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“Truth. What is truth?”truth

While there are plenty of speculative interpretations attached to Pilate’s remarks, we can’t really know what the Roman governor’s intentions were as he responded to Jesus’ declaration that that those listening to His (Jesus’) words belonged to the Truth.

As Jesus’ trial continues, Pilate turns from Jesus, suggests to the crowd that Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, but succumbs to the demands of the mob; Pilate discards his initial judgement, and sends Jesus to crucifixion.

What is truth, indeed.

We now find ourselves in what is being called the ‘Post-Truth World’, a term first coined by author Ralph Keyes in 2004 as he described the growing trend that discounted the value of facts in favor of exaggeration, misdirection, and outright lying in human discourse.

In a political setting, this post-truth era is distinguished by campaigns where arguments are driven solely by emotion and talking points are disconnected from policy and fact.

Outside of politics, sales staff promise what can’t be delivered, college students pad resumes with unearned academic credits, reporters misrepresent messages by cherry-picking phrases, and on and on…

Why do people do this? Because there is often more to gain by ignoring truth than there is to lose through honesty.

But the fact that truth-stretching, ‘truthiness’, and outright lying is practiced by so many of us doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that to many of us, real truth simply doesn’t matter.

So what is truth?

‘Truth’ is something more than facts. While facts are observable events and measurements, ‘truth’  is what happens when we add interpretations and reasoning based on our personal experiences. Facts can describe the ‘what’ and perhaps ‘how’ behind the things we observe. Truth involves personal beliefs and our judgement behind the ‘why’. As Catholic Christians, we believe that there does exist a common, objective truth, the Truth as revealed through the Old and New Testament and displayed in practice through Jesus’ life.

The Church teaches that the Truth works hand-in-hand with a well-formed conscience that guides our interactions with those around us.

What confronts us in this post-truth world, where what we call truth exhibits a complete disconnect between belief and reality,  is the same danger the Church warns when it teaches that real truths are not subjective – not every expression can be accepted as ‘true’ simply because someone declares it so.

 

Does Worldly Truth Matter?

Why should I be concerned as a Catholic citizen if friends, co-workers, and leaders continue further down a road in which what is said and written becomes nothing more than opinion-fueled fiction?  Do we get a free pass by proclaiming allegiance to the Truth while accepting that our expressions of day-to-day worldly truth can preclude honesty?

Truth, in all its forms, does matter for at least two reasons.

First – God is big on truth.

Yes, God is slow to anger; but there are some things that really tick Him off. And if Proverbs 6 has any avenue to the behaviors that earn His wrath, we are in a heap of trouble (especially after this past year). It isn’t a stretch to see that in a ‘post-truth’ world, where messages are driven mostly by self-serving emotion, we put ourselves at risk of violating at least a few of the seven major abominations – those things that God detests (self-serving ‘truth-less’ oriented abominations italicized):

  • Acting with pride
  • Lying
  • Taking innocent life
  • A heart with wicked intent
  • Mischievous behavior
  • Being easily swayed towards evil
  • Sowing discord

Second – if no ‘common denominators’ of truth exists between communities, that is, if every subgroup of society makes up its own truth, how can there be any hope of communities working together for common goals? If there are no absolute ‘truths’ shared among all people, how can anyone agree on solving problems, assuming they could even agree on identifying the problems that need solving?

 

Knowing ‘Truth’ isn’t Enough

Pilate’s behavior is telling. Whether or not he was being rhetorical by asking ‘what is truth?’, he hints at not being able to at least recognize, if not hold fast to the truth as presented in Jesus’ words. As a result, even though he may have sensed an unpopular truth of innocence,  Pilate hesitates, and in the end, accepts the ‘truth’ of guilt that was proclaimed by a screaming mob. Therein lies the key – knowing the truth is one thing, letting the truth guide one’s actions is another.

We observe artifacts of the physical world and consume facts. Our sense of truth adds our interpretation of conditions to which a well-formed conscience responds. That conscience rewards or disturbs depending on our action (or inaction). We may see a homeless person on the street – Truth pulls us to take action to help solve a problem. We observe media that degrades the gift of human sexuality – Truth calls us to change the channel or discard the website. We observe behavior-fueled by anger and violence. Truth calls us seek out the causes of misunderstanding.

