||This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.
There is a great service to humanity that is being lost. It is being lost in society and it is being treated with kid gloves even in the Church. This service is to help another person form and follow their conscience.
So lost is this service that it is very quickly becoming illegal. I wish I were speaking in exaggerated hyperbole here, but sadly I am not. To help others form their conscience means to say that this or that is wrong. And to say certain things are wrong has become very dangerous and indeed -- close to illegal in our country, and already illegal in Canada.
However, it is, always and everywhere, the right and responsibility of the Church, and of parents, and of good neighbors, to witness to the law of the Lord, to speak the Truth as it is written on our hearts, and to help others to form their conscience.
In fact there is little that is more important because, as we’ll see, it is the path by which we must follow to seek and to attain the blessedness in this life and in the life to come.
Misinterpretation of the teaching on conscience
In my opinion, the most destructive mistaken interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (one that we’ve lived with for 50 years) is the misinterpretation of the teaching on conscience. Certain forces in the Church took the occasion of the newly stated teaching on conscience, in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, to mislead people.
Now why they did that and what that’s all about is between them and the Lord . . . as the quote that has become so famous says, “Who am I to judge?” (which itself has been so outrageously misinterpreted by the mass media, and so-called Catholic elected officials).
But it was done; the Church’s teaching on conscience was misinterpreted, and the people were led astray on a very, very important matter -- a matter that is destroying lives, leading to tremendous unhappiness, tremendous “un-blessedness.”
The current of philosophical thought that is at the root of all this confusion about conscience in the world and in the Church is that existence depends on the mind: “I think therefore I am.” Knowing, in fact, begins with reality, which exists and which is to be known by the knower.
The knower doesn’t make up what he or she claims to know; the knower needs to know reality. The knower needs to know the Truth, which is presented to the knower as a choice, as it said in the first reading of this past Sunday (Sir 15:15-20).
God presents what is good and bad to the knower, just as it says. And the knower, with his or her conscience, is to choose the good. The knower is not to choose what he or she would like; the knower is to choose the good.
And conscience is that truth-seeking radar that scans the horizon of reality, looking for Truth so that it can lock on to it, be changed by it, and be made heroic.
We recall the story that right in the beginning, in the Garden, God made it clear to Adam and Eve that they were not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is, He made it clear to them that they were not the source of the truth about what is good and bad.
And they said, with some help from the serpent, “Oh, we’re big deals. We know what is good and evil just like God, so we’ll make the decision.
“We’ll decide whether what was presented to us as evil is, in fact, good.” And instead of a world where there is no pain, no suffering, no mourning, no death, Adam and Eve -- so determined to be the source of the wisdom about good and evil -- lost all of that for us.
God tells us what is good and evil
The law of the Lord is the Truth onto which our conscience locks like radar. He is telling us what is good and evil. “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” We heard it in this past Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps. 119) “Blessed” -- that is, deeply, deeply joyful -- sharing in the joy of the Lord, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”
Of course, nowadays this passage has been retranslated by many people, given their misunderstanding of conscience. It now reads, “‘Pre-Vatican II’ are they who follow the law of the Lord, because, didn’t you hear about Vatican II? It said that our conscience is now the only law. We can choose what is good and evil.” This is the misinterpretation that has been given.
We are duty-bound to follow our consciences, yes!
But what are our consciences? They are like truth-seeking radars that we tune up and keep calibrated to follow the law of the Lord.
In the Gospel of this past Sunday, Jesus said to us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Mt 5:17).” He came to bring us back to a life of Grace, so that, living within His Church and in Him, we might once again have the rightly calibrated consciences to follow the law!
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord! The conscience is made for the truth of the law of the Lord. And as it says at the end of the first reading, “God doesn’t give permission to sin (Sir 15:20).” And so many people today treat conscience as a dispensation machine, which allows them to disobey the law of the Lord, because after all, it’s my conscience, and I’m a big deal, just like Adam and Eve thought they were.
We can’t do whatever we want to do
It’s going on millions of times every day. “I followed my conscience.” What people are saying is, “I am the source of the truth about what is good and bad . . . me, me, and more me.”
This is the way most people live, and this is why we must reclaim the great service of helping people form and follow their consciences. Until we get this straightened out, nothing else can get straightened out.
As long as people can do whatever they want in the name of the conscience, nothing else can get straightened out. It’s a change that must come from the heart of the Church, because it’s a problem that has gone right to the heart of the Church (even beyond the moral life, people followed their consciences into all of the liturgical abuses of the last 50 years).
People are following their consciences in every little thing, from cheating on tests or stealing a little time from their employers, to engaging in the direct killing of innocents in the name of choice or condoning or participating in acts which are contrary to the truth about marriage and about human sexuality.
It’s all in the name of conscience. It’s all about, “I am the source of the moral law for me, and you are the source of moral law for you.” That is, we have dethroned Almighty God from where He sits as the giver of the Law of the Lord.
We have thrown Him off His throne, and we have put ourselves there instead, in the name of conscience. This has to be made clear to people because the only way toward finding happiness in this life and in the next is not allowing our consciences to be the source of truth, but rather forming them into seekers of truth.
What does conscience actually do?
Now, what does conscience actually do? Jesus instructs us how He has come to fulfill the law, to take it a step further, by empowering our consciences to seek the Truth. In the old law, He remarked, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I tell you, you shouldn’t even give in to anger. You have heard that you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you, you should not even look lustfully at another.”
Why does Jesus say this? Conscience always calls an individual to what is greater, to what is heroic. That’s what it’s for.
When somebody says to me, “I followed my conscience,” I expect to hear a story of heroism. I expect to hear a story of ‘beyond the call of duty,’ and yet so often what I hear is that “my conscience dispensed me from doing the minimum.”
Conscience elevates! Conscience raises the bar -- it does not lower it. To follow your conscience is a great thing, but it means you went beyond just following the law. You felt called by God toward the heroic, and God gave you the grace to respond, that’s what true following of conscience is.
It’s not a big get-out-of-jail-free card from obeying the moral law. Conscience locks on to the moral law, loves the moral law. “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.” And conscience never says you can do less than follow the law.
As last Sunday’s first reading said, “God doesn’t make allowances for sin.” But conscience lifts one up to the heights of goodness and truth and virtue and beauty. Conscience is one of the greatest gifts that the Creator gave to each one of us. It’s a gift . . . it’s a creature. It doesn’t create moral truth. Conscience locks on to moral truth, and goes beyond it, so as to bring the law to perfection and to fulfillment.
So, let’s not back away from the duty of forming and following our own consciences by the grace which Jesus gives us through His Church and His new life -- and let’s not back away from serving others by helping to teach them to form and follow their consciences. To speak the truth to another is not to judge them, it is to invite them to a life of blessedness.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. May God fill you and your loved ones with every grace and blessing! Praised be Jesus Christ!