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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 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: (Reference sections 54-64 on conscience)


I am a Cafeteria Catholic.

There.  I’ve  said it.

I selectively accept my Church’s teachings, accepting almost all of the 2,861 paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But there are a few points of doctrine that just don’t smell right, and as a result, I choose not to partake. Technically, that makes me a Cafeteria Catholic.

First – a more formal definition.

A Cafeteria Catholic is a generally dismissive term applied to folks who appear to ‘pick and choose’ the elements of Church teaching that apply to one’s personal situation – turning aside teachings and doctrine that are either disagreeable or inconvenient while accepting views that are consistent with one’s own world-view. It is generally accepted that the term Cafeteria Catholic came into widespread use after Vatican Council II in the mid 1960’s, when some interpretations of the Council’s writings led to reforms and changes that digressed from conventional views. As new ideas vied for the soul of the Church and some new views replaced the old perspectives, it became commonplace to infer that some folks were selecting only the parts of Catholicism that were easy to believe while turning aside the teachings that challenge us.

I admit, if the definition is valid, saying I’m a Cafeteria Catholic makes me feel a bit shallow. But it shouldn’t be a sin to ask questions, and the kitchen staff shouldn’t glare at me when I point to something and ask ‘what’s in this?’

And even a Cafeteria Catholic can speak when he fears for the health of his Church when something in the fridge starts to smell bad.

The 2008 Pew Forum Report on Religion in America identifies the Catholic Church as the Christian denomination that suffered the largest net loss due to changes in affiliation (people leaving the Church for another – or no tradition). Some 31% of Americans were raised Catholic but 24% of American adults identify themselves as Catholic, a net loss of 7.5%. The numbers regarding the raw size of the Church would be far worse if it weren’t for Her strong showing among immigrants.

While the number of candidates for priesthood is slightly rising (about 0.5%), the growth of the Church in absolute numbers (thanks again to immigration trends) is stressing the Church’s ability to shepherd Her flock.

And of course, I continue to cringe every time another charge of sexual abuse makes its way into the media, wondering who on earth was watching these men all these years?

For all the problems of the Church, I don’t see a recovering vibrant resurgence in (what I see) as the Church’s shift to the right – restatement of doctrines that dismiss the role of family conscience, policies that seem to substitute ruling for leading, recent trends to re-emphasize elements of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass and other efforts that lead the Church to look at the world as She did in the good old days – say 1570 or so. (Any other Catholics scratching their heads over that line ‘consubstantial with the Father’?)

I am concerned over hints at a revisionist view that the Vatican Council II was an unfortunate concession to modernity that caused the decline of the Church in Western nations, an accident that needs repairing.

I believed in VC-II’s message, I stayed, rather than strayed, because of how the Liturgy became something that connected with me. The Church’s ‘liberal’ views made me more aware and sensitive to the global house in which God works. The examples the Church set during the following years, particularly in confronting real evil in Central America and Eastern Europe, are true testaments to Christ’s work on this earth. And on a personal level, VC-II enlightened me to believe in a God that wasn’t as much interested in damning me as in loving and wanting me for who I am.

For some reason, a few folks on the kitchen staff want to pull this serving from the menu.

I have chosen to write this blog with one intention – to drive respectful dialog and lay the foundation for meaningful changes (or reinforcement of Christ-centered doctrines) that allow the Catholic Church to be the tradition of choice for all peoples, cultures, and backgrounds – including those from industrialized, highly democratized nations (the last category of which, for some reason, is a problem for the Church).

I am NOT an anti-church guy. The Pope’s clarity in calling attention to the evils of uncontrolled capitalism, his clear language on the morally doomed nature of the illegal drug industry, and the honestly good work done by millions of the faithful lay makes a real difference in this world.

And I also recognize that there are some who feel that everyone would be better off if I (and folks like me) just pack up and leave – go find some other tradition that ‘fits my needs.’

I don’t think I’ll do that.

I was born Catholic, raised in a Catholic family, attended Catholic elementary school and high school. I completed my graduate degree at a Catholic College. I was raised during the initial years following Vatican Council II and taught that Christ’s love was, and always will be the light for my life’s path, even while I sometimes wandered into darkness.

I was taught to question, to search, and to always seek the better answer to life’s important questions. That lesson was taught to me by Catholic educators and Catholic pastors who, through the grace of God, managed to keep me in the flock.

No, I deserve a place at the Catholic table as much as anyone else. I will not be one of the millions of Catholic-born faithful who choose to leave the Church. Leaving would be the easiest, ‘most convenient’ thing for me to do.  I choose not to do that.

I’m a Cafeteria Catholic. I embrace the main course of belief in the Creed (once I figure out what ‘consubstantial means’), the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, and sanctity of the sacraments. I will even pick some things that I know are good for me, even if I may not ‘like’ donating to the poor and confessing my sins to a stranger.

But there is a reason why some selections along this serving line have been lying under the warming lamp way too long. In future writings, I’ll be chatting about those unwanted items that look like they’ve been around since the last Woolworth cafeteria closed. And when I see something being removed from the menu, something that made me a stronger, better Catholic, I insist on asking ‘where you going with that?’

The Church has nourished and sustained me all my life. It has made me what I am and I want desperately for Her to thrive. But the Church is made of humans who sometimes don’t do their best (anyone watching Food Network Challenge knows even the best chefs sometime screw up). Just because this cafeteria staff doesn’t really need to care about ‘market forces’ (it is a bit hierarchical), doesn’t mean it should dismiss leftovers solely as the result of choices by customers who aren’t good enough.

I’m a Cafeteria Catholic.

I’m not leaving the serving line.

And I want to talk to the management.

Next Month – Conscience  and Faith.

Sources and resources: