This morning I heard that my nephew, who is seven, recently found a ten dollar bill at the store. He picked it up and was reminded by his mom that it wasn’t his. He didn’t argue, but walked through the store (fortunately a small shop!) and asked everyone if it was theirs, before he decided he could keep it. In his case he had a slight bit of help remembering to do the right thing, but the spark flamed and he did it. We have no doubt also had times when we did the right thing, even when it didn’t serve our own interest, as simple as when a clerk under-billed us or returned to us too much change. We say we followed our conscience.
I read an essay several years ago that keyed in on the point (at least as I remember it) that following our conscience makes us vulnerable because our conscience is ordered to something beyond our personal self interest. The essay then went on to say that the image of following our conscience is best seen in the crucifixion. This very concrete image has been (when I haven’t kept it hidden from my mind’s eye – but that would be a post about confessions…) a protection for me from using “conscience” as a means of rationalizing/defending my personal preferences and desires, over against the right thing that I “ought” to do. What is this “ought” to do? Jesus’ great “ought” to do was (and so is ours) obedience to the will of the Father. The crucifix is also a reminder that a time could come when following my conscience could take me along a path opposite from following my instinct for self preservation. Conscience has to do with that spark that my nephew had that caused him just enough pause to be attentive to a reminder from his mom and gave him the freedom to do not what he might have wanted, but to do what was right. This “inclination to the good” is consistent with his design, having been created in the image of God, caring for the other. (Also in this simple example we see it isn’t ever just one choice… How will the little guy now choose to spend his unexpected wealth?
That the spark to do the good and the guilt that comes when we betray the good are there in the first place, points to our unique dignity in being created in the image of God. That we need reminders to do the good and that we need to have our conscience formed, and will sometimes fail, is a result of the fall, of original sin, of a wounded memory of who we are. The Good News of the Gospel is that in Christ we are reconciled to God our creator and are being renewed in holiness, strengthened to live up to our original design, overcoming the effects of original sin. This renewal in holiness comes about through on-going conversion, which involves a free choice to repent, to change our mind, to surrender our will, our lives, with the help of God’s grace, in conformity to the Father, to the Truth.
On this journey of conversion, of being conformed to the image of Christ, as members of the Church we are not alone. Guided through the teachings of the faith, the sacraments, the encouragement of one another, and the work of the Holy Spirit, our conscience is enlightened and our ability to respond justly is strengthened. But our culture is becoming one that would order things not according to what is true and good and ought to be done, but rather what is useful and efficient and can be done. Because of that the light of a guiding conscience is increasingly darkened, replaced by subjective/relative preferences that favor the powerful or popular. It is a dehumanizing direction that enslaves people to use one another to satisfy not so much “inclinations to good” rooted in truth, but more fleeting desires/urges for pleasure and power (or simple security based on fear), leaving those who don’t measure up on the margins, discarded.
At the same time we commit to our own conversion, we need to generously, boldly, and clearly, proclaim that what is true and good about and for the human person, is not determined by us; that conscience, the early knowing written on the hearts of people and imposed by no one, matters and must be protected. The spark of right reason (rooted in confidence of the existence of truth, without which there is no reference for good) must remain in the public square to be engaged with lives of faith, offering again light and hope. Is this not a glimpse to the other side of the crucifixion?
While I haven’t been able to resurface the essay referenced above, there are two other essays that I would like to highly recommend: Conscience and the Obedience of Faith by Jay Boyd and especially Conscience and Truth by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (of course now Pope Benedict XVI), presented in 1991 in Dallas, Texas. (Laurie E.)