When we ignore the Truth before us, or worse, drive our actions by made-up truths, we deny our conscience a clear view of the world in which we live. Our conscience, which John Henry Newman called the ‘voice of God’, becomes muted, muffled by other voices concerned with something other than the moral good. Without that sense of real truth, our conscience loses its dignity, its real value. And with no well-formed conscience, our actions fall prey to the day-to-day whims of self-interest.

 

What is the Catholic Christian’s response to this post-truth environment?

As we move forward in this hyper-connected world, a world where anonymity allows us to be way too free with our thoughts and words, it is good that we build a structure of acceptability that guides our interactions with others as we search for the worldly truths that help us solve worldly problems. Let’s call it a plan to use the Truth to help us better grasp the truths of other peoples’ lives.

Using Proverbs as a model, our search for truth must built on honesty – we can’t just make things up. The search for truth has no wicked intent. We look for truth with humility (we do not know everything), and aren’t skewing our interpretations to sow mischief and discord. Disagree with others, sure. But such disagreements have value only when we see the constructive importance in helping others understand a perspective to which which they (or we) may not have been exposed — and only when we show respect for all ‘others’ God has placed on this earth.

These guidelines must direct our interpretation of observable facts, provide a litmus test of how we scrutinize the words of others, and set the tone for how we form our own expressions through any form of media.

And finally, even when we apply all the good faith (pardon the pun) effort to properly interpret what is going on around us, we are called to act in accordance with what our well-formed conscience calls us to do. Having a strong sense of the Truth, knowing right from wrong, means little if, in the end, we allow our actions to be guided by self-interest and the groupthink of mobs.

That’s what Pilate did.


References:

Post Truth in politics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-truth_politics

Cardinal Ratzinger on Conscience and Truth: http://www.cin.org/avatar/ratzcons.html

International Catholic University on Conscience and Truth: http://icucourses.com/pages/013-03b-conscience-and-truth

Proverbs 6: 16-19

 

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iStockIt’s almost that time of year again, that time when some Catholics grit their teeth as they consider surrendering their deeply held beliefs as they are moved to cooperate with evil.

Yes, it will soon be time to vote.

Whether we are talking about the American presidential race, congressional or local elections, or local proposition ballots, we frequently make decisions that may be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of a practice, policy, or law that, in some way, embodies evil.

We think we’re good at finding evil. Some of us are even better at condemning each other’s engagement with organizations that don’t dedicate their activities to the Truth. And while today’s hot topics apply mostly to our current political process, the question of ‘cooperation with evil’ is becoming more prescient in a world in which we find ourselves increasingly connected to more organizations and cultures that may not share our values.

Whether we apply the label of ‘evil’ to the Democratic or Republican party (take your pick for any number of reasons), the Affordable Health Care Act (no need to re-visit that topic), the Boy Scouts (allowing gay scout leaders), Girl Scouts, (statements of trans-gender inclusivity), Catholic Relief Services (sharing resources with organizations providing contraceptive services), ALS Foundation (Ice Bucket Challenge / embryonic stem cell research), or any number of other offenders, we can find numerous reasons to deny support or engagement with almost anyone who isn’t us.

As Catholics, we have thorough and highly detailed explanations of what cooperating with evil means, starting from Article 4 of the Catechism’s section ‘The Morality of Human Acts’, through a painfully detailed 9,000 word tome at EWTN.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to first define ‘evil’ before we associate it with the actions of others.

That, in itself could be a topic for a lengthy discussion, but for now, I’ll stick with St. Thomas Aquinas’ abridged definition —- evil is the absence of good.

That was easy.

How Wrong is Wrong?

With evil defined, we turn our attention to Church teachings that attach a degree of ‘wrongness’ by evaluating the moral significance of the cooperation, the degree to which an ‘evil’ action is facilitated by the cooperation, and the availability of alternatives to cooperative action.

Some actions are clearly off limits – those which involve direct support or cooperation with someone to perform actions that are evil (absence of good). Giving a person a gun to commit a crime is the most obvious example; sending money to the Ku Klux Klan would be another. No good comes from either of these choices.

