid.

We must beware of muddling conscience with feeling and fif,
Conscience is not feeling. A guilty feeling is an indication, and establishes a probability, that we have acted wrongly; just as a feeling of satisfaction is an indication that we have acted virtuously. An indication and no more; because a guilty feeling is not necessarily induced by conscience and may be due to a phobia or an exsurgence from the unconscious mind of wrong ideas, due to a Jansenistic or Puritanical training. Certainly, a feeling of guilt should be firmly investigated and removed; by contrition and satisfaction, if it is found to be based on reason; by psychological means, if it is irrational.
Feelings must never be accepted as infallible guides in moral matters. 1£ we pay too much attention to feelings, we shall become unstable characters, weather-cock personalities, "reeds shaken by every wind"; and we shall be in danger of imagining ourselves zealous or "pious, when we are only bilious." De gustibus non est disputandum --- "argument is impossible about tastes." If conscience is made to depend on how we feel about things, the whole basis of the moral law is removed at one stroke; for then there can be no universal moral standards; in fact, no room for an infallible arbiter of morals, such as the Church.
The world would be a much saner place if all men could be prevented from confusing conscience with feelings and fif.
In his excellent book, Now I See, Arnold Lunn recounts an amusing story which admirably illustrates the meaning of fif:

"Oh, I think it's dreadful," I once heard a woman remark, "to deny that God exists. Of course, you can't prove He exists, but surely, surely, everybody must feel that there is a God."

I happened to have been playing bridge that afternoon with the lady in question. She had a "feeling" that the blue cards would win. After the blue cards had lost, because she did not play the blue cards correctly, she had a "feeling" that the seat she was sitting in was unlucky. She changed seats, but she did not change her method of play, which was founded on emotion rather than on reason. After losing the second rubber, she had a "feeling" that it would help if she sat upon her handkerchief. Unfortunately, she never had a "feeling" that it would be wise to apply reason to her bids.

I suggested to her that her intuition on the subject of God might not be much more trustworthy than her intuition on the subject of bridge. [6]

The same good lady probably had innumerable exasperating intuitions. It would not be surprising if, as a general rule, she "had a feeling" that it is wrong to play cards or the piano or the fool on Sundays. Or at least wrong for others to play cards on Sundays. If she were invited to have a game herself on that sacrosanct day, she would probably "have a feeling" that it was somehow right to play in the circumstances; and this --- mind you --- without deliberate insincerity and without the slightest advertence to her inconsistency. It is unnecessary to prolong the description. Haven't you met her? Could you not name her?

The Fifites are not insincere, but they certainly are tantalizing, and the harm they do to religion is incalculable. For all their tearful religious sentimentality, they are living on the level of "the ass and the ox which have no understanding."

A near neighbour of fif is bogus piety, sometimes called pietism, or "pietosity" (by those who think pietism too nice a name). If piety is not carefully subordinated to reason, inevitably it degenerates into fif.

Sensible devotion is pleasant, and pleasant experiences we naturally desire to maintain or repeat. (By sensible devotion is meant, not commonsense devotion, but a feeling of satisfaction and relish in devotion.) Pleasure may easily be a snare and a delusion --- even --- the pleasure called sensible devotion. After all, there must be some excuse for the puritans! Pleasure must be kept in its place, and its place is a secondary one.

 Pleasure is meant as a condiment of duty, mercifully given by God to make the fulfillment of duty easier. Sensible devotion, which is a form of pleasure, is no exception to this general rule.
Sensible devotion is of secondary importance and must not be sought for itself. We must not "seek the consolations of God, rather than the God of consolations," because, if we do, our quest is motivated by nothing nobler than self-love and refined sensuality.

Subtle self-seeking disguised as piety is one of the gravest and least suspected dangers of the spiritual life. Pietism originating in self-love leads to a systematizing of self-will, complete disregard of obedience and the will of God, and the glorifying, under false pretences, of self-indulgence.

The pietist has a false standard of values; he judges everything not by its conformity to or deformity from God's holy will, but by its capacity to occasion sensible consolation. Reading beautiful sugary prayers in church is more consoling than doing housework and makes one feel holier and more recollected, so house-work is neglected even though it is a duty, i. e., the clearly manifested will of God.

The pietist becomes unreasonable, head-strong, secretive and selfish. For the pietist the big world does not exist; its problems and perils mean nothing to him. He is detached; but with a detachment which is the last remove from the detachment of the Saints. His detachment is founded on selfishness, laziness and sensuality. Provided he is left alone to continue his exercises of piety in peace, he is unconcerned if the rest of the world runs headlong into Hell. Why should he concern himself about it? Is he his brother's keeper? Why should he go out into highways and hedges and compel them to come in?

The pietist has no sense of any obligation to inform himself and train himself to be an apostle of Christ, up and doing to win the world for God. If he is appointed to train the young, he concentrates almost exclusively on devotional exercises, and the impression is given that other things, such as study, deportment, culture and zeal are of very secondary importance. Is this a partial explanation of the ineffectiveness of Catholic countries and of some ecclesiastics and religious? The pietist cannot train strong, virile, broad-minded, energetic characters, because he is anaemic, sensual, spiritually flabby and purblind himself.

