With the last issue of Light and Life, we saw how St. Thomas defined conscience as an act of pulling together the moral knowledge held in the intellect and producing a judgment as to right or wrong. Thus, an act of conscience depends upon whatever information the mind has at its disposal. Some of this moral information has been implanted in us by God, but not by any means all. The better part of it has come from various influences and sources of moral understanding to which the individual has been exposed, whether by his choice or not. This act of the mind is therefore very much a product of who we are, our upbringing, the choices we have made through life, those to whom we have looked for guidance.
Still, no matter how a person's conscience has developed, we have seen how we all begin with certain moral principles given by God. These are present within men of every time and place. When one comes across a fellow human, he will, if he is in his right mind, hold that murdering the innocent is wrong, as well as taking what does not belong to him, or spreading falsehood, and so on. There is a moral understanding that comes with human nature, placed there by the Creator.
Why should He do this? He wants men to seek and find ultimate goodness and happiness. He has created us that we might reach this goal. And to start us safely on our journey to this destination, He has placed within us a basic moral sense. Without being taught, we can know in general terms what will lead us to happiness and what will end in misery.
However, this knowledge is very general. It will take man only so far. It is not sufficient to take him to eternal beatitude, for which, in order to reach this ultimate goal, man must receive further information from God. Only divine revelation will bring him all the way there. In this present issue of Light and Life, we will focus more precisely on the conscience acting in harmony with this divinely revealed knowledge, without which man will never reach the fullness of life God has planned for him.
The blessing of divine communication is where our Catholic faith shows itself to be an invaluable treasure. Rather than having man wander through life with only an imperfect notion of what he must do to reach the fullness of joy (which would be contrary to His love for us), God has sent careful instructions through His Son. This eternal Son made Man, in turn, has set up His Church, which He has filled with the Holy Spirit, that these divine instructions might be available for every generation down to the last day. Through the Catholic Church, the world will always have clear guidance on the way to eternal life.
How fortunate we are who accept this true doctrine given by the Lord Himself, fully present in the Catholic faith and, to a lesser degree, in the other Christian denominations. We should reflect how those who have submitted themselves fully to the Gospel have been spared the wandering into self-destructive behavior that is so sadly present among nonbelievers. We should consider the vehemence and dominance of the passions that goes with having to live without the benefit of the Church's teaching, and especially the grace of the sacraments. Even with the innate moral sense all men share, there is no escape from the dominance of disordered desires for wealth, sex, and power. These are part and parcel of life without the Gospel and sacramental grace. Without Christ, no matter how sincere the striving for goodness may be, human life will always be shadowed by darkness. He brings divine light into human behavior. As St. Paul instructed the Church at Ephesus:
From the darkness of moral confusion and depravity, then, the believer in Christ has been delivered. And this must be for him a constant cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving. But it must also be a cause for self-examination. For he will come out of the darkness only to the extent that: 1) he is continually bringing his conscience in line with the Gospel as embodied in Catholic moral teaching, and 2) he is following his conscience without compromise.
The moral teaching of the Church is set before us in a way very different from any other kind of teaching we find in this world. As we have mentioned above, its origins are in God. His perfect vision of human life in all its minute details, which He knows so well because he was its Creator, puts this teaching at the level of the absolute. There is no imperfection in it; it is utterly dependable, because it derives from God's own flawless knowledge. In no other field of knowledge will the same perfection be found. Philosophy, physics, astronomy, psychology are all products of man’s limited understanding, and therefore, though containing extensive truth, will always be tainted by imperfection.
The conscience that takes this knowledge to itself rises to the level of perfect understanding. It will become progressively more reliable as a moral guide, more accurate and sure in its judgments, to the degree that it assimilates Catholic moral teaching. But the contrary is also true. The more it fails to align with the Magisterium of the Church, the more it will lead a person back toward the darkness of those without divine revelation, or very possibly worse.
Many without the benefit of Catholic moral teaching, though struggling greatly, are on the road to eternal beatitude. They are trying their best to lead good lives, though they lack the benefit of the divine revelation as fully present in the Church. If it were not for circumstances that prevented them, they would be embracing this great gift of God. However, a Catholic who has embraced, but then rejected, the moral guidance of the Church, has fallen into the ominous condition of those heading to eternal separation from God. They have rejected the only guide there is to beatitude. Once this rejection has taken place, they have tossed to the winds the only true road map to eternal life that exists. Our Blessed Lord warns such as these who abandon the moral understanding, the doctrinal sight, of His teaching:
For this reason, any departure from the moral teaching of the Church must be considered by the Catholic as most grave. What is at stake is not simply turning from moral advice on a par with that of any other moral system, religion, or knowledgeable person. The divine origin of the teaching of the Church is something the Catholic does not back away from. He has acknowledged this divine origin in embracing the faith. He lives out this commitment by forming his conscience according to its teaching. He may indeed pose questions from a contrary point of view for the sake of understanding with greater precision. Such was the approach of many a great doctor of the Church. But he does not call into doubt the wisdom and suitability of this teaching. Otherwise he implicitly strips the Church’s moral teaching of its divine character, which, by definition, is above any human judgment. He brings such teaching down to the human level, as something he has the capacity to evaluate and pass judgment on.
