When I was a little girl, I did not like the book Heidi very much. I preferred my Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings; I wanted exciting stories with a good bite to them, not improving moral stories about Divine Providence. I read Heidi for the goats, the blue-tiled wood stove and the frequent loving descriptions of toasting cheese, but I didn’t care for any of the characters. I especially didn’t care for the spoiled brat Clara, so I was rather happy toward the end, when Peter the goatherd pushed her wheelchair off a cliff (without her in it, alas), to prevent Clara’s being able to go to the goat pasture.
Some of you may recall that, when Peter was found out, one of the legion of tiresome grown-ups gave him a little sermon about his conscience. She said that a conscience is a little man who lives in your stomach. He sleeps most of the time, but when you do a naughty thing he wakes up and jabs you with a sharp pin until you repent.
This description haunted me. I was both intrigued and frightened that, in addition to an invisible feathery-winged guardian angel, I had a little man living in my stomach. I imagined him as the size of the gremlin from Bugs Bunny, all colored in myriad shades of blue and gray, and wearing an enormous saucer-shaped hat, for some reason. When I was good, he would sleep all day, but when I was bad, he would stab me. And, of course, sometimes he would stab me for no reason at all. I’ve talked ad nauseam about the scruples I suffered growing up on the Planet Charismatic. Sometimes my conscience would stab me in the stomach for accidentally thinking of a swear word; sometimes he would stab me in the stomach if I didn’t perform the bizarre Medieval penances described in books of Lives of the Saints. Sometimes my conscience would stab me in the stomach because it was late at night and I hadn’t had enough to eat or drink, and I would spend a long time kneeling in prayer, trying to figure out what sin I’d committed to wake him, and whether it would damn me.
Now that I’m a grown woman, I usually hear “conscience” described differently. It seems to be a political thing. Catholics on either the Left or Right of the political spectrum are always talking about conscience, to explain why they must side with this or that thing which is against the Church’s teaching. Both the liberals and the conservatives do it equally often. The kind of Evangelical Protestant who shows up in Pure Flix films is always railing about conscience, in order to explain why he’s committing a very staid, consequence-free act of civil disobedience. Apparently, when you’re a child, conscience stabs you in the stomach for sins, and when you’re an adult, conscience justifies overlooking the whole of the law in favor of part.
The Catholic Church has a third definition of conscience, and I believe she has the correct definition. This I take directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Chapter One: