Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Let Your Conscience be your Guide

Let Your Conscience 
be your Guide

          The Church teaches us that we must obey our consciences.  But, in a culture based on moral relativism, that can be a dangerous statement.  We live in an age that teaches, “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” or, “We all create our own truth.”  Hopefully these statements sound nonsensical to us as Catholics, who know not only that Truth exists, but that Truth is not just a concept, it is a Person with whom we are called to have an intimate relationship.
          This, of course, is why, when the Church tells us that we must follow our consciences, she reminds us that we have a serious duty to form our consciences correctly.  We are bound to obey our properly-formed consciences.
          Do we have properly formed consciences?  It’s an important thing to examine from time to time.  What other types of conscience might we have?  I would like to briefly explore five types of consciences.  There are, of course, other more comprehensive and precise ways to approach the topic, so if you’ve got the proper citation in Thomas Aquinas handy, I’m sure you’re better off going there, but I’ll do the best I can.
1)  The Dead Conscience: A dead conscience is really unconcerned with ideas such as right and wrong, or good and evil, except when the owner of a dead conscience suffers some evil.  This is what we might find in Thomas Hobbes’s delusional idea of the natural man.  It would be purely concerned with self-interest, and other people would be seen simply as tools to be used or discarded as they can serve some narcissistic purpose.  Of course, some serious psychotic mental disorder may produce a dead conscience, as may have happened with the young man who shot up the Colorado movie theater.  (Though I understand mental disorders are rarely the cause of criminal behavior.)
Most of us feel safe from having this kind of conscience.  But the truth is, sometimes we can display it.  We can have the tendency to justify certain things to a degree that we clearly mistreat others.  But our highly developed skills of rationalization blind our consciences to that fact.
2) A poorly-formed conscience – Sadly, this may be the most common conscience we encounter today.  The good news is that a poorly-formed conscience is concerned with right and wrong, but unfortunately it often does not correctly identify right and wrong.  This is the poster child for our relativistic twenty-first century morality.  This conscience may be formed according to each person’s personal preferences, or maybe by the prevailing social norms.
For example, one might not consider fornication to be anything sinful, but cheating with your best friend’s girlfriend, “That’s just wrong.”  Abortion is about a woman’s “right to choose.”  Going to Mass isn’t an issue of right or wrong; it’s just a matter of how each person best relates to God, whatever they may perceive him or her to be.
If society approves, it’s not wrong.  If I feel in my heart that it’s right, then it’s right.  This conscience resides in the emotions.
3)  A well-formed conscience – This conscience is formed according to some standard outside of myself, something absolute, and something true.  It resides in the intellect, not the emotions.  As Catholics, we know that God is the one who reveals to us what is good and what is evil.  The sin of our first parents was the desire for “knowledge of good and evil.”  They wanted to define what was good and what was evil.  God told them the forbidden fruit was bad, but they decided otherwise.  Of course, such a decision has consequences.  God doesn’t give us moral laws so He can assert His authority.  He made us and knows what we need to thrive and be truly happy, and His commandments, even when they are hard, serve that end.
God has revealed to us His moral law through the Scripture and primarily through the Church.  So our well-formed conscience must be formed by the teaching of the Church.  That teaching comes from God.  If God and I disagree about something, one thing I can be absolutely sure about, is that I am the one that is wrong.
If I don’t completely understand the reasons behind a moral prohibition or command, I must humbly submit myself to it anyway.  Obedience is one of the highest virtues.  It shouldn’t surprise us, after all.  I don’t have the wisdom or foresight that God has.  The Church, of course, does encourage us to learn, though.  Pray and study and find out the reasons behind the moral laws God has given us.  We will surely grow in doing so.
The prime example of this in our day is artificial birth control.  Studies suggest that many Catholics don’t understand the Church’s prohibition against it and the vast majority don’t obey.  This remains a serious sin, whether we understand or not.  We know this teaching, authoritatively coming from the Church, is coming from God.  I suspect, standing before God, if He were to ask us why we consistently disobeyed a command He gave so clearly through His vicars, we would be embarrassed to give Him the lame excuses we have concocted.
