It is common to hear today, even among some clergy, that people really don’t know any better when it comes to moral teaching. Since they have not been properly taught they cannot be expected to understand important moral concepts nor should be held very accountable for the poor moral decisions they might make. I don’t agree and think that this sort of thinking amount to a denial of the existence of the conscience. It is my experience that deep down inside, most people know exactly what they are doing. It is true that the voice of one’s conscience can either be intentionally suppressed or that competing voices can vie for our attention. But, still, under all the layers of denial, suppression, and contrary voices that may occur, we know well the basics of right and wrong. Some examples from pastoral experience:
- I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples that are either co-habiting or fornicating. And despite all the stinking thinking of the world that such behavior is fine, despite whatever attempts they may have made to tell themselves it really OK, despite trying not to think about it, despite all attempts to call it something else….Despite it all, when I speak frankly with them about it, they know what they are doing and they know it’s wrong. They know.
- I have walked the streets of Southeast and talked with the “boys in the hood.” And when in conversation I tell them they ought to stop selling and using and stealing and worse and get themselves into God’s house, they too know what they are doing, they know it is wrong and that they ought to get to God’s house. They know!
- I have become quite convinced that a lot of the intense anger directed against the Church whenever we speak against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity and homosexual marriage, etc, I am convinced that a lot of that anger is that, deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true. Attempts to suppress our conscience are not usually all that successful and when someone endangers the zone of insulation we attempt to erect, we can easily get mad. But deep down inside we know the Church and the Scriptures are right. We know.
- Some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine. But deep down inside, they know better. They know.
We who teach and try hand on the faith need to rediscover the fact of the conscience and never loose heart when we teach and appeal. We are ultimately appealing to things people already know. This is so at least in terms of basic and fundamental morality. There may be certain advanced topics that require informed discourse, but as to the basics, they are written in their hearts. All the protesting and anger are not necessarily signs that we have failed at all. It may be just the opposite. We may have struck more than a nerve, we may have touched the conscience. Don’t lose heart.
And to those who read this blog who may be at odds with one or many Church teachings, please understand that we are appealing to your conscience. It is the dignity of every human person to know the truth. I may at times elicit your anger or surely your disagreements but I will not give up. I presume the presence of your conscience and I appeal to it. It will not write you off as hopeless. I am glad you come here and read even if it is to spar with me. I do not claim that I never suppress or ignore my conscience either. We are all in this mess together. But that is precisely why I so treasure Church teaching and the Scriptures and seek to share them here. It keeps me honest and appeals to what I already know, deep down inside, the truth which God wrote in my heart.
A few basic teachings on conscience may help since, as I have stated, I think a lot of us have neglected to meditate much on the existence of the conscience and what it really is. Here are a few teachings from Scripture and the Catechism
- What is the Conscience and where does it come from? Does everyone have it? – For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776) Notice therefore that “conscience” is the innate sense of the law of God in each one of us. The conscience exists because God has written his law in everyone’s heart. His voice echoes in our soul. It is there and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it, though many do try.
- Scripture too affirms the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within every individual. For example:
- When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, or at times even defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
- By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every one’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
- We must listen carefully to our conscience for its voice can lose its proper influence if we do not take time to listen – It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self examination or introspection. (CCC # 1779) Ignoring the voice of our conscience does not mean it goes completely away. There can be many things that tweak our conscience and stir us to hear its voice. Some react well to these reminders, others with anger. But the point of the catechism is that our conscience should not have to be tweaked or awakened, we should be in touch with it at all times by living a reflective life.
- Conscience must be formed and reinforced– It is true that we have a basic and innate sense of right and wrong and that God has written his law in our hearts. But the Catechism also reminds us that, due to sin, we must also be open to having our conscience formed and its judgments refined: Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God…and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty…The human mind…is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. That is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation about…religious and moral truths…so that they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC #s 37-38). Notice that the catechism does not speak of the conscience as being removed but rather that the intellect, influenced by sin and disordered appetites, tries to persuade us of other ways of thinking. Hence we attempt either to suppress the truth, or at least consider it doubtful and open to alternative interpretation. This is why we stand in need of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church to help us overcome our tendency to suppress and confuse the truth.
- What then should the pastor, catechist, teacher, parent and evangelizer do? Speak the truth in love. Speak it with confidence, knowing that every person has to dignity of having a conscience and that even when that conscience has been suppressed or ignored, it can be reached. St. Paul gave good advice to Timothy in this regard: In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
In this video, Lady Macbeth can no longer suppress her conscience, incessantly she sleepwalks and washes her hands: “Out! Out! Damned spot!” But the bloodstains remain visible to her, her conscience can no longer be suppressed.