But for many of us, the challenge comes in understanding what to do when we find ourselves in that big grey area explored by Church teaching: the act of cooperating with organizations whose offending actions are not the linchpin of their primary missions, and cooperating with an organization on an important mission when the harm done by inaction outweighs the negative consequences of engagement. (Of course, this is somewhat of a simplification, but the 9,000 word website is referenced below for those interested in research for extra credit.)

This world of grey surrounds us – and when it comes to supporting organizations, respecting our commitments as employees, and meeting our civic responsibilities to vote, the complexities of trying to measure the evil of our involvement almost make us want to disengage with everyone, go home, close the door and turn off the internet.

Except, that is not what we are called to do.

The second theme of Catholic social teaching states that people have a right and a duty to participate in society through relationships within our family and societal institutions, seeking together the common good and well-being of all.

The Church has its share of mystics, those holy persons who found God’s connection through isolation and prayer. But most of us know the Church through those who engaged the world through evangelization, the arts, and service. I don’t think we were put here to pull away from others, but to engage, to learn of the perspectives of others, to give witness to what drives us as people of faith, and to cooperate to do good.

Where to draw the line?

While there are some organizations and projects that are clearly, unambiguously out of bounds in terms of cooperation (organizations supporting euthanasia come to mind), in many cases, we will better serve our mission (and our neighbors) by full engagement, joyfully cooperating with any and all whose primary goal is to do good.

But cooperation with others towards some greater good does not require us to stand silent and support activities that run contrary to what we believe to be morally sound.

No one will know to what degree the respect life movement played in the ALS’ current policy of shifting work away from embryonic stem cell research – but opposition to the destruction of embryos was justified – and the foundation’s practice of allowing contributors to prohibit the use of their funds for embryonic stem cell use is a sign that organizations of good will can find ways to cooperate.

On the other hand, unless the primary mission of the Boy Scouts is to turn all young men gay, and the primary goal of the Girl Scouts is to encourage all girls to change gender (which would be really bad for membership), the decisions to give scouting organizations the boot appear less as a stand against evil, and more like a banishment of those who choose to serve those we call sinners. I’m not sure that’s in any of the gospels.

And then, there are the elections.

Needless to say, there are no perfect angels on the ballot this year. Both major political parties have many of their supporters seem to be swearing allegiance to ideologies rather than following any apparent moral compass. Depending on one’s life experience, we all lean towards one party or another – acknowledging only the potential good that could come from the election of the candidate we support. For each Catholic voting for one candidate, there is another Catholic voter outraged at the failure of the other’s judgement.

It seems as though any choice is the wrong choice.

*******

I recently attended a presentation by Jeff Kemp, former NFL quarterback who delivers his message on proper Christian manhood using his experiences in professional football as a source of metaphors and examples that relate to guys like me.

During a question and answer session, he was asked about the current political process (his dad, Jack Kemp, ran for president in the 1980’s).

This was red meat for an audience at an evangelical church in the American south. But Jeff did not take the bait, and instead, called each of us to serve, rather than hide.

Paraphrasing, he asked all of us to remember that above all, we are to keep focus on serving God’s kingdom. But part of that service is to pray for those running for office and to pray for the person who wins. He added that for those of us moved to political action, we are to join the political party of our choice, and work to be the very best Democrat or Republican that God asks us to be. (He didn’t mention the Greens or Libertarians – but I think that was an honest omission.)

Always seek to do good.

In the end, except for some obvious instances when evil needs to be exposed, I think we spend too much time worrying about cooperating with evil. That is not to say that evil is not a problem, but that we will have less time to worry about how ‘evil’ our fellow Catholics (or others are) if we ourselves follow the Church’s prime directive — always seek to do good.

If Thomas Aquinas is right, the more time we spend in caring for others, practicing good stewardship of our gifts, in giving witness to God’s power to heal every wound, the more time spent in doing good, the less room for evil in our own personal lives.

We simply cannot help the broken parts of our world by setting our lives apart from it. Our Catholic distinction comes from our values, not from any need for isolation. We may not agree with everyone in our community, our political party, our country, or our world, and we may be tempted to think of associating with others as a pact with the devil. But that is a dark view – and we don’t do dark views.

