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"Authentic Lay Spirituality" Part 4: "The Conscience -- Properly Formed, Freely Followed, Regularly Examined"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: February 3, 2011

Welcome to another year of our First Thursday gatherings! We are continuing this year with a series entitled “Authentic Lay Spirituality.” As I mentioned in my first reflection in October, the points that I am making apply to all Christians. Not one of us is excluded from a life that has a spiritual focus, an anchor in the presence of the living God. These lectures, however, are designed hopefully to be especially helpful to people like you -- single men and women, parents, grandparents, married couples. But they are not meant to exclude people like myself or others in religious life. The spiritual life is a life, moreover, where God is the center of our choices, our joys and sorrows, all that we do and hope to do and be.

The meditation today, the first meditation of calendar year 2011, is entitled “Authentic Lay Spirituality: The Conscience -- Properly Formed, Freely Followed, Regularly Examined.”

The title of the first chapter of my new book, to be published this Spring, a book entitled The Commandments We Keep: (A Catholic Guide to Living a Moral Life) is: “The One Who has Faith Lives Differently.” It hopefully captures the essence of the theme of this entire book on the moral life which is the “faith lived.” At its heart, moreover, living the faith is about free choices, correct choices, the choices we make each day in our concrete daily lives, our lives at home, in the workplace, at places of recreation, with our families and the time we spend alone. You understand this challenge only too well. Increasingly, I hear, especially from the younger generation, the reference to the making of specific decisions “a right or wrong choice, a good or bad choice.” This even applies to choices on a dinner menu for so many are concerned about healthy choices. The word “choice” is therefore very much a part of the popular lexicon in our day.

Understood properly, “human freedom (or choice) is more than a capacity to choose between this and that. It is the God-given power to become who he created us to be and so to share eternal union with him” (USCCA 310). To live in this way is the basis of our hope as followers of Jesus. Understood in this way, as followers of Jesus, true freedom makes it possible for us to live differently than the popular understanding of freedom that is defined by simply doing what I wish to do. That is a reductionist understanding of freedom and is certainly not informed by our Christian faith.

How then does our Catholic faith, a faith rooted in the living Person of Jesus Christ, give us direction and inner strength to make the right choices? How is it that our faith helps us form our consciences to make those correct choices?

OUR FIRST CHALLENGE: we must define what conscience is.

Simply stated, “conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16). The Vatican Council also teaches that the: “voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that” (GS 16). St. Ignatius of Loyola, defining conscience, calls it a “drop of water onto a stone.” It is akin to a sharp feeling that awakens us to reality.

I was talking about conscience to my athletic trainer the other day. I was happily surprised with his definition and I told him I would share it with you. For him, “Conscience is your spirituality speaking to you. Spirituality is your light, and without it, you live in darkness and with darkness comes sin. When you examine your conscience, that leads to repentance, and repentance leads to salvation.” He concludes: “Never underestimate the power of the Spirit, because the Spirit moves at will.”

OUR SECOND CHALLENGE: freely to follow our consciences!

And following one’s conscience has real consequences. Two striking examples are St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

First, St. Thomas More-- the fifteenth century St. Thomas More “ is an appropriate guide, for he used all his brilliance as a lawyer to avoid conflict with King Henry VIII. Yet, finally, when direct conflict could no longer be avoided, he sacrificed both his family’s security and his very life for the sake of his Catholic conscience” (Carl A. Anderson, A Mandate for All Seasons: Catholic Conscience and Secular Society, February 4, 2009, Closing Keynote for 22nd Workshop for Bishops, Dallas, Texas, 2). In Westminster Hall, the same hall where the trial of Thomas More took place, Pope Benedict, on his trip to the United Kingdom on September 17, 2010, stated that six centuries later “…there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.” He stated further that “These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

With regards Blessed John Newman--acknowledging the challenge and cost of following one’s conscience, the then- Cardinal Ratzinger referred to Blessed John Newman and his conversion to Catholicism writing that his “conversion to Catholicism cost him dearly and came about as a need to obey the truth in his conscience. In a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman wrote, ‘If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts…I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards’” (Carl Anderson, A Mandate for All Seasons—Catholic Conscience and Secular Society, 4).

Just recently, in his Christmas address to the Vatican Curia on December 20, 2010, Pope Benedict spoke of the newly Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, his conversion in the 19th century to Catholicism and the role of conscience. He said: “The driving force that impelled Newman along the path of conversion was conscience. But what does this mean? In modern thinking, the word "conscience" signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment. Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word "conscience" expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide. Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, "conscience" means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him. His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. Newman had always been aware of having a mission for England. But in the Catholic theology of his time, his voice could hardly make itself heard. It was too foreign in the context of the prevailing form of theological thought and devotion. In January 1863 he wrote in his diary these distressing words: "As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life - but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion". He had not yet arrived at the hour when he would be an influential figure. In the humility and darkness of obedience, he had to wait until his message was taken up and understood. In support of the claim that Newman’s concept of conscience matched the modern subjective understanding, people often quote a letter in which he said – should he have to propose a toast – that he would drink first to conscience and then to the Pope. But in this statement, "conscience" does not signify the ultimately binding quality of subjective intuition. It is an expression of the accessibility and the binding force of truth: on this its primacy is based. The second toast can be dedicated to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth.”

