The Art of Conscience by J. Reagan

In 08 Musings by Jack Reagan on 2011/06/25 at 12:00 AM

A Catholic man in his 20s had not attended Sunday Mass in many years. He was also not too discriminating is some of his other moral choices. His drift began after receiving Confirmation because he fell into the trap of thinking that he did not need or had no obligation toward God after Confirmation.  When asked why he did not go to Confession, he replied that his moral lifestyle did not bother him at all, and, therefore, he had no need of Confession. (It did not occur to him that his lifestyle might “bother” Someone else.)

In recent years much has been said and written about the primacy of conscience, that conscience should be obeyed, that it is our normal moral guide. Some of the talk about conscience arises with those whose moral bent is less than Biblical.

Conscience is a judgment of the intellect that tells us to do good and avoid evil. It is part of the natural moral law implanted in the minds of all human beings. This is why St. Paul could say that all humans have a chance at salvation. This conscience is a divine gift . . . unless distorted. All normal people know that some things are good (helping others) and some things are evil (lying, stealing).  In fact, when societal consciences do not follow the rules, the society will collapse. Conscience is an exclusively human property; it is not to be found in any other creature.

It is true that there is a primacy of conscience. We must follow our own conscience. But, conscience cannot be a purely subjective and personal interpretation of the moral law.

Objectively speaking, this means that the young man in the opening story is doomed to Hell because, while he did follow his conscience, it was a totally false conscience made so by the man himself. Thus, his moral judgments were false, too.

To make valid moral decisions, a conscience must be what is termed “informed”: the conscience and its choices must be based on objective truth. The divine moral law is not a menu of options.

There are several types of false consciences:

1. Scrupulous – These persons see sin where there is none, see venial sins as perhaps mortal, negatively interpret whatever they do or don’t do as a moral failure. They live a life of constant moral anguish over their supposed “evil” ways. Most are aware of the problem because the priest in confession will tell them that they are being too hard themselves, yet the scrupulous seem powerless to help themselves.

2. Lax – Is the opposite.  These people take a cavalier attitude toward morality. What is mortal sin, they declare venial; and what is venial is not worth bothering about.Theirs is a very subjective view of what is right or wrong for themselves. These are Catholics described as “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and chose what doctrines and morals appeal to them. The others are ignored or rationalized. Thus, it is that majority of “Catholics” who favor abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, etc.  We see it also in the fact that, even with this record, Saturday Confessions are at a minimum while those who receive Holy Communion on Sunday amount to 99% of the congregation.

3. Dead – These people are totally amoral. The moral rightness or wrongness of an action does not enter into their evaluation of it. There is only a subjective sense of right and wrong.”I decide what is right or wrong for me; no one else does”. They become their own moral standard. The idea of sin is foreign to them. While we cannot judge the moral condition of anyone, we can certainly say that, objectively, Hitler, Stalin and Mao probably had no consciences at all. There are those people not as well-known as these who proportionately are just as bad.

4. True –  Is based  on subjective  truth, that is, reality. We are obliged to base our conscience on what is objective truth and reality. We cannot base it on what we want to think is true, what we decide is true or what appeals to us. Otherwise, conscience becomes a tool to serve one’s whims, desires and propensities.

There are three sources of a true conscience:

1. The natural moral law that applies to all humans. It demands that we do good and avoid evil. It is best exemplified in the Ten Commandments which are the written form of the natural moral law.

2. The Holy Scripture correctly understood, and not subjectively interpreted.

3.  The Magisterium of the Church. This is the teaching authority of the Church whose authority to teach was given to the Church by Christ Himself. This authority enables the Church to lead people to salvation because the Church is the earthly source of divine Truth and objective  truth. If the Church officially declares something to be morally right or morally wrong, it is seconded by God Himself as He promised the Church“Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed Heaven”.  MT. 16:19.  One with a true conscience has no problem with this idea.

As we pass through life, we have many significant experiences: extended family, school, graduation, career, marriage, children and sometimes retirement. But, the most important moment of anyone’s life is the last moment. If one is ready to meet God, your life has been a success regardless of what else happened in your life. If you are not ready, your life has been a failure regardless of what else happened in your life. The goal of human life is to be united with God for eternity. This is His idea. Simple as that, whether you believe it or not.

Cultures change, moral attitudes change, philosophies come and go, movers and shakers are here today and gone tomorrow, but God and his law remains unchanged. Whether you believe it or not, accept it or not, act accordingly or not, reject it or not, it doesn’t matter. The eternal by definition never changes. A true conscience is a valued guide to the final moment. If you have a true conscience, follow it. If you do not, you’d better get one before it is too late. God shows mercy to the repentant, but not to the morally arrogant.

  1. The Holy Scripture correctly understood, and not subjectively interpreted.

    All my life I have know my brother Jack to be gifted with great insight. This one sentence is of course at the center of Christian discord. If only it were understood. If only people would open their hearts and minds to this truth.

  2. Another super article! Keep bringing the light to our minds! oxxo

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