Our mission is to engage, to listen to the needs and concerns of others, to evangelize through word and deed, and to remember that evil is not something that can be avoided, but is a void to be filled with God’s presence that we carry to the world.

 


References::

Catholic Social Teaching: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm

Summa Theologica at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1049.htm

Paper on cooperating with Evil at http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/COOPRTN.htm

National Catholic Bioethics Center on Cooperating with Evil: www.ncbcenter.org/index.php/download_file/force/185/159/

ALS and Stem cell research: http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/the_ice_bucket_challenges_stem_cell_controversy/

The Girl Scouts and St. Louis Diocese: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/us/girl-scout-cookies-st-louis-catholics.html?_r=0

The Boy Scouts and North Dakota Diocese: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/catholic-diocese-north-dakota-severs-all-ties-boy-scouts-over-gay

Jeff Kemp ‘Facing the Blitz’ : http://www.facingtheblitz.com/

 

 

“Tell me who ghandsAsHeartsets to live. And why?”

That pointed question was asked by National Catholic Reporter blogger Phyllis Zagano in a posting that railed against our slide towards a society where life is cheap and futures disposable. It is a question that needs to be asked loudly, and pointedly, as we sample the potentially toxic mix of technological advancement and self-empowerment.

While recent news about the church’s challenges have (rightfully) focused on the socially ‘hot’ topics involving gay rights, same-sex marriage, and reconciliation of remarried divorced Catholics,  issues at the intersection of Catholic morality, bio-ethics, and personal choice are beginning to loom large for our all in our church.

I write this a couple of weeks after the tragic story of Brittany Maynard, the 26 year old lady who chose the path of suicide to avoid what had promised to be a torturous end caused by incurable brain cancer. Her decision became the immediate hot topic discussed by supporters (those espousing  ‘Death with Dignity’), and critics.

Both the official Vatican response as well as the Pope’s direct words were blunt and to the point: there is no dignity in suicide.

(Before anyone casts words critical of Ms. Maynard’s choice, I suggest reading of what happens to persons with brain cancer. Even a cursory review of the literature will make the most ardent critic drop the stones that were to be cast and walk away in prayer.)

Such issues come down to probably those most emotionally charged word in the Christian’s vocabulary: choice.

In the secular world, we demand information and knowledge so we may make an informed choice. We have such expectations for the products and services we buy, the places we live and the leaders we elect.

We also make choices to purchase drugs and therapies that affect the way we look and the way we feel, always trying to look young enough and feel energetic enough to sidestep the natural processes that would choose otherwise.

But as these choices move into more serious domains, those areas that infringe on the natural processes of birth and death, we begin to stray into dangerous territory.

The problem is that we are used to having choices that make life better, easier, and more convenient for us. Life choices often involve the coming and going of others . Even when we think we are making choices that involve our rights, our actions set examples for those around us and affect those who follow. And we all see that when given information that disappoints – or worse – information that portends a future that we didn’t expect or want, we don’t always choose wisely.

Consider that when presented with diagnostic tests that reliably predict the occurrence of Down syndrome, 90% of these would-be parents choose to abort the fetus. Yet many parents who choose to raise  Down syndrome children insist their experience bears many of the same fruits shared by other parents.

And then there are choices we make to enhance the process of creation.

At its simplest core, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) seems like a promising technique that allows families to bear children which, due to health reasons, they could not conceive. But as genetic testing technologies improve, parents who need to use IVF will soon have the ability to choose the characteristics and traits of their offspring. A recent feature report on CNN touched on the process to create ‘perfect babies’ – in the promo the host made the common sense observation that when given the choice, why wouldn’t parents pick donor cells that demonstrated strong likelihood to result in strong, healthy good looking children.

Once such techniques for genetic modification are perfected for couples who used IVF because of the inability to conceive, how long before genetic modifications are made available to all parents?

With people poking at the cell’s DNA to encourage strength and intelligence, who will worry about stepping on the genes for kindness, artistic creativity, or even spiritual sensitivity? Would parents choose genes for a good sense of humor over the traits that may provide greater financial stability for the future generation? If we choose the good-looking child what happened to the brilliant musician who was offered to us? Do we have any idea of what we are doing?