OUR THIRD CHALLENGE: Not only freely to follow one’s conscience but to have a properly formed conscience!

At its heart, then, is the need not simply to understand what conscience means but how it is that our consciences are formed—properly formed consciences must be our goal and it is a lifetime enterprise. It is not enough simply to say that I am following my conscience and that ends the discussion. Moreover, it is not enough simply to say I am ok and you are ok. It is not simply a question of self-esteem. Our “ok-ness” must be informed and formed by certain objective standards. A friend suggested that without a properly formed conscience is akin to the playing of tennis without a properly learned stroke. If you hit a good shot, without proper instruction, it is simply luck. No one, in the moral or sports life, wishes to live simply on the basis of luck.

Both More and Newman had properly formed consciences. Their decisions, those we know of, clearly reveal that. But what does it mean to have a properly formed conscience? Pope Benedict teaches us, conscience is our capacity for truth. As such the proper formation of conscience implies a search and appropriation of the truth. Conscience is thus both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. Conscience formation is a lifelong effort and it takes place according to objective moral standards. Where do we look for those standards? How are they readily applied to the daily challenges that we face at home, with our children, and in the workplace? Answer: “The Word of God is a principal tool in the formation of conscience when it is assimilated by study, prayer, and practice” (USCCA 314).

Speaking of the call to form our consciences, John Paul II writes in his magna carta encyclical on the moral life, The Splendor of Truth, that we must “make it a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good.” VS 64 St. Paul “exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom 12:2)” VS 64 John Paul II adds: “It is the ‘heart’ converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience.” VS 64 The formation of conscience is thus a daily movement to the Lord under the prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In addition, our consciences are formed with the prudent advice and good example of others, especially the authoritative, sacred and certain teaching of the Church and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. By the will of Christ, the Catholic Church is the teacher of truth, teaching authentically the truth which is Christ. “The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.” VS 64

Traditionally, the work of conscience formation has taken place in parishes, Catholic schools and, above all, in the family. For this reason, the strengthening of family life is a most important priority in the Church today and what we have come to call the New Evangelization. Parents know this only so well. Your constant effort to model and instruct your children in what to do and what not to do is an assist in the formation and maturation of their consciences. When children celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, and not only children, this provides a wonderful exercise, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not only to repent but in the process to be assisted in the regular formation of conscience. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sin and helps insure a necessary healing.

Those of you in the workplace are constantly faced with choices and the implicit moral consequences and implications of doing or not making certain decisions. The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the moral teaching of the Church, the revealed words of Christ, the social teaching of the church are all sources for proper formation for correct moral choices, even and particularly, the more difficult choices.

OUR FOURTH CHALLENGE: regular examination of conscience.

At the end of my new book on the Ten Commandments, I have attached in the appendix an examination of conscience. The three pillars of every good examination are God, self and neighbor. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis De Sales, speaking of the examination, suggests three ways to begin, ways which I find very helpful. First, he suggests that we place ourselves in the presence of God. Second, he suggests that we invoke the Holy Spirit. And third, and beautifully consoling, he states that if we find that we have made only little or no progress or even fallen backward, we should not be depressed or discouraged or despondent. “On the contrary, protest that you wish to encourage and animate yourself all the more, humble yourself, and correct your faults by the assistance of God’s grace.” (pp 275-76)

A regular examination of conscience, even a brief one before one goes to bed each night, can also be a significant assistance in our on-going formation of conscience. Such a regular, even daily examination of conscience assists in the repentance of our sins in confession. The more regularly we are in touch with our conscience and our failures, the better able we are to know our sinfulness and the more confident we are to confess them. One must always be on guard, however, of excessive self-criticism. That is not a proper examination of conscience and that can lead to a scrupulous conscience which is not good. In the words of John Paul II, an examination of conscience is “an act that must never be one of anxious psychological introspection but a sincere and calm comparison with the interior moral law, with the evangelical norms proposed by the Church, with Jesus Christ himself who is our Teacher and Model of life, and with the heavenly Father, who calls us to goodness and perfection.” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31)

One final word on the EXAMEN of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is a form of the Examination of Conscience found in his Spiritual Exercises and a significant part of them. The EXAMEN is fundamentally designed to examine one’s day for signs of God’s presence. There are different forms to the daily examen. Here are five steps from one of them: first, place yourself in God’s presence; second, give thanks to God for His many gifts; third, examine how you have lived this day; fourth, ask for forgiveness and fifth, offer a prayer of hope filled re-commitment and seek the grace to amend one’s life.

TO CONCLUDE: An understanding of conscience and its proper formation and the free yielding to it and the regular examination of it are all essential to an authentic lay spirituality, a spirituality of each one of us who seeks to follow Christ Jesus. Quoting from his address to representatives of other religions in his recent visit to the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict includes the following in his World Day of Peace message this year on Religious Freedom: “The patrimony of principles and values expressed by an authentic religiosity is a source of enrichment for peoples and their ethos. It speaks directly to the conscience and mind of men and women, it recalls the need for moral conversion, and it encourages the practice of the virtues and a loving approach to others as brothers and sisters, as members of the larger human family.” (9) Indeed the flowering of civilization has been the product and beneficiary of the Church’s continued efforts through the centuries in the formation of conscience and the encouragement of conversion of hearts and repentance. Praise be Jesus Christ and His living body the Church!