What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

(1)  [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

(2)  [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing, and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us; it would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their conscience troubles them, deep down they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’s healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience arouse is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we are hesitant to ask for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to take it away.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” attitude. For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous because they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and more generous because we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

  • [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.
  • [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us, would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their consciences trouble them, deep down inside they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’ healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience incites is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather be not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we resist asking for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to remove something he liked.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. The attitude is “Ask not lest ye be answered”! For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous; they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and generous we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful, though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.

The Experience of Conscience

In my online class on the Catechism (for the Institute of Catholic Culture), we recently discussed conscience. Many today confuse conscience with their opinion or what they “feel” is right or wrong. However, the Catechism has this to say: Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. … It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778). Conscience interacts with our innate sense of fundamental moral principles (St. Jerome and later St. Thomas Aquinas call this synderesis).

I have written more technically on the definition and understanding of conscience here: The True Meaning of Conscience. In today’s post I’d like to write about it more from the standpoint of experience.

Let’s start with an early text from Genesis:

The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen. So the LORD said to Cain: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen. If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Gen 4:4-7).

In this passage we see Cain’s internal struggle with anger and sin, but also another primordial reality in man: the existence of conscience and our experience of its “voice.”

What is the voice of conscience? The Catechism describes it this way:

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776).

Notice that the conscience hears the voice of God and interacts with our innate sense of the law of God. The conscience exists because God has written His law into every heart. It is there, and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it, though many try to do so. It is this reality that is powerfully and poetically described in the Genesis account of Cain. God’s voice echoes within Cain and warns him of the demonic presence of sinful anger. He also summons Cain to hope, indicating that he is capable of mastering it.

Tragically, Cain refused to heed his conscience. He refused to heed the voice of God echoing in him. Make no mistake, Cain knew that what he was doing was wrong. Though Cain had a fallen nature and was living in fallen world influenced by fallen angel, he still had a conscience; he still heard God’s voice in his soul.

It is common to hear today, even among the clergy, that people really don’t know any better when it comes to moral teaching. They then claim that because people have not been properly taught they cannot be expected to understand important moral concepts nor should they be held accountable for their poor moral decisions. I do not agree; this sort of thinking amounts to a denial of the existence of the conscience and synderesis. In my experience, most people know very well that what they are doing is wrong. It is true that the voice of our conscience can err and that competing voices can distract or mislead us, but underneath all the layers of denial, suppression, and contrary voices, we know quite well the basics of right and wrong. For example, we don’t like being lied to; we know that lying is wrong. We don’t like to have things stolen from us; we know that stealing is wrong. We don’t like to be sexually exploited; we know that it is wrong to do so to others.

The existence of the conscience clearly taught in this text from Genesis. Here are some other Scripture passages that affirm the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within everyone:

  • 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 know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and trust it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).
  • And thy ears shall hear the voice of one admonishing thee behind thy back: This is the way, walk ye in it: and go not aside neither to the right hand, nor to the left (Is. 30:21).
  • See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him (Ex 23-20-21).

Yes, the voice of God echoes within us and is in the very heart of our conscience.

Towards a Rediscovery – There is little reference to the conscience today, even among the clergy. I suppose this is because the word was misused a great deal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many people would misuse the term to justify sinful behavior, saying, “I’m only following my conscience.” In making such a statement they are equating their opinion with conscience. Conscience implies an act of judgment and so surely accesses the intellect, but it is deeper than that. It interacts with our innate sense of fundamental moral principles (synderesis).

Because the work of the conscience is so deep, people will often construct elaborate rationalizations to try to suppress its voice. They surround themselves with false teachers who will “tickle their ears.” Deep down, though, they know that what they are doing is wrong.

 Consider some examples and thoughts from pastoral experience:

  • I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples who are fornicating and sometimes cohabiting as well. Despite the modern world’s claim that such behavior is fine, despite the couple’s attempts to convince themselves that it’s really OK, despite their attempts to not think about it, when I speak frankly with them about it, it’s clear that they know what they are doing is wrong.
  • I have walked the streets of Southeast Washington, D.C. and talked with “boys in the hood.” When in conversation I tell them that they ought to stop selling and using and stealing and instead get themselves to God’s house, it’s clear that they know what they are doing is wrong.
  • I have spoken with pro-choice demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court and told them directly that they know in their heart that abortion is wrong. They argue with me and often get quite hostile, sometimes attacking me personally for being a man and a priest, but I can see in their eyes and in their overly defensive anger that they know it really is
  • I have become quite convinced that much of the intense anger directed at the Church whenever we speak out against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity, and homosexual “marriage” is in fact evidence that we have reached the conscience and pricked it. The anger comes from the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true.
  • Attempts to suppress the conscience are not usually very successful. When someone violates the zone of insulation we attempt to erect around ourselves, we can easily get angry. Deep down inside, though, we know that the Church and the Scriptures are right.
  • Some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine. Deep down inside, though, they know better.