Fast-forward to end-of-life issues.

The Brittany Maynard case is one of those relatively infrequent (though not rare) circumstances where a person is actually informed of how they will die, and in this case, informed of a process that rightly terrifies.

The Pope may warn against decisions based on a ‘false sense of compassion’, but I somehow don’t think there was anything false about the gut-wrenching emotions her family had to endure.

But from the perspective of our society, do we really want to accelerate, make more easy and convenient, the ability to end life when health fades?  What would remind us of the need to cure disease if termination becomes more cost-effective, more dignified?

If we become too quick to choose the end of life when we see fit, before aging or suffering robs us of the person we want to be,  who will remain to remind the rest of us of the need for compassion?

The church teaches that nothing should interfere with the natural process of creation and death – that is God’s work. There will be families that will struggle to have children, but the answer is not to develop processes that manufacture children to our liking.

End-of-life is to be left the the natural process that God has left with us. And while steps need to be taken to reduce pain and to comfort the sick, we simply cannot accept a societal view that the best way to deal with those who are suffering is to hide or dispose of them.

That said, our church MUST do a better job of educating the flock – not by telling what is right and wrong, but by explaining her teachings in contemporary terms that connect people to the confidence and comfort of Christ-centered decision making.

All families will soon be dealing with some moral decisions as they start families, raise children, and care for elderly parents. Some of these decisions will be very, very difficult with no paths to a happy ending. Those are times when they will need options, both in terms of support from church and in the availability of brick-and-mortar care facilities, so that a choice involving community, support, and love is always an available course of action.

And hopefully, if we find ourselves in circumstances that demand the unthinkable from us, we at least take the time and pray for the strength to do the right thing. And when some of us fall short of sainthood, I hope our church will remember its responsibility to project compassion, mercy and reconciliation.

*******************

I had always struggled with the creation story — wondering why God wouldn’t want us to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong – why couldn’t we have that knowledge and take the apple?

But after reflection, I now understand that fruit itself had no special power and imparted no new skill to our mom and dad. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a plain old apple.

The knowledge of doing wrong came simply from Adam and Eve’s choice – the decision to discard what they knew to be true while listening to someone whose intentions had nothing to do with their well being.  The choice to act in their own self-interest – to be like God without listening to His counsel – alone was enough to give them the knowledge of what was wrong. Comparatively, knowing what was wrong also enlightened our first parents of the ‘right’ choice that was discarded.  A choice made, an experience that teaches what is wrong and reminds us of what was right. Out of the garden and into the weeds we go.

It still goes on today – we make choices that are convenient for us, choices that make life easier, for us. When looking for guidance, we too often listen to the voices we want to hear, voices suggesting that our lives can be made better by making choices that are easy – choices with only pleasurable consequences.

But our lives were given to us for something more than our own self-gratification, and lives entrusted to us as parents and caregivers are gifts given by a Creator who doesn’t answer to us. These gifts carry the responsibilities of care, love, and respect.

The gifts of life we receive, in all their forms, aren’t gifts to be returned.


References:

National Catholic Bio-ethics Center http://www.ncbcenter.org/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3628894/

“Children of Choice – Freedom and the new Reproductive Technologies”, John Robertson, Princeton University Press

http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/the-chosen-ones-australias-shrinking-number-of-down-syndrome-kids/story-fnet08ui-1226598360762

http://www.livescience.com/44087-designer-babies-ethics.html

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/before-sin

http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/eutanasiaeuthanasiaeutanasia-medici-doctors-medico-37516/

http://ncronline.org/blogs/just-catholic/womans-right-choose

griefGiven my participation in a recent 10K road race and my interest in what was the upcoming marathon in Boston, I was going to try to fill my overdue blog schedule with some clever, witty commentary on running, discipline, and faith.

Then Boston.

You really need to understand your relationship with God in order to hold onto your faith during recent events.

Many will ask how a God of love can allow random acts of violence to snuff out the light of life from the the young, the faithful, the innocent? How can God allow the visiting of such terror on His people? How can we teach that every life is precious, that every life deserves a chance for being, and accept that our God can allow this same life to be taken in an instant of blind indifference to its value?

