I think that it was Joan of Arc that got me thinking about this. She was burned at the stake after being condemned by an ecclesial court and not too long after, declared a saint by the same church that executed her. (CORRECTION: It took a long time, my initial source was apparently incorrect. Joan was not beatified until 1909 and canonized in 1920.) She followed her conscience and the Church caught up to her, albeit late. That is conscience formation!
What is it to form our conscience? I’m not speaking in general, but rather as a Roman Catholic today. This is an important question and one that I fear is not well addressed in contemporary American Catholic circles. Like everything having to do with God, it is not a matter of transactional information, but all about relationship and transformation.
Many look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for answers because many answers are found there. Click here and you will find the section that addresses moral conscience and more.
“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.” -Catechism of the Catholic Church
A human person indeed has in their heart all manner of things that are of God. Our secret core and sanctuary. When we have a well formed conscience, something that we develop, not memorize, we may be better equipped to hear God’s voice in our lives and choices. In a busy and distracted world, it might be hard to imagine such a place. In a word dominated by speed and efficiency, it might be challenging to give time to decisions that might otherwise inspire urgency.
All of which it might be better to spend some time considering our consciences when urgency is not the determining factor.
Sadly, we are often informed of what our consciences should be, and not really encouraged to spend time on their formation. I don’t know about you, but I could not really wrap my head or heart around what I believed in until I pressed around the edges of what I could not believe in. Sometimes such acts lead us more deeply into belief – the one we strayed from, or the one that is deeply embedded in us by God. I’m not talking about hearing voices or God’s personal messages for you. I’m talking about what we have convictions about and the ability to journey through them from other points of view.
Unlike hard, clear, stone-chiseled answers, more questions might offer us a solution, with a foundation of prayer and knowledge of Church teaching. I am imagining a Google map app so that you can quickly get from where you are to where you want to be. What is the fastest route to a clear conscience? I’m here in what feels like Hell-landia God, and I’d like to be in Peace-ville. With my conscience clear, thank you! Yet we often find a disclaimer on the map, informing us that due to traffic, construction, or other impediments, we may be delayed or rerouted. Sometimes we get lost. Sometimes we stop somewhere else for awhile. Sometimes the best route is not the most clear or the fastest one.
I know that as I frantically drive to an appointment at a new doctor, worrying about being late, I scold myself for not studying the route earlier than 20 minutes before the appointment. Imagine this when you are called to make significant moral decisions without having spent time considering what you might choose.
Our conscience, might “feel” clear, but is it really clear when we face moral questions? It may “feel” clear when we think about big issues like abortion, euthanasia, birth control, the death penalty, war, immigration, and human sexuality. But what do we really believe and why? And what does the Church say about those things? How do we see them in the light of church teaching? What is the Church teaching? What is its history and background? What is the context? What do our real life examples tell us about them? This does not mean that the “destination” or the answers change, but our path to them might change very much.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, said this about conscience, echoing earlier words from St. Thomas Aquinas on the primacy of our conscience: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”
In the end, we are alone with God and our conscience. It would seem that God is not looking for someone with straight A’s on their conscience report card, but rather the depth of exploration of living a deeply Christian life. It is all relational, which is why matters of conscience can not simply be learned and memorized.
The reason I bring all of this up is because every single day we are confronted with the moral issues noted earlier and more. Birth control. The conscious distortion of truth. Abortion. Euthanasia. Death penalty. Poverty. Access to healthcare. War. Immigration. Human Sexuality. Racism. Anti-Semitism. Hunger. Class wars. Bullying. Hate speech.
What do you believe about any of these things? And why? I’m thinking about some very specific things that are happening in the world and diving deeply into my own conscience and beliefs. What are you pondering?
I’d like to explore this topic more deeply. Let’s see where it leads.