While each of us has an innate sense of right and wrong, and God has written His law in our hearts, the Catechism reminds us that, due to sin, we must 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. This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation …  about … religious and moral truths … so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC 37-38).

We who try to teach and hand on the faith need to remember the fact of the conscience and never lose heart. We are ultimately appealing to things that people already know. This is so at least in terms of fundamental morality. There may be certain advanced topics that require informed discourse, but the basics are written in our hearts. The fact that there we get angry responses does not necessarily mean that we have failed; it may be just the opposite. We may have struck more than a nerve; we may have touched the conscience. Don’t lose heart.

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 a conscience, and even when it has been suppressed or ignored, it can still 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).

Cain’s Conscience – A Reflection on the Truth That We Really DO Know What We Are Doing

In today’s reading from Genesis at Mass Cain is angry, murderously angry. And God speaks to Cain in the depths of his soul. The text is from Genesis 4:

The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen. So the LORD said to Cain: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen. If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.” (Gen 4:4-7)

One of the glories of Genesis is how descriptively it deals with primordial human realities such as our very existence, the foundation of marriage and family, the subsequent and terrible fall from grace and the struggle with sin that ensues. In this passage we see not only described the internal struggle with anger and sin in Cain, but also another primordial reality in man, the existence of our conscience.

What is the conscience? The Catechism describes it this way:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. 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. It is this reality that is powerfully and poetically described in the Genesis account of Cain. God’s voice echoes in Cain’s depths and warns him of the demonic presence of sinful anger. God also summons Cain to hope indicating he can master it.

Tragically Cain refused to heed his conscience. He refused to heed the voice of God echoing in him. But note well, he knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong. Though Cain had a fallen nature and was living in fallen predominated by fallen angel, he still had a conscience. He still heard God’s voice echo in his soul. He still knew what he was doing.

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 amounts 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.

The existence of the conscience clearly taught by this text from Genesis 4. There are other Scriptures that also affirm  the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within every individual. For example:

  1. 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).
  2. 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)
  3. We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and trust it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).
  4. And thy ears shall hear the voice of one admonishing thee behind thy back: This is the way, walk ye in it: and go not aside neither to the right hand, nor to the left. (Is. 30:21)
  5. See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him (Ex 23-20-21)

Yes, the voice of God echoes in us and this is the heart of our conscience. Scripture teaches that every human person has a conscience.

Towards a Rediscovery – There is little reference to the conscience today, even among clergy. I suppose this is because the word was misused a great deal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many people would misuse the term to justify sinful behavior, saying, “I am only following my conscience.” But in this sense they equating their opinion or their own stinking thinking with conscience. Conscience surely accesses the intellect but it is deeper than that. It is a basic and innate sense of fundamental moral principles. Because it is so deep people will often construct elaborate rationalizations to try and suppress its voice. They will surround themselves with false teachers to tickle their ears. But in the end, deep down they know what they do is wrong.

 Consider some examples and thoughts from pastoral experience:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 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!
  3. I have spoken with pro-choice demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court and told them directly that they know in their heart that abortion is wrong. They argue back and often get quite verbally hostile, may attack me personally for being a priest and a man. But I can see it in their eyes and in their hyper-defensive anger that they know it really IS wrong. They do know.
  4. 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 is evidence that we have reached the conscience and pricked it. I am convinced that a lot of that anger comes from the fact that deep down inside, they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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

  1. Everyone has a conscience  – 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)  Conscience” is the innate sense of the law of God in each one of us. God has written his law in everyone’s heart. His voice echoes in every soul. We have seen above how Scripture also affirms this truth.
  2. We must listen carefully to our conscience for its voice can lose its proper influence if we do not take time to listenIt 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

The Anatomy of a Sin

The first reading from today’s Mass is an extraordinary moral tale from the  Book of Daniel. It is the story of Susanna. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly it is missing from Protestant Bibles which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel.

It features the story of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden two older men who have hidden themselves there out of lust try to seduce Susanna who rebuffs their brazen overture. They threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in garden if she does not give way to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through on their threatened lie. They further demand that she should be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue and, through crafty interrogation, exposes their lie for what it is. The story is a small masterpiece. If you have never read it,  you should. In the course of its engaging tale it gives us a kind of anatomy lesson of sin. It is good to consider the teachings here

Anatomy Lesson One: The Cardinal or Deadly Sins lead to other sins–  The story powerfully shows how lust, one of the seven cardinal, (a.k.a.  capital, or deadly) sins leads to numerous other sins. This is the nature of the seven deadly sins and explains why they are often called Cardinal Sins. In Latin “cardines” means “hinge”.  Hence, the seven deadly sins are like hinges on which many other sins “swing.” In this story the deadly sin of  lust leads to immodest inquiry, violation of privacy, attempted seduction, unjust accusation, exploitation, lies, oppression, and even to attempted murder. King David too had given way to lust and it led to lies, and ultimately to the murder of Uriah the Hittite by David in which David involved not only himself but his generals. This is what the seven deadly sins do, they lead inexorably to other sins.

