Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!


Ave Maria!
Fourth Sunday of Advent—20 December AD 2015

John the Baptist, Titian, 1540
John the Baptist, Titian, 1540

Ordinary of the Mass in Latin and English
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Dominica Quarta Adventus

On Conscience

“I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet I am not hereby justified: but He that judges me is the Lord.”[1]

    A major reason for writing his epistles to the Corinthians were the factions and rivalries that kept springing up, causing division and even hatred among his newly converted Christians.  In the portion of that epistle read today, Saint Paul is telling us that instead of trying to find fault with each other and the people around us, we ought to devote that effort to being sure that our own consciences are formed in accordance with the will of God    and then, of course, that we act on the dictates of that holy conscience.

    Unfortunately, the idea of conscience is one that is often misunderstood, and sometimes even used as an excuse for bad behavior.  So a few words are in order:

    First of all the conscience is distinct from our knowledge of the moral law.  Everyone is expected to know the Commandments, and how they are applied in a general sense.  For example, we know that the 5th Commandment prohibits the unjust taking of human life;  we may never go and kill an innocent person, but we may act in self defense or in defense of another;  it also prohibits behavior that would bring serious physical harm to others or to ourselves.

    Where conscience comes into play is in trying to determine how a particular set of real world circumstances relate to the moral law in actual application.  The conscience is essentially the reasoning process that allows us to take a Commandment like “Thou shalt not kill”    and apply it to a set of circumstances like the extent of life support we might be morally obligated to provide for a comatose 37 year old mother of two children.  The conscience lets us take what we know in theory, and put it into action in practical circumstances.

    We are obligated to follow our conscience, because it is our “best attempt” at acting in accordance with God's will.  It is possible that our conscience may be wrong, but since it is the best we can do, we still must follow it.

    This implies though, that we must make a sincere effort to form our consciences properly, as far as our intellect and education will allow.  That means that we are required to pay some attention to what the moral law says, and how moral people have applied the law to practical situations in the past.  What does the Catechism tell us?  What has the Church taught through the centuries?  What have the popes said about this; or the learned theologians?  When we don't know, we ought to seek the advice of a prudent confessor.

    Obviously some people will require more specialized knowledge than others.  A priest, or a physician, or a lawyer will need to have a more detailed knowledge of certain moral issues than people in other occupations.  But all of us should have a knowledge of religion and morality that is at least as well developed as our knowledge of worldly things.  (Nothing sadder than the college graduate who never got beyond his Confirmation class in 4th grade.)

    While no one can know everything, we all must realize that it is seriously sinful to purposefully remain ignorant of the moral law on the false assumption that we would then not be guilty of sin when we violate it.  The person who says, for example, “I don't want to know anything about the 7th Commandment,” is quite guilty of sins against that Commandment when he commits them—not because he is following his conscience, but because he is responsible for not having formed his conscience correctly.

    Like many other things, a properly operating conscience walks a “middle road” between two extremes.  One must not be lax in one's conscience, dismissing all sorts of sinful behavior as unimportant—but equally, one must not be scrupulous, seeing sin in everything or treating minor imperfections as terrible crimes.

    Saint Paul tells us, as he told the Corinthians, to be concerned with our own actions, and not to judge the actions of others.  That does not mean, however, that we should ignore other peoples' evil actions.  We have a duty to politely correct them in their misdeeds, particularly if we are responsible for their upbringing, as parents of children.  Not to correct someone's fault often serves to approve of it.  And such correction is the way most of us have our consciences formed, particularly at an early age.

    Finally, let's remember Paul's motivation for writing this letter to the Corinthians—particularly as we come so close to the Christmas season.  Paul wants us to have our hearts filled with God's love.  Not with judgment of one another, but rather with compassion for each others' weaknesses and failings.








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