The pietists are affected with spiritual pride and patronize and look down on those who are not, in their esteem, pious. Newman and Ven. Dominic were crucified by complacent and supercilious pietists, not to mention the Master Himself, literally crucified at the instigation of the Pharisees.

Pietists are often given a false reverence and a very enervating tolerance. Despite selfishness, fatuity, lack of zeal, and other clear evidence of defective virtue, the pietist is treated as a bit of a saint "in his own way." His idiosyncracies and omissions are glossed over and palliated with the expression "after all you must admit that he is pious." Not at all --- he is not pious. He is the worst of all the enemies of true piety and responsible for bringing the word "piety" into quasi-contempt. The pietist is warped, selfish and futile, and for his own sake, as well as for the sake of the nerves and souls of others, he should be made to realize it. Pietosity bears as close a relationship to true piety as lust bears to love.

The disastrous confusion of piety and pietism might be avoided if all understood the meaning of conscience and the implied supremacy of reason as the innate promulgator of the Will of God.

A right conscience depends on correct moral principles. Therefore, we must never cease to inform ourselves about the principles of morality and their application, nor allow our minds to get set and become closed.

We are never too old to learn, just as we are never too old to mend. We must always be prepared to revise our opinions and learn from experience. If we will not learn from experience, life is wasted on us. Whenever we suspect that our opinions are wrong or narrow, we must not shirk the mental labour of surveying honestly and, if necessary, re-laying our spiritual foundations.

The mind, instead of being a faithful mirror of objective truth, tends to be coloured and dulled by prejudice, fashion and environment. Beware of confusing conservatism with conscience, and manners with morals. Ideas are not necessarily correct because they are old-fashioned. We must keep the mind open to correction and to new ideas. Closed minds make moral and intellectual development impossible, and obstinacy and self-complacency inevitable.
"The fashions of this world pass away." We must not presume, therefore, that the fashions of our childhood were in every way correct and conformable to the best traditions of the Church. There seems to be a latent tendency in human nature to canonize the ideas and conventions that were fashionable in one's youth. Granny, for example, confident that she was correctly instructed in modesty, thinks that the modern bright-young-thing is a brazen wench; whilst Miss Modern, equally self-assured, thinks Granny a stuffy old fool. Neither has any doubt about the rectitude of her attitude, because, having been brought up in her own particular atmosphere, "she feels that way about it." Both have closed minds and are quite unprepared to modify their views. Neither will admit that something might be said for the other's point of view. Neither is entirely right, neither entirely wrong. They are both representatives of extremes; Granny of the Victorian extreme of hush-hush and unnatural reserve. Miss Modern of the opposite extreme of blasé rejection of reserve. Granny was hyper-modest and somewhat Manichean; Miss Modern is sub-modest and affected by naturalism.

  If both parties had the humility to suspect the rectitude of their attitude, and bring the question to the bar of reason and faith, we might get somewhere and achieve sanity. But, instead of that, they continue complacently to sit in judgment and frown on each other, and display mutual irritation, with little or no regard for either charity or humility. Probably both experience difficulty in finding matter for confession!

Many of the disagreements of the old and the young, many of the recriminations of one generation against its predecessor, are traceable to a defective idea of conscience. Because all feel quite happy about their conduct, none see any reason why they should subject it to rational examination.


There is a consoling sense in which conscience can be called the voice of God, and it is this: God will always accept and approve our conclusions in matters of personal morals, whenever the conclusion is drawn in good faith --- even if the conclusion is wrong.
Through no fault of our own, we may be misinformed; in which case, we shall start our reasoning from false premises and our conclusion will inevitably be wrong. God will not blame us for mistakes made in good faith.

Again, our logical powers may be undeveloped. We may start out with correct principles but by defective logic arrive, in good faith, at a wrong conclusion. God does not punish inculpable ignorance or incapacity, but only ill-will.


The study of conscience reveals the importance of what spiritual writers call indifference.

The will tends to exert undue influence on the mind and prejudice its judgments. To obviate this danger, the will must carefully be put in order before important moral judgments are made. The will must be reduced to indifference, i.e., to willingness to follow whatever course of action unprejudiced reason suggests. If, for example, we are undecided whether to go to the cinema or not, the will must be prepared to accept either decision, and await, not force, the decision. Beware of rationalization, i.e., of acting first, on impulse and without thought, and then thinking out reasons, or --- better --- excuses, for one's conduct afterwards. We must learn to look before we leap.

Practice should be adapted to principles; not vice-versa, principles adapted to practice, which human nature has a fatal tendency to do.

In early days the Conscience has in most
A quickness which in later life is lost. [7]

The reason for this fatal tendency deserves careful study. When the mind has drawn the same conclusion a sufficient number of times, it dispenses with the reasoning process and begins to take the conclusion for granted. The conclusion then becomes a premise for further reasoning. If the conclusion is a false one and is not quickly corrected, it is evident that a process of progressive distortion of spiritual vision has begun, which it will be difficult to arrest. False principles will lead to further false conclusions, and these in turn will lead to other false conclusions, and so on indefinitely.

