Examination of conscience

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Examination of conscience is a review of one's past thoughts, words, actions, and omissions for the purpose of ascertaining their conformity with, or deviation from, the moral law. Among Christians, this is generally a private review; secular intellectuals have, on occasion, published autocritiques for public consumption. In the Catholic Church penitents who wish to receive the sacrament of penance are encouraged to examine their conscience using the Ten Commandments as a guide, or the Beatitudes, or the virtues and vices. A similar doctrine is taught in Lutheran churches, where penitents who wish to receive Holy Absolution are also asked to use the Ten Commandments as a guide. The process is very similar to the Islamic practice of Muhasaba, or self-reflection.

"The excellence of this practice and its fruitfulness for Christian virtue," preached Pope St. Pius X, "are clearly established by the teaching of the great masters of the spiritual life." St. Ignatius of Loyola considered the examination of conscience as the single most important spiritual exercise.

St. Ignatius included the Examination in the Spiritual Exercises and already there he presents different forms of it (particular and general examination, see in [24-43] in the book of the Spiritual Exercises, with the customary marginal numbers ). Since then the method became known under various names in spiritual literature and practice: it is sometimes called “Awareness Examen”, sometimes “Daily Examination of Consciousness”.[1]

In general, there is a distinction between the “Particular Examen”, which aims to change one particular feature or defect in ones behavior and the “Daily Examination of Consciousness”, which is a prayerful review of one day and finally the “General Examination of Conscience”. This last method is called examination of “conscience” because it is a review of one’s actions from a moral point of view, reflecting upon one’s responsibility and looking at one’s sins and weaknesses in preparation for repentance in contrast with the examination of “consciousness” which does not focus on morality even if sins will emerge during the review of the day.[2][3]


Examination of conscience was commanded by the Apostle St. Paul to be performed by the faithful each time they received Holy Communion: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.... For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged." (1 Corinthians 11:28-31, KJV). And, as the early Christians received Holy Communion very frequently, examination of conscience became a familiar exercise of their spiritual lives. In many cases, this became a daily practice of the lives of early members of the clergy and those living a monastic life, such as the hermit St. Anthony, who was said to have examined his conscience every night, while St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and founders of religious orders generally made the examination of conscience a regular daily exercise of their followers. Lay members of congregations were encouraged to take up the practice as well as a salutary measure to advance in virtue.[4]

St. Bernard taught: "As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct, submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost. Strive to know yourself. Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face to face with yourself, as though you were another person, and then weep for your faults."[citation needed]

The devotional examination of conscience is distinct from that required as a proximate preparation for sacramental confession. As to the daily examination of conscience, two species must be distinguished, the general and the particular. The former aims at the correction of a variety of failings, faults, and areas for improvement, the latter at the avoidance of some particular fault or the acquisition of some particular virtue. That undertaken before the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is intended specifically to identify sins requiring forgiveness. The ordinary method followed in the examination for confession is to consider in succession the Ten Commandments of God, the Commandments of the Church, the Seven Capital Sins, the duties of one's state of life, the nine ways of partaking in the sin of others.[4]

For the general examination a good method is laid down by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his "Spiritual Exercises". It contains five points. In the first point we thank God for the benefits received; in the second we ask grace to know and correct our faults; in the third we pass in review the successive hours of the day, noting what faults we have committed in deed, word, thought, or omission; in the fourth we ask God's pardon; in the fifth we purpose amendment.[4]

As to the importance of this practice, St. Pius X taught in Haerent Animo:

The excellence of this practice and its fruitfulness for christian virtue are clearly established by the teaching of the great masters of the spiritual life.[citation needed]


Among secular intellectuals, particularly Marxists, the term autocritique, borrowed from the French, is used. This is particularly applied to a public, "methodological attempt to step away from themselves through a process of self-objectification", and was popular in France following the Algerian War.[5] Edgar Morin's questioning of his own motives as a defender of Algeria popularised the term; other well-known examples include Jawaharlal Nehru's anonymous dissection of his own personality and drive in the Modern Review.


  1. ^ Daily Examination of Consciousness: A simple way to better your life in [1]
  2. ^ These forms of the Examination are presented in the chapter "The method and the First Exercise: existential experience of the history of salvation" of the Spiritual Exercises for Married Couples: Finding Our Way Together with St. Ignatius - Manual for the Retreat
  3. ^ Cf. in the online text of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
  4. ^ a b c Coppens, Charles. "Examination of Conscience." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 7 October 2016
  5. ^ Le Sueur, James D.; Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization, University of Pennsylvania press, 2001

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Examination of Conscience". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. 

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