Recently I had an interesting, more-heat-than-light interchange with an old friend who has, by his own admission and choice, left the practice of the faith over issues of women’s ordination, gay marriage, contraception, celibacy and, I gather, a wide variety of the usual hot button social issues. In the course of that interchange came the following missive, which struck me as central to our discussion:
I am so astounded by your lack of understanding. You have a limited understanding of what being a Catholic is. It is not being dominated, it is love and forgiveness…. it is sad to see so many who want to go back to a 1950's form of religion, rather than the 'changes' which began opening our church up to acceptance and love of all our brothers and sisters, (both in religions, races, creeds and genders). The MAIN teaching of the church is to follow your conscience, yet you deny that. Ask your priest. He will say that is ALWAYS what you should do.
Actually, my priest tells me to have faith and follow the teaching of the Church for she will never lead me away from God…just for the record.
But that viewpoint might be the reason so many lapsed Catholics lapsed, whether they, like my friend, left the communion of the Church or like others, stayed in the pews or in positions of power. I think it’s another aspect of the pervasive, pernicious Disneyfication of the world—that worldview that thinks animals are people and people are the problem. The view that holds moral guidance comes pre-fab in the form of a little guy standing on your shoulder, twirling a walking stick, doffing a top hat, and singing “Let your conscience be your guide.” The view that following the teaching of the Church is somehow oppressive or shallow or mindless.
The Church does indeed put great weight on conscience—that innate sense we have of the law of God written on our hearts from the very beginning. I find it an interesting coincidence that the discussion of conscience begins in the catechism with section 1776. This is what it says:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.
There is great freedom in that statement: freedom from abandonment, for that we know that it is possible to know God’s voice and encounter it deep within ourselves. God is not merely an external; He is intimately involved with the deepest parts of our being, so much so that He has given us a mechanism for understanding Him and His will. And my friend is partly right: the Church does commend us to follow our consciences:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.
So far so good. But the modern notion that a reliable moral conscience is both entirely personal and something we come fully equipped with is simply foolishness on its very face. It never seems to occur to my friend, for example, that though his conscience might lead him to oppose Church teaching on birth control, mine might compel me to accept it. And given that artificial contraception either is or is not gravely disordered, one of the two of us has a conscience that is at best off the mark.
Spread the circle a little wider and the issue gets more complex. There seem to be people for whom adultery poises no moral qualm at all; or at least that is what they assert. There are those that see abortion not as a necessary evil but as a positive good. Presumably, they have a conscience on which God wrote His law as well…
What seems to be lacking these days is a deep appreciation of concupiscence, that deep tendency toward sinfulness that we bear as a result of our fallen human race. I know for my part, left to my own devices, I can justify anything in my own mind. I’m a lawyer, after all. My working life revolves around making good, persuasive arguments and I am too willing an audience for them.
The conscience is a place of communion and dialog with God: we bring him a problem and He helps with the solution if we are willing to listen. As always, we must bring to that still and silent spot of conscience all that God has said to us before if we expect to understand what He is telling us now.
God chooses in blessing us with this conscience, to involve us in the actual operation of this amazing gift; God always requires our cooperation. Here He asks us not just to listen to our consciences but to form and inform them with all that He communicates to us, especially that which he communicates through the Church. His voice is still and so small and so easily drowned out by the din of the culture and by our own pride in our intellect and judgment. When we are surrounded by the whirlwind, we miss the whisper.
What saves me—saves us—is what follows in the Catechism, something too often forgotten in the heat of passion and the cafeteria Catholicism of the day:
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teaching
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.