There will certainly be some who refer to Old Testament passages that equate horrible happenings with a punishment that is designed to make us better ‘children’. But thinking, feeling people of faith know there is a difference between discipline and evil – and Boston, Newtown, Twin Towers and Oklahoma City were acts of evil.

To be sure, hundreds, maybe thousands of commentaries will be written that speak to God’s presence among the first responders. And these commentaries and testimonies will give some comfort.

But there are families whose lives have been lost, or whose futures will never be the same. Who can deny them from asking, ‘why does God let evil happen?’

The only way that I can come to understand the place of random violence in God’s world is to understand the difference between what I learned as a child, that God makes all things, to my current view of a God that makes all things possible.

As of this writing, we don’t know the reason two young men chose to spray shrapnel amidst hundreds of innocent people. But whatever reason is given, it won’t be good enough – the explanations, whatever they are,  never really allow most of us to comprehend the rationale for bombings, murder, rape, and other  senseless acts of violence.

But there is a common thread that connects these acts – somewhere in the hearts of these aggressors occurs a need to destroy, to tear apart communities in settings that to most persons, symbolize the normal pulse of life. The aggressors choose death and destruction. And yes, God does make it possible for men and women to choose to do that.

It is that freedom to choose that is at the heart of the Christian experience. Forcing love and obedience doesn’t work with God. As C.S. Lewis writes:

“If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

But while we may explain why God allows evil to exist, we still find ourselves confounded to explain how people can make the unthinkable choice to commit acts that are so obviously cruel.

The explanations will make themselves readily apparent after the fact – and maybe the root causes of evil have always been around and are unchanging – a feeling of being disenfranchised or wronged, or maybe  a warped view of self-importance as some instrument of political action. Some act of their own volition, some allow themselves to be used by others who will hide in the shadows once consequences come to light. And in many cases, the agents of evil carry a sense that their interests are more important than the dignity of their victims’ lives.

But if the nature of evil is unchanging, our modern information age makes possible the distribution of ideas and tools that make possible carnage of an unprecedented degree. I am not confident that we will be able to legislate or regulate a way to prevent such evil from always being a heartbeat away.

Then what is the Catholic to do?

Jesus knew evil. His human ministry was characterized not by efforts to prevent evil, but by acts to comfort its victims (“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”). He even allowed the prophecies to run their course and did not try to prevent the evil that delivered unimaginable personal suffering. His way was not to avoid evil, but to confront it with forgiveness. And when the dust settled, when all seemed lost, He returned to his frightened followers, young men and women who probably found themselves in the depths of despair, walked among them, and said “peace be with you.”

Maybe as Catholics, we just have to accept that despite our best efforts, there are those among us who will continue to make unthinkable choices. And as Catholics, our response cannot be limited to outrage and shock, but must turn to comforting, helping, and ministering to the victims of violence wherever we find them – from Boylston Street in Boston, to those suffering in our own cities, neighborhoods, and families.

God makes all things possible.

And that includes healing the deepest wounds.

Prayers to you, Boston.

_____________________________

References:

C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

Child Protection in Families Experiencing Domestic Violence (Chapter 3) US Department of Health and Human Services: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/domesticviolence/domesticviolencec.cfm

Matthew 5: 3-12

There has been a great of ‘conscience airing’ in the press over the past several months.

The controversy over the government requirement that insurers cover contraceptive services ignited a firestorm between those outraged over the intrusion of government into the affairs of religious institutions, and others (similarly outraged) over the intrusion of religious organizations into policy issues of public health.

One side argues in favor of religious conscience as the right to resist an imposed availability of services (that are contrary to church teaching) to employees of religiously affiliated institutions. The stand re-opens some old wounds regarding the church’s staunch opposition to any form of contraception (except natural family planning). The opposing view argues equally vehemently that family planning is a matter of ‘family conscience’.

This role of conscience goes far beyond the latest turmoil involving health insurance. Today’s church has been, and still is embroiled in a number of significant conflicts of conscience – not only at the friction points with secular society, but also within the flock of the faithful.

