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The Judgment Of Conscience

August 11, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

When the average person hears the word “passion” spoken in the hyper-sensualized culture in which we live, the first thought likely to come to mind is sexual desire, and perhaps with a disordered association.
However, as we saw last week, in the parlance of moral theology the term has a more basic, neutral meaning. As defined in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCCC), passions are “the feelings, the emotions, or the movements of the sensible appetite — natural components of human psychology — which incline a person to act or not to act in view of what is perceived as good or evil” (n. 370).
Morally neutral in themselves, the passions “form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1763). They assume moral character “to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will” (CCC, n. 1767). The passions “are good when they contribute to a good action and they are evil in the opposite case. They can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices” (CCCC, n. 371).
As Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ states: “It is part of moral perfection for the passions to be guided by reason enlightened by faith” (The Faith, p. 157). The whole person is involved; as the psalmist proclaims: “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:2).
Among the principal passions listed by the Compendium are “love and hatred, desire and fear, joy, sadness, and anger” (CCCC, n. 370). Love, “to will the good of another,” is the most fundamental passion. “All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good” (CCC, n. 1766).
The Catechism now allocates 27 paragraphs (nn. 1776-1802) to a topic for which a correct understanding is essential in order to live a genuinely Christian life, namely, conscience. In general terms, conscience might be described as that means, given to mankind by God as a manifestation of His goodness, by which His light shines in our minds and hearts and that serves as a link between human freedom and moral truth.
More concretely, conscience can be described as the faculty at the core of one’s being by which practical judgments are made as to whether particular acts are morally right or wrong.
Regrettably, it is a term that is often misunderstood and misapplied in contemporary times. As conveyed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ in the first volume of Fundamentals of Catholicism (FoC-1), conscience “is frequently appealed to as an absolutely autonomous principle in a person — as something that is not supposed to be challenged or questioned by anyone, including the Church or the state” (FoC-1, p. 132).
In our relativistic, individualistic culture, it is often heeded as an indication of “what I want to do” rather than “what I ought to do.”
The Catechism begins its treatment of conscience with an insightful quotation from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (GS), a teaching that bears repeating in its entirety for our reflection:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: ‘do this, shun that.’ For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS, n. 16; as cited in CCC, n. 1776).
The importance of conscience in the Christian life is similarly emphasized in a second Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae: “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life” (n. 3 § 4).
Pope St. John Paul II also accentuates the importance of a correct understanding of conscience in Veritatis Splendor: “The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and law is intimately bound up with one’s understanding of the moral conscience” (n. 54 § 2).
Likewise, Scripture attests to the importance of conscience for the attainment of eternal beatitude. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes:
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16).
The Catechism, in adherence with these teachings, describes conscience as follows: “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (CCC, n. 1777).
In a July 2016 presentation to members of the Marian Catechist Apostolate (entitled “The Moral Law, Conscience, and the Sacred Liturgy”), Raymond Cardinal Burke dutifully warned listeners that in the times in which we live, “we must be attentive to false notions of conscience, which would actually use the conscience to justify sinful acts, to betray our call to holiness.”
It is with this in mind that we return to the earlier-referenced counsel offered by Fr. Baker.
Fr. Baker advised that the only way to effectively deal with today’s situation is to have a clear understanding of what conscience is and what it is not.
“It is not an ‘inner voice’ telling me what is right and what is wrong,” maintains Fr. Baker. “It is not an emotional feeling produced by my parents or…by my peer group. Finally, it is not a special faculty, distinct from my mind and my will, that tells me what to do and what to avoid” (FoC-1, p. 132).
In more technical language, Dr. William E. May offers similar thoughts in An Introduction to Moral Theology (IMT). He describes an erroneous view of conscience which he refers to as “psychological conscience.”
Influenced by Freudian ideology, conscience understood in this way is “the result of a process of psychological conditioning; and the spontaneous reactions, impulses, and feelings associated with conscience …may be either realistic and healthy or illusory and pathological. Conscience in this sense is shaped largely by non-rational factors, and it is frequently found to condemn what is not wrong or to approve what is not right” (IMT, p. 57).
Such an understanding is not what the council fathers (or the authors of the Catechism) had in mind when they used the term “to designate the agency whereby human persons participate in God’s eternal and divine law….For them, conscience designates first and foremost our awareness of moral truth” (ibid.).
Conscience, armed with moral truth, “is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (CCC, n. 1778).
In a document entitled A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman observed that “conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (p. 42; as cited in CCC, n. 1778).

The Subjective Realm

Let us close with words spoken by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2010 Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia:
“In modern thinking, the word ‘conscience’ signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment.
“Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word ‘conscience’ expresses: In this realm only the individual…can decide.
“Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, ‘conscience’ means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life — religion and morals — a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience — man’s capacity to recognize truth — thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it, and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.”

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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