How Not to Form Conscience

Those who have been paying attention to the Catholic media have known for years that the periodical that calls itself “The National Catholic Reporter” has long been a self-parody of sorts — a collection of all the usual suspects saying all the usual things about what Cardinal George called the “exhausted project” of “liberal Catholicism”.

But now this periodical has hit a new low, publishing an article entitled “I’m a Pro-Choice Catholic”. (You’ll have to take my word for it, because I won’t link to the actual article — I don’t want to lead anyone into the near occiasion of sin). The piece was written to justify the legalized destruction of innocent human life in the womb, and to claim that this structure of evil is compatible with Catholic social and moral teaching.

Today’s Gospel warned me that “the measure by which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Lk 6:36), so I’m not going to say anything about the lady who wrote the article. What’s interesting to me is the approach she took to forming her conscience on this deeply important subject. It was all about her feelings, her personal judgments, and justifying her own life choices. This is not a Catholic way to form conscience.

As a Catholic and a disciple of Christ, the starting point is not what I “feel”, or especially what I “feel like doing”. Anybody with a modicum of self-awareness knows that our feelings are corrupted by original sin and encrusted by the residue of our own personal sins. Our moral decisions can’t be based on our private judgment about what is right and wrong (Adam and Eve, are you listening?).

We must be guided by human reason and the teaching of the Church, which was commissioned by Christ himself to guide us to salvation. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. “Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil.” (USCCB, Faithful Citizenship). It would help if I stilled my own voice, and listened carefully to God’s voice while forming my conscience.

The key statement in forming my conscience is the one we pray every day, in the words Our Lord himself taught us — “Thy will be done”. Note that he did not say, “my will be done”. I have to conform my will to the will of God.

Fortunately, the Lord did not leave me alone to make decisions about forming my conscience. We have the Church, and in particular we have our bishops: “… the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ” (Lumen Gentium 20). The bishops are not just any old source of information or guidance, for me to just consider along with the other experts. “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” (Lumen Gentium 25). This is part of what it means to be Catholic — not to be ruled solely by my own private judgment, but to submit my will to the Church, and thus to God, and to obey their commandments.

“Adherence” or “obedience” are not always easy tasks, and frequently call for sacrifice and suffering. But so did Jesus’ own road to the Cross. On my own road to Calvary and the Empty Tomb, I should strive to be like the early disciples, who “held steadfastly to the teaching of the Apostles and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

I have to begin with St. Paul’s injunction in Rom 12:9 to “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”. Abortion is evil, both by human reason and God’s will. There is no way that a well-formed human conscience — let alone a Catholic conscience — could justify it in any way.

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