  • Approximately 300 priests in Austria have initiated a “Call to Disobedience” as part of a petition for church reform calling for, among other things, the ability for women to preach, ordination of married men and women. The call contends “the priests felt forced to follow their consciences for the good  of the church”.
  • Writings in CaltholicCulture.org argue that if a Catholic feels compelled to assist an illegal immigrant in a tangible way “his conscience should be free to do so.”
  • Some ultra-conservative Catholics strongly argue (“in conscience”), that the Norvus Ordo liturgy (Mass offered in the vernacular) is offensive to true Catholics and ought not to be celebrated by the (truly) faithful.
    Who am I listening to?

    Listening to the right voice?

So there is apparently enough conscience to go around for folks from all different political, cultural, and theological spectra. (Decisions sure would be simpler if those people from the wrong side of the argument would just stand up and proclaim a lack of conscience behind their view. Don’t think that will happen.)

But enough about other people. What I want to know is, when I have a strong feeling about some issue with my government, community, or church – how do I know I am listening to well-founded conscience, or to a voice from a darker place?

The Catholic Church’s advice on following conscience is pretty clear – rely on scripture and church teaching as the framework for knowing the difference between right and wrong.The Catholic Catechism is also specific (sort of) about the role of conscience. Some observations seem to emphasize reason, others highlight the importance of church teaching. There are nearly 30 points of discussion about conscience – but since I’d like to finish this article this month, I’ll summarize and try to faithfully highlight some of its key points verbatim:

  • Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.
  • The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings
  • A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.
  • Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching…. these can be the source of errors of judgment

Since I’m an executive summary kind of guy, it looks like our conscience is a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of an act. We build a framework for that judgment through our faith and what our church teaches us.

But while the guidelines seem clear, acting out of conscience still can be pretty difficult, especially when one is moved to act against the will of the majority or the teachings from an authority. That last reference from the catechism suggests that bad judgment can come from ‘rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching’.

But history tells us that truly courageous acts of conscience have always gone against some traditional authority. Whether we are talking about civil rights or colonial revolution, some of the most heroic acts of our existence have started out of disregard for authority. Likewise, some of our darkest moments of history have carried the day when authorities were considered unerring and their directives followed without question.

So all this back and forth predictably leaves my question unanswered. When I see what I perceive is a wrong being done, how do I know my conscience is pointing me to serve the greater good, or to serve me?

I often cringe at many of the catechism’s writings that often make the Book of Revelation feel like light reading, so imagine my surprise when, in the midst of its pages on conscience, I scrolled to this paragraph that gave me pause:

“Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn.”

I knew that.

I mean…the part that mentions the authority of truth and the supreme Good. In my heart, in our hearts, we can all sense when our choices show deference to this ‘authority of truth’. I even think I know a test I can apply to decide if my conscience is listening to the ‘angel’ or the ‘devil’ on my shoulders.

The next time I feel that my conscience is moving me to speak in protest against a perceived wrong or to act in support of rules that may seem inconvenient, I need to do the following:

  1. Express my opinion and the reasons why I hold them aloud (when my wife isn’t around). There is something about verbalizing feelings that forces one to identify the most important elements of an argument. If I find myself stammering and talking in circles, I will either assume it’s the effect of aging, or my conscience telling me to find something more important to talk about.
  2. Say (aloud) exactly how my stand takes the community, the government, (the church?) closer to the supreme Good. If the words don’t sound right, well, there’s probably a reason for that.
  3. Finally, if I take a stand, I have to ask, who would be helped? Who would be hurt? An honest answer to this question can help shine a bright light on the consequences of my choice.

I’m pretty certain that after I perform these three steps in considering an important act of conscience, and I listen to the words I use to explain myself, I am certain that the ‘Supreme Good to which the human person is drawn’ will either energize me, or guide me to wait for a different, more important battle yet to come.

So the next time I confront a crisis of conscience, I’ll try this recipe and let you know how it all works out.

And maybe I won’t throw the catechism away after all.

Next Month – Can’t We All Just Get Along?


References and resources:

http://catholicreview.org/article/life/marriage/austrian-cardinal-continues-dialogue-with-priests-calling-for-reforms

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html (Reference sections 54-64 on conscience)
http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=7658

http://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/Sacraments/Mass-why-the-Traditional.htm

http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm