Thursday, February 9, 2012
Re-defining and Eliminating the Conscience
When I was growing up and heard the word "conscience," it usually meant that somebody was telling me that I knew what the right thing to do was and that--difficult though it may be--I had to do what my conscience was telling me. Or, conscience was discussed in terms of whether your "conscience was bothering you." This means that you had lied or done some other immoral thing and now, deep inside, the conscience was nagging. That blasted conscience! It didn't seem to let you get away with anything. And of course, "conscience" could also be used in the context of a rebuke. "Don't you even have a conscience?"
We weren't theologians at eight years old, but we knew we had a conscience. And that conscience didn't make the rules. It was that annoying voice that made you keep the rules. It was that nagging pit in your stomach feeling that wouldn't go away until you set things right again. Conscience when I was eight years old was about doing what was right.
Somewhere between eight and forty, there seems to have been a seismic shift in the way that people use the word "conscience." At eight, "conscience" was what kept one from doing evil. But, gradually it seems that "conscience" has been turned on its head and is used as a "Get out of jail free" card. Have a difficult moral decision to make? Just say your conscience told you to do the opposite of what the truth demands and you're all set. You know adultery is wrong, but tell yourself that in this particular instance "my conscience says it's okay" and you are entirely excused from those marital vows. Do you find some moral teaching of the Catholic Church difficult to follow at times? No worries. Just say that your conscience says, "it's okay for me not to follow the teachings of the Church." See, wasn't that easy? And it isn't just about sexual morality where this comes in handy. The Sunday Mass obligation? Hey, what obligation? My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass on Sunday.
Conscience has morphed into the justification for doing evil and avoiding good. "My conscience says it is fine to use contraception. My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass, not go to confession, to receive the Eucharist unprepared, and to support abortion. And, as long as one announces that it is about his conscience, there is an expectation that the Church should just keep quiet on those issues. In fact, there have been any number of theological advisors to politicians who have given them just this type of advice. "Yes, you're Catholic and the Church opposes these issues, but as long as you follow your conscience, you're okay." These advisors will have much for which they shall have to give an account.
But, something new has happened in the way of conscience. For all of these years, many Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from obedience to the Church because they were "following their consciences." So, the very institution that Christ gives to us to help us form our consciences was treated as irrelevant to "my conscience." But now, these very politicians are part of a secularist agenda that opposes much of what the Catholic Church embraces. And when the Church herself seeks to receive the protection of her conscience, the hellish cries of these very same Catholic politicians are deafening.
For decades, scores of Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from the moral law by playing the "conscience card." Now, these very same politicians are in lock step behind President Obama's mandate that Catholic institutions be compelled by force of law to violate their consciences. See, when it comes to holding yourself excused from the Ten Commandments, the Gospel, and the doctrinal teaching of the Church founded by Jesus Christ (of which these folks say that they are members), the word "conscience" comes in very handy.
But, when people say that the mandates of the secularist agenda of the Obama Administration are a violation of their consciences, these very same Catholic politicians are horrified that anyone would have the audacity to claim that their consciences matter. Obama has spoken. Sebelius has spoken. There is no room for conscience in this matter. It is fascinating really. Sebelius--a self-proclaimed Catholic--has no hesitation in acting in total opposition to the Catholic Church and feels quite justified in doing so. But, when Catholics who oppose her pro-abortion, pro-secularist, anti-Catholic mandates appeal to their consciences, she simply outlaws conscience protection.
And here is where it seems the whole thing has finally been turned on its head. The Church in the United States has allowed Catholic politicians to abuse the term "conscience" for decades. These folks have cynically hidden under a false understanding of "conscience" for a long time and did so with almost no challenge. Their deficient understanding of conscience received little in the way of public correction. And now, they have usurped unto themselves what was given by Christ to his Church. They spent decades ignoring the Magisterium by appealing to their make believe understanding of conscience. And, in large part, the Church failed to correct them. Now, they have anointed themselves to be the new magisterium. Unlike the old Magisterium that looked to Natural Law and to the Divinely revealed in order to teach on matters of Faith and Morals, the new magisterium looks only to itself. And, they have made clear that there will be no room for people's consciences to disagree.
Funny isn't it? These folks were allowed to run wild with their fanciful definitions of conscience for decades and few did much in the way of correcting them. Now, these very same folks are disciplining the Church for appealing to its conscience. Maybe if these folks had been continually challenged over the years on their re-definition of conscience (they seem to like to re-define things), they wouldn't be stomping on the consciences of others now.
Maybe, the Church in the United States ought to look at the past forty years or so and examine how effective our approach has been. Has the predominant "hands off " approach been effective? If not, what would have been more effective? Have these politicians become more Catholic over time or have they become more defiant? Has the present model convinced other Catholics of our seriousness on these matters or has it left them thinking that most everything is up for grabs? Have we been successful in shaping the consciences of our people or have we failed? Is our chosen method a great success story or is it in need of some tweaking?
Perhaps, we could form a commission to study what we've done right and what we've done wrong. I even have a title for the final paper: An Examination of Conscience.