Conscience: A Two-Front Effort

From the pastor’s note last week in the bulletin of Good Shepherd Parish – St. Stephen Catholic Church in New Orleans:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:34)

What does Jeremiah mean that the law will be “written on our hearts”? We don’t have to go far to find out. In Paul’s Letter to the Romans he says:

“For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 2:14-16).

The basic idea is that even those who are unbaptized or non-religious have access to the truth because they are made in God’s image and likeness. Even “unbelievers” have a conscience. And the Church sees conscience as the subjective norm of morality. Conscience is defined as the last practical “judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins one to do good and to avoid evil.” Thus, conscience is not a power of the soul like the mind or the will, nor a habit like prudence, but an act of the mind to direct personal action.

And the Church also teaches that one has the right to act according to his conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. One must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must one be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.

However, there are limits to the “subjectivity” of conscience. For instance, one might commit acts that will “suppress” one’s conscience. A serial killer would be a dramatic example. No one people could kill innocent people on a regular basis without suppressing the horrible reality of the act.

This right of freedom of conscience does not allow one to arbitrarily disagree with the natural law or God’s teaching and claim that one is acting in accordance with conscience. A sincere conscience presumes one is diligently seeking moral truth from authentic sources – seeking to conform oneself to that moral truth by listening to the authority established by Christ to teach it. With all of the talk in today’s news about “conscience protection,” it behooves each of us to sensitize our own. And fight for it.

In Christ, Msgr. [Christopher H.] Nalty


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