Anatomy Lesson Two: The Sequential Sources of Sin. In a remarkable description the story describes a threefold source from which their sins spring forth. The text says: They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources from which sin springs.

  1. They suppressed their consciences–  What is the conscience? The Catechism defines it thus: 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). So in effect the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written his Law in the hearts of every human person. Thus, in terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (eg. the following of certain rituals or feasts days etc.). But in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic and innate grasp of what is right and wrong. Deep down inside we know what we are doing. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity. We also know that things like murder of the innocent, promiscuity, theft, destruction of reputations etc are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing, and we know that we know.   I have written substantially about conscience elsewhere (HERE). But notice that it says that they suppressed their consciences. Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily minds will do is to try and suppress our conscience. To suppress something is to put it down by force, to inhibit or to try and exclude something from awareness or consciousness. The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies and distortions to try and reassure us that something is really OK that deep down inside we know isn’t OK. We accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth that our conscience witnesses to. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: 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. (2 Tim 4:1-3). It is quite and effort to suppress one’s own conscience and I would argue that we cannot ever do it completely. In fact the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is quite an effort and it is very fragile. This helps explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know we are right and often, just the slightest appeal to the conscience to awaken its voice, causes quite an eruption of fear and anger. So here is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly and not face deep psychological pain of significant guilt these men in the story first  suppress their conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain. Step one is underway.
  2. they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven– In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience it is necessary for one to distance himself  from the very source of conscience, God himself. One way to do this is to drift away from God though neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God and association with the Church which speaks for God. Drifting away may become more severe as times goes on and the refusal to repent becomes deeper. Drifting soon becomes absence and absence often becomes outright hostility to anything religious or biblical. Another way that some avert their eyes from heaven is to redefine God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a designer God who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care if I go to church, or shack up with my girlfriend etc.” On being shown scripture quite contrary to their distorted notions of God they simply respond that Paul had hangups, or that the Bible was written in primitive times. But the cumulative effect is that they are no longer looking to heaven or to God, but rather to a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is for the individual to isolate and insulate themselves  from God and what he reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing their conscience. So for these men step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.
  3. and did not keep in mind just judgments– Finally lets throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of  THE sins of our current age. This final stage is meant to eliminate  the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. The sinner at this stage has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and even a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin when the voice of conscience was less layered over and muted. But still some fear remains so now an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of God’s holiness which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of hell which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and holds that there is no judgment to be faced. However he does it, he must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Then, having suppressed the voice of God to the extent he can and having removed himself from heaven’s influence, and denied that anything of negative consequence will come, he is free to sin gravely. It is as though he has taken a number of stiff drinks and anesthetized himself sufficiently to proceed without pain.

But guess what, it’s still there deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Under all the layers of stinking thinking and attempts to insulate oneself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing to prick his conscience causes increasing unease. Anger, projection, name-calling, ridiculing of anyone or anything awaken his conscience will increasing be resorted to. Sin is in full bloom now and repentance seems increasingly difficult or unlikely. Only great prayers and fasting by others for him will likely spring him loose from the deep moral sleep he is currently in. Pray for the conversion of sinners.

Well, since this post has been a little heavy it might be good to end on a lighter note:

Rediscovering the Conscience – We Know What We Are Doing

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. Scripture too affirms the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within every individual. For example:
    1. 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).
    2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Using Your Noggin

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1800)

 

The Catholic Church puts a lot of emphasis on our conscience. It allows us and even invites us to wonder, question, and disagree. So what exactly are we supposed to do when our conscience disagrees with Church teachings?

 

The answer again comes from the Catechism:

 

A well-formed conscience will never contradict the objective moral law, as taught by Christ and his Church. (Catechism, #1783-5, 1792, 2039)

 

This echoed what a priest said at a retreat I attended two weekends ago. Someone asked the priest what we’re supposed to do if we disagree with something the Church teaches. He said, “Assume the Church is right, first of all. Then ask yourself where in your line of thinking you start to diverge from what the Church teaches. Take that one point, and learn more about it through diligent reading and talking to your spiritual director.”

 

Does this mean that in the process of forming our conscience and learning about the moral law, Christ and his Church, our disagreement will cease? Yes! We make a pretty bold statement when we say that Church teachings are infallible, that the Church is the fullness of the Truth, and that if we gain knowledge of that Truth we will end up in line with Church teachings, but that’s what we believe!

 

So if we have questions about and disagreements with what the Catholic Church teaches, we must ask, study, and pray! Obviously, learning our faith and forming our moral conscience is a daily and lifelong process. Thankfully we have the lives of the saints to give us hope and encouragement!

 

FWI: This website offers a concise and valuable explanation of moral conscience.

http://www.beginningcatholic.com/conscience.html