But I wonder how many people have tried to understand the teaching.  It is beautiful.  How many of us have read Humanae Vitae, for example?  If we do, we will see the Wisdom of God.  Many Protestants, whose communities dropped this teaching in the last century, have rediscovered it through prayer and study.  I once explained it to Mormon missionaries who originally considered it silly, but after our discussion understood and appreciated it.
The point is, that if we have a well-formed conscience we are being obedient, not to our own wills or the trends of our age, but to the eternal and unchanging God.  This obedience does not take away our freedom.  We always have free will.  But when we conform our minds and hearts to reality, we are truly free, free from error and free to thrive.
God made us.  He knows what is best for us.  The manufacturer of my car tells me I should put unleaded gas in its tank.  If, in a bout of unbridled self-empowerment, I use my freedom to put grape juice in it instead, there will be problems.  I am free to do that if I choose, but my car will not work as it should; it will not thrive.  I am free to ignore the commands God has given, but I should not be surprised when things do not run smoothly and I do not thrive as I would like.
4) A Delicate Conscience – This is the well-formed conscience on steroids.  It is the conscience of the Saints.  A delicate conscience is well-formed, but is more sensitive than that of the average person.  A delicate conscience is not content with avoiding mortal sin only; venial sin vexes it (though not to the point of obsession).  A delicate conscience examines not only the action but also the motivation behind the action.  A delicate conscience may find imperfections in an act that is objectively good because it was done with pride, for example.  It is also sensitive to sins of omission.  A missed opportunity to show love or concern, for example.
The delicate conscience is born of love; love of God and love of neighbor.  It continually seeks to be more conformed to Jesus Christ, but it does so peacefully.  These little things are seen not as grave sins that will separate us from God, though they will still be repented of.  A person with a delicate conscience is almost certainly perpetually in a state of grace.  They are seen as opportunities to grow closer to God, to more easily bring His Love to other people.
5) A Scrupulous Conscience – This is a tough one because many who desire a delicate conscience can fall into scrupulosity.  A difference is this: a delicate conscience is the fruit of love, a scrupulous conscience is often the fruit of fear (usually of hell). 
A scrupulous conscience sees sin where there is no sin, or misidentifies venial sins as mortal sins. A scrupulous person may fret over whether he can receive the Eucharist because he was short with his wife as they were getting ready for Mass.  Or perhaps he feels the need to rush to Confession because he forgot to pray his daily rosary.  Sometimes a person may have a vague sense of sinfulness although there is no specific incident that led to it.  Scruples are a mental, not a spiritual problem.  It is a common form of obsession that I believe all people get over something.  Spiritual people may just get it regarding religion.  The best way that I know of to deal with scruples is to find a good spiritual director who is experienced in dealing with it.  Be patient.  And trust in God’s love for us.  He is not looking for a reason to cast us into hell.  He desires that all men be saved, and I suspect there is a special place in His Heart (and in Heaven) for people who have dealt with this issue.
Many saints at one point or another have dealt with it.  St. Therese of Liseux struggled for a time and was brought through it with good spiritual direction.  St. Francis de Sales had a very difficult time with scruples for a while.  One day he finally, in frustration, prayed from the heart, “Lord, if I am going to be separated from you for all eternity, then I am going to love you the best I can while I’m still on earth.”  The story is that his scruples were cured immediately.
Of course, it has proven dangerous, too.  Martin Luther’s scruples are what led to the creation of his doctrine of sola fide.  If he could not escape sin, in his mind he had to make sin irrelevant.  The result, of course, has been a wound in the Body of Christ that has been gaping for five centuries.
It is important to be patient if you struggle with scruples or if someone you loves does.  Seek a good spiritual director, and perhaps a good Catholic psychologist, and do not give up.  If God has permitted this cross, it is only for the manifestation of His Glory and the salvation of many souls.  Offer it for that.
Why was I inspired to write this article?  To be honest, I have no idea how some of these ideas pop into my head.  But I know this: from time to time I can possess each of these five consciences.  It is important, at least for me, and I expect for most of us, to take stock of ourselves in this way periodically.  Often I will have a well-formed or delicate conscience.  Then, there are times I can rationalize myself into a conscience that is formed according to my own will and convenience.  And there are times I need the help of a priest to deal with creeping scrupulosity.  It is important to know what kind of conscience we have, and what kind of conscience we want.  With God’s grace, we can truly be people of good conscience and then we will be a light in this world.