Primacy of conscience

It has been awhile, hasn’t it? No real reason, just time away! But I have returned, for today at least, so address an issue that is pressing heavily on many of us.

The election is about 54 days away at this point – it is close. Voting is important, it is an essential element of a democracy. I was raised in a household that held the right to vote high and it was impressed upon me at an early age that voting was a privilege – and not one to be squandered. Although a toddler at the time of his election, and one raised in a Republican family, I was often reminded that having a JFK as Catholic president was important. I’m pretty sure my parents voted for him because party politics were somewhat different at the time.

Anyway, here we are today during particularly fractious and divisive times. We are barraged with messages that tell us if we vote for this person, or do not vote for that person, terrible things will happen. Feelings and emotions run high, opinions are confused with facts, and we are faced with inordinate amounts of information.

As Catholics we may believe we must vote for one party over another, but that is simply not the case. We have a responsibility to vote for causes that support life, contribute to the common good, respect human dignity, and more. Beyond that we have a special call to not only help those less fortunate, but to be transformed by them. What one party can live up to that?

If you are struggling, I would simply like to share two links with you. One is to the USCCB website to help with voting called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The other is to a very well written article about conscience, originally published in America Magazine in 2015. Both links will offer you guidance and resources, but in the end, we have to pray, discern, choose wisely, and vote according to our understanding of our faith and the importance of our own conscience.

Fast forward to today’s fractious and combative environment, one in which we are regularly threatened

Clear conscience – updated

Lentz, Joan of ArcI 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 Continue reading


I wrote this for my church blog, but I am presenting it here as well.

One of the Roman Catholic magazines that I try to read regularly, is America, the National Catholic Weekly, published by the Jesuits.  In my experience, there are always thought-provoking articles and essays, poetry, book and movie reviews; I highly recommend it.

This week one such essay really captivated me and that is this one from John F. Kavanaugh SJ, titled Uninformed Conscience.

We live in fractious moral times and Kavanaugh decides to tackle some of the implications of this in regard to our lives as Roman Catholics. Now this is hardly just a Roman Catholic issue, so I would urge anyone to read this piece.

Kavanaugh begins with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas on conscience:

“Conscience is a particular kind of judgment, a moral judgment, by which we apply our knowledge of good and evil to practical action.”

I think that most of us have some clear ideas – well founded or not – what we think is “right,” “good,” and “evil.” This is how we develop our conscience. However, conscience must be developed and that requires some actual work and challenge.

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are no shortage of opinions about all sorts of things and people claiming that they are “right” and that someone else is “evil” or “wrong.” Sometimes these pronouncements are made from ordained, but more often perhaps from one Catholic taking down another.

This is so destructive to community and to be destructive to community. I have heard so many people defend their position because they feel like they have a moral imperative to do this… And I understand that. However, when does moral imperative collide with strong personal and possibly un or under informed convictions? I can think of about a zillion times I have judged another unfairly, can you?

The more I learn, the less likely I am to judge, however, I can’t claim that I am free of this destructive behavior.  On the other hand, I suppose there must be some form of “correction” that has to come from somewhere.

I digress, but I wanted to bring forth the notion of how and why community matters and if we are attacking one another, we are dismembering the Body of Christ.

Kavanaugh goes on to deliver the line that I think has the most punch. It made me uncomfortable in a way that means I am invited to further examine it:

“As Aquinas would say, a conscience may be certain; but that does not mean it is correct. .”

Certain. But not correct.

This is an issue for us as Catholics and as American; it matters no matter what faith practice or nation we are from. It matters. I am focusing on this from a Catholic American perspective at this moment however.

We live in a time where ideas flow freely, and that is in general a good thing, but we must have some anchors, some place to put down, in our lives. An objective external standard is required… which is what I think Kavanaugh is referring to when he says:

Unfortunately, it is the resistance to evidence and information that marks so much of our present moral discourse. That is why the “marketplace” of ideas, or the “public square” has become so segmented and rigid.

We are so polarized… we say this all the time, but what does it mean? And what does talking about it do, if we can’t find ways in which to repair the places where we are torn?  If this were a living conversation, this is where someone might  (and has!) said to me, “Well you or so-and-so needs to get in line with the Church on that one!”

However, do most of us actually know what the teachings are? And even if we do, do we follow and believe them? And if we are to learn them, are we not obligated to have tremendous intellectual freedom to explore widely so that we might understand the context of the teaching?

I will add a big paragraph from the essay here, as I think it matters:

“In the world of politics and media, we find an increasing segmentation not only of markets but of convictions as well. Information is edited and selected to conform to the conviction of the viewer or the voter. Thus, information no longer informs or challenges one’s moral judgement; it only confirms opinion, whether that opinion is warranted or not. Spend one evening comparing the programs offered by MSNBC and Fox News. Compare Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Whom do they ridicule? What is their presumed moral universe? What information do they never consider? If we listen to only one side of these polarities, we are not forming our judgment, we are propagandizing it.

We can’t just listen to one side, we can’t just learn one side. It doesn’t matter who or what your source is… Fox, MSNBC, America, Commonweal, The Weekly Standard, Mother Jones… we must examine multiple sides of issues. It is frankly dangerous to do consider little. Here the piece goes on to say:

“As for those who aspire to form the consciences of Catholic believers, they too must do more than make pronouncements. They must engage the evidence and data offered by those who dissent from their opinion.”

If there is one way in which I think we are called to heal, it is to come together in our Catholicity to find our communal conscience and our individual conscience. This really matters. In the world of cable news, blogs, Twitter and Facebook, how do we do this? It is not easy, but like any element of our faith practice, what is?

As Roman Catholic, our faith demands our obedience, which is based in listening. If we can’t listen, we can’t be obedient. In order to listen, we must open our hearts and our minds to really follow Jesus.

This is such hard work.

Friend of the blog, Fr. Austin at Concord Pastor has two excellent posts on this column. The first one posits that the Kavanaugh piece is one of the most important things that Fr. Austin has encountered in many years. The second one, here, is about how this impacts our youth. Philomena Ewing at Blue Eyed Ennis also writes about this, here. Please read them if you can. Claire at A Seat at the Table refers to it as well, here.