Such are those who consider themselves Catholic, but who nevertheless dissent against the moral doctrine of the Church, namely, against her ban on: artificial birth control, abortion, the practice of homosexuality and other teachings of the Magisterium. They have turned their consciences from reliable guides on the way to beatitude, into blind guides; and sadly illustrate the great danger in turning against the Church’s moral teaching. They see no wrong in what they do. They commit grave sin, and their consciences are silent. They are prime examples of how this “voice of God” can be turned into no more than the “voice of sinful man.” Thus, through dissent against Catholic morality, the conscience can be rendered thoroughly useless as a help to salvation. How many considering themselves to be members of the Church (and who often so confidently proclaim they are headed for salvation) are, in fact, on the road to complete separation from God. And how unhindered they will go to such a horrible fate. They have silenced the very gift God designed to turn them back from their fatal course.
But such a horrible state can also come with repeated disregard for the conscience. Here, a person has initially formed the conscience through acceptance of Catholic moral teaching, but he turns again and again against the sound judgment conscience provides. In time, such sound judgment no longer comes. Repeated sin trains the mind and will to accept the immoral behavior, at least implicitly, as legitimate. Perhaps eventually this person, too, becomes outwardly a dissenter against the faith. We can imagine someone who was once a faithful Catholic, regularly attending Mass on Sunday, but who then begins to occasionally fail in his obligation. At first, his conscience reacts, but it is ignored. In time, it no longer accuses him of wrongdoing. His Mass attendance becomes even more sporadic. Before long, he falsely justifies his behavior by deciding that mandatory attendance on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation is one of those practices that has now "passed away since Vatican II." Little does he realize how far he has now separated himself from Christ and eternal salvation. Too, he has silenced the very voice that God made to call him back.
Heading to this same unfortunate condition is a person in one further state of conscience. This, we referred to in the last issue of Light and Life as someone with a suspicion that his behavior is not in harmony with Church teaching, having a conscience formed through “vincible” (correctable) ignorance. Here a person has the obligation to seek further guidance and instruction. His conscience is in some respect not trustworthy. He must find out why, and form his conscience more completely. In failing to do this, he becomes responsible for the wrong he may commit. What is more, in continuing to act with this vincible ignorance, he will face the real danger of desensitizing his conscience to evil and rendering it an unreliable guide through life.
What is clear is that the effects of failing to form the conscience carefully in keeping with divine instruction will be to leave the conscience weak and ineffective in leading one to ultimate joy. The journey to such a goal depends definitively on integrating into one’s life the teaching of Christ present in the Church. His life and message is the one and only way to our heavenly goal. “No one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn. 14:6). If we speak of the human person growing to full maturity as someone who is able to order his life so as to reach eternal beatitude, then this is clearly a maturity that will be reached by surrendering oneself to the teaching of Jesus proclaimed by the Church. Our maturity is attained through submission. So Christ will tell his adult disciples quite openly, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). The fully mature person will be developing through life an ever greater, and childlike docility to the teaching of the Church. Refusal to do this will lead, ironically, not to maturity, but to stunted growth as a person, an inability to negotiate the difficult road to beatitude, and ultimately to the misery of eternal separation from God.
Still, many today will object that the fully developed conscience will bring a person not to childlike docility under the moral guidance of the Church, but to an ability to "stand on one’s own." Rules laid down by the Church, they falsely think, must not simply be accepted immediately and without question by the mature Christian. But in the manner of an adult, for example, thinking carefully about a proposed law included on the ballot, one with a mature conscience will be able to weigh the pros and cons and form his own decision. As a scriptural justification, those who argue in such a way point to St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians: “The spiritual man judges all things, but is judged by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15).
The well-known moral theologian Germain Grisez’s response to this line of reasoning is as follows:
It is one thing to maturely weigh the pros and cons of a ballot measure. It is quite another to decide that as a well-informed and educated Catholic, “I consider the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception as outdated and no longer binding in conscience.” Such is to cut oneself off from the very voice of Christ, and the very source of one’s maturity in Him. The Catholic will always be aware of the divine origin of the Church’s moral teaching, and never reduce it to the level of a “law of the people.” Indeed, it is precisely in its not being a “law of the people” that it has its incomparable value. No merely human law is up to the task of guiding us to our eternal goal. For this, only divine guidance, divine law, will do. And to this moral law, communicated by our Blessed Lord through the Church, the Catholic surrenders his conscience. He knows that this law is the mind of Christ Himself, in whom he will be brought to his full maturity as a man, and as a child of God.
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