The will adds to the danger of progressive moral deterioration, because it is a faculty very quickly influenced by habit. Acts of ill-will soon form habits of ill-ill. When the mind and will conspire together against truth, the refinement and vitality of conscience must soon be destroyed. The mind may eventually cease to advert to its own mistakes and become "seared," to use St. Paul's expression; or "blinded," to use the still stronger expression of the Master.

We cannot guard the sensitiveness and delicacy of conscience too carefully. There must be no compromise with sin, no deliberate dulling, direct or indirect, of the sense of sin. Faults must be admitted as faults and amendment quickly made, or the consequences will be disastrous. We shall begin to live in a spiritual fog.

This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou cans't not then be false to any man. [8]

There is great insight and wisdom in Shakespeare's words. But to be true to self is extremely difficult; in fact, the whole art of humility in compendium. If we are false to self, we shall be false to God. Human nature is so constituted that we must ultimately adapt our principles to our practice. That is why morals have such an important bearing on faith, why the practice of asceticism is more conducive to the knowledge of God than the study of theology, why those who count on a death-bed repentance are making such a perilous mistake, why Scripture says that "as a man lives, so shall he die."

"If thy eye be single thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be?" [9]

Conscience is so important, and yet so mutable and malleable, that we must safeguard its integrity with most tender care.


First, by the practice of virtue. Secondly, by training the faculties of the soul so that they may be prejudiced to act rightly in moral issues.

We must strive to keep the mind open, humble, unprejudiced and true. We must guard the will against precipitation, cowardice and passion. We can safeguard conscience effectively only by surrounding it with the armour of unexceptional virtue. One chink in our armour is enough to commence our undoing.

 From what has been said, it should be evident that many of our expressions about conscience are inaccurate and misleading. Because of the complexity of conscience, strictly accurate terminology is difficult to find. "We say, for example, 'I have something on my conscience,' which is loose speaking. It would be more accurate to say: 'I have something on my soul.' " [10] We talk about "examining our conscience" and the impression is given of a permanent recording machine. It would be more accurate to talk about examining our acts of conscience.

Again, we are misled by the consecrated phrases of moral theology about an erroneous, a lax, and a scrupulous conscience. All these expressions seem to imply that conscience is at least a habit. Would it be more accurate to talk about a lax, erroneous or scrupulous moral outlook? No! that will not do either; because men who have a lax outlook where their own personal conduct is concerned, often (and, in fact, generally) have a very rigid outlook where others are concerned. In judging our own conduct, we are never disinterested nor entirely dispassionate, and a will prompted by passion and self-interest readily supplies excuses for loose conduct. When, however, we view the conduct of others, we are either disinterested and dispassionate, in which case we make no excuses; or we are passionate against them and moved by envy or dislike, and then we tend not even to allow for the excuses which could reasonably be made. There is liable to be a wide and unrecognized divergence between our outlook on other people's conduct and on our own. From the nature of the case, our judgment of personal conduct tends to be unduly lax, our judgment of other people's conduct unduly harsh. The die which is loaded in our favour is loaded against others.

The question of terminology is complicated by the inevitable intervention in actual moral decisions of passion and self-will.

The existing terminology will be passable enough if we know how to interpret it. When we examine our conscience, let us be quite clear what we are supposed to be doing. We are not to examine our fears and the state of our feelings. Examining our conscience should mean a calm rational survey of our actions, contrasting them with the moral code to see how far they are conformable to it, and how far we recognized the conformity or deformity at the time of acting.

Beware of the voice, special-faculty theory of conscience. It is implicit heresy, and logically applied would dispense us from authority and lead to private judgment in the realm of morals. If we have an infallible guide within, we do not need an infallible guide without. The Church, however, is our infallible guide in morals as well as in dogma. By listening to her teaching, by absorbing it and making it our own, and not by cultivating subjectivism, can we form a right conscience.

Conscience depends on instruction and good-will. Let us, therefore, inform our minds and train our wills. We are not guaranteed personal infallibility, so we can never be certain of the objective rectitude of our decisions; but if we are humble and co-operate with grace, God will see to it that our judgments are always sincere, and therefore acceptable to Him Who "searches hearts and reins" and profitable for our eternal salvation.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than Hell to shun,
That, more than Heaven pursue. [11]

1. Act III, Sc. 1.
2. F. J. Sheed, A Map of Life, pp. 90-91.
3. Samuel Coleridge, Zapolya, I, 1.
4. Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 7. 
  5. op. cit., p. 91.
6. Now I See (Sheed and Ward), pp. 45-6. (See pp. 76-83 for an explanation of fif.)
  7. Cowper, Tirocinium, 109.
8. Hamlet, Act. I.
9. Mt. 6:22-93.
10. Sheed, op. cit. 
11. Pope.