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Conscience, The Infallible Guide To Holiness Of Life

January 22, 2016 Frontpage No Comments

By RAYMOND LEO CARDINAL BURKE

(Editor’s Note: Following is an excerpt from March 7, 2015 address that Cardinal Burke gave at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children Youth Conference, Southport, England. Some citations in the original quoted the German spoken by Pope Benedict XVI in his September 2011 address to the German Parliament. These have been omitted here for reasons of space.)

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If we are to seek holiness of life, to live more totally and faithfully for Christ, namely, to give our lives to Christ, without any reserve, our hearts must seek their wisdom and strength in the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus; our conscience must be trained to listen to God’s voice alone and to reject what would weaken or compromise, in any way, our witness to the truth in which He alone instructs us through the Church. Through our daily prayer and devotion, and through our study of official Church teaching, our conscience is formed according to the will of God, according to His law which is life for us.
It is the conscience, the voice of God, speaking to our souls, which is, in the words of the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II, London: Longmans Green, 1885, p. 248. Quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1778).
As such, the conscience is ever attuned to Christ Himself Who instructs and informs it through His Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and the Bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff. Cardinal Newman observed that conscience “is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives” (Ibid., p. 248).
Today, we must be attentive to a false notion of conscience, which would actually use the conscience to justify sinful acts, the betrayal of our call to holiness. In his 2010 Christmas Address, Pope Benedict reflected, at some length, on the notion of conscience in the writings of Cardinal Newman, contrasting it with a false notion of conscience, which is pervasive in our culture.
The Holy Father described the difference of the Church’s understanding of conscience, as faithfully and brilliantly taught by Cardinal Newman, with these words:
“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, with his intuitions and experiences, 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” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedict XVI’s Christmas greeting to the College of Cardinals, the Roman Curia, and the Governorate,” p. 14).
Conscience, therefore, does not set each of us apart as an arbiter of what is right and good, but unites us in the pursuit of the one truth, ultimately Our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the only arbiter of the right and good, so that our thoughts, words, and actions put that truth into practice.
In the same Christmas discourse, Pope Benedict XVI clarified an often misunderstood passage of Blessed Cardinal Newman, which is used, in fact, to promote the erroneous subjective notion of conscience. Our Holy Father observed:
“In support of the claim that Newman’s concept of conscience matched the modern subjective understanding, people often quote a letter in which he said — should he have to propose a toast — that he would drink first to conscience and then to the Pope. But in this statement, ‘conscience’ does not signify the ultimately binding quality of subjective intuition. It is an expression of the accessibility and the binding force of truth: on this its primacy is based. The second toast can be addressed to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth” (Ibid., p. 14).
In other words, there can never be a contrast between what the conscience demands of us and what the truth of the faith, as enunciated by the Holy Father, demands of us. The conscience, in fact, is drawing us into an ever deeper understanding of the truth and adherence to it in our thoughts, words, and actions.
In his address to the German Parliament in September of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, referring to a text of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (cf. Romans 2:14-16). regarding the natural moral law and its primary witness, the conscience, declared: “Here we see the two fundamental concepts of nature and conscience, where conscience is nothing other than Solomon’s listening heart, reason that is open to the language of being.”
Further illustrating the sources of law in nature and reason by making reference to the popular interest in ecology as a means of respecting nature, he observed:
“Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”
Reflecting upon European culture which developed “from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — from Israel’s faith in God, the philosophical reason of the Greeks, and Roman legal thought,” he concluded:
“In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it [European culture] has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.”
While Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection is inspired by a concern for the state of law in the European culture, his conclusions regarding the foundations of law and, therefore, of order in society are clearly universal in application.

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