I am ever so grateful for the Magisterium. It’s the reason I have been able to extract myself in any small measure from the mire of my own sinful preferences, to see with clarity—even when I cannot meet the bar—what is demanded of me as a Christian. It’s not just me and Jesus or me and my conscience—it’s me with two thousand years of experience, two thousand years of some of the greatest minds in the world who have approached all manner of moral problems, two thousand years of sinful and holy people to help me. It exhilarates me and in the same moment convicts me. I think that is the way it’s supposed to work. Another example of the great both/and…
Putting it in modern terms, a conscience is an internal moral computer, something to help me figure out the best way to approach the endless moral dilemmas I face every day (and every act is, after all, a moral act in one way or another—some greater, some smaller, but all moral). I can’t dial up my local priest—let alone Thomas Aquinas—in an emergency, so I have to rely on that internal moral computer called conscience. I take it for granted that I am not nearly as smart as two thousand years of great Catholic thinking, all available for my asking for it, and all designed in one way or another to help me understand that mystery which is God’s will.
I owe it to myself to make sure I have the best quality computer available, with the best possible software running on it and the best data to work with. And I would rather form my conscience with two millennia of Church thinking, commissioned by Christ, grounded in the love of God, formed by the Holy Spirit, than to follow the spirit of the day.
If the Magisterim does not always articulate Truth in the clearest, best and most timely fashion, neither does the Church lead us away from God. And I am struck, again and again by Christ’s own words: He who hears you, hears me. Sometimes the accent is a little thick, the language a little unfamiliar and stilted, and my hearing a little off. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, even a couple of hundred years, for the message to get through loud and clear. But push come to shove, I’ll listen to the voice of the Church. It is, perhaps, a matter of faith.
Looking back over the great sweep of Church history, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit, in His way and time brings the Church and the sinners who compose her, ever close to God’s Truth in this complicated world. Without fail and despite our best efforts to thwart His work.
The modern sense that the Holy Spirit has it all wrong and the Church cannot manage without our help or that she is clearly in error when her Magisterium opposes our individual convictions or the fads of the day ultimately gives rise to the Jiminy Cricket Catholic. The one who is passionately convinced that he is right and the Church is certainly, absolutely, terribly wrong. And one for whom no amount of discussion will ever be enough; it is necessary that the Church change, and change now, and in the exact manner he prescribes. I am reminded that Jiminy Cricket was a character in a tale about stubborn and willful children.
We are, these days, not a patient people, content to believe that what the Church can do better, she eventually will. We are not content to quietly and without fostering division, bring our gifts and insights to the Church and let her, in her wisdom, decide what to do with them and when to do it. We are not content to believe that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what can be changed and should be, will, in God’s good time. We, like Paul, tend to boast of our pugnaciousness. And we are not willing, even for a minute, to consider that our Mother might be a little wiser than we are… especially given that the moral choice is not always obvious and is often counter-intuitive and that there are so many others to consider besides our own selves.
The moral choice may not be safe, or rewarding, or politically expedient, or politically correct. The moral choice may not be popular and it is—these days, anyway—not often socially acceptable. That is, I think, why the Church commends us to examine our consciences before the cross, which is where the moral choice inevitably leads. And Mary—our other Mother and the icon of the Church, is always right there at the foot of it, waiting, watching, joining herself to Christ, suffering with Him and pondering all things in her heart.
I have found a great deal of freedom and love and pain in the task of forming my conscience with the mind of the Church. Pain, because it means I had to change and give up some cherished beliefs and acquire some patience (and not right now, either…). Pain because sometimes the Church lags behind in correcting the sins of its members—and my own as well. Freedom because I know that—however imperfectly—I am trying to live out my life within the community of faith Christ established, in its present moment and understandings and imperfection; I am not alone with my deficiencies and my trials. Love because that is where the Church always leads us, always, when we listen to what she teaches and do not focus on what we-all of us, every one--as sinners do.
So, despite the opinion of my friend, I don’t deny my conscience at all. In fact, I count on it to keep me at the table, in the boat, at the foot of the cross, where love flows into the Church and into my life. Where, ultimately, with God’s grace and the Church’s help, I hope to become, because of all that love, at long last, the real, live person God intends me to be.
Rather like Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket. Only better.