Playing with Fire: Exploring the Proper Role of Conscience in the Christian Life
In our lived experience, the human person is constantly seeking answers to difficult questions and uncovering deeper truths – axioms, moral codes, proverbs – that serve as guideposts for a good life. Experience further demonstrates that, no matter how hard we try, we do not have all the answers we long for all on our own. In the search for truth, both on the communal and individual level, we discover that that we must have a voice of prominent authority to be submitted to; a voice which we must obey.
As Catholic Christians, we know that the revelation of truth does not consist in a majority vote. Morality is not invented in democracy, after all, but emanates from divine revelation found in Scripture and Tradition. In all things, the Christian soul listens for the voice of the Holy Spirit. In humility, we seek to be guided by an authority greater than ourselves. However, on a communal level, when we are questioning the virtuous application of a moral principle because the morality of a proposed action is not known to be inarguably and explicitly definitive, there indeed must be prudential decisions made.
In the objective arena of the Church, these decisions and discernments are made through the Apostles' successors, the bishops, in communion with the Holy Father. Through them the Spirit resides and leads the Church. We adhere to the voice of the Holy Spirit resounding throughout those entrusted with the Episcopacy. When teachings are promulgated, the faithful trust Christ's promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. Because even the church herself has commented on her own bounds of imposing authority, it is important that we understand too the degree to which our assent is expected. A conflict in conscience regarding God’s very existence is quite distinct from one’s questioning the decision of a diocesan marriage tribunal.Still, there are times our own internal voice simply differs from those beliefs to which we have been accustomed. When a discerning conscience arrives at a crossroads in which it must either adhere to the prescribed norm or diverge from it, a sincere heart wants to know if he is truly being led by the Spirit or the self.It is a naive soul that may think they are objective and unbiased in their search for truth.
The human person can rarely be said to have a clearly defined distance from their own interest. Yet how do we know if our momentum in a conviction that is contrary to a norm is authentically the Spirit stirring us to help affect the change of a wayward law or if our objections indicate mere licentiousness?In our soul searching, we often desperately wish God would just make clear the questions we have and the answers we seek so we can just obey and feel safe in an assured right path to salvation.
But heaven is not like this. To grow closer to God requires ongoing, living, breathing attentiveness and being actively receptive to the promptings of the Spirit within us. There are questions and deliberations of conscience we just cannot place under the bushel basket; things that never let us off our internal hook. When faced with a conflict between what our consciences propose and the Church defines, how do we know which voice to listen to?
In as much as we can speculate about the authenticity of our own claiming conscientious objection to Church teaching or discipline, there are a few questions we could ask to discern if our objections to a particular norm is the result of the Spirit leading us to be used as instrument to bring forth authentic change to Christ's body or merely license to dissent for personal motivation.
1. Do we desire a change in everything we object to merely to support our own personal affairs?
2. Would we still believe if the conviction did not support an immediate benefit to our own lives any longer? If the act was of no personal benefit whatsoever would we still defend its rightfulness?
3. Just how many divergences do we have? How many issues can one really have before one crosses the line into almost being completely at odds with a given set of laws? At some point, one passes over from prayerful discernment and questioning into separating oneself from the Body.
4. Am I merely having trouble articulating what I firmly believe or can I not explain it because I have no valid argument to start with? (Just because someone cannot articulate or defend their belief does not discredit the belief itself.)
Without the controversial "conscience clause" we would have a very different faith as we know it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 1790 that “A human being must always obey the certain judgement of his conscience.If he were to deliberately act against it, he would condemn himself.” Before we can come close to feeling justfied in doing so however, we must take a good, long look at how formed or uninformed are we on moral matters.How much prayer, research and counsel have we sought out? Even these things alone cannot save one from the risk of acting outside the norm.Yet, for good or ill, there is something to be said for the importance of valuing the gift of conscience given to us in accord with our Creator’s respect for our free will.
Many saints followed their conscience through the sorrow of anathemas into exile only to be vindicated long after their death. If it were not for a small group of faithful who defended Christ's divinity, under the leadership of Saint Athanasius, it is likely the Church (if it managed to persevere as an entity) would be a mere fan club of some gifted homilist named Jesus.
Perhaps most notably is our recalling that the apostles had no special decree from God, no secret knowledge which told them explicitly that Jesus was God.They had only their faith; their conscience to tell them, for some mysterious reason, they should follow this man anywhere, come what may. History is filled with stories of others who have balanced heroic courage, authentic humility, and obedience to their conscience and who consequently suffered ridicule. We are all deeply in their debt.
All things work for those who truly act with His will utmost in their mind, and because of these heroes our church has rooted out many an evil we wish we could erase from our Christian history.Therefore, it is no little thing to have to consider what our conscience may positing to us.It is a commonly understood refrain that one cannot be condemned for sinning if they are obedient to the church..even if the church ends up later in time to rescind a particular judgement or directive given.One's obedience in doubt is sufficient to absolve them.
However, one definition of hell that sums up, albeit abstractly, the Christian soul's journey in life suggests that hell is "the chosen fate for those rejecting graces and promptings of God to them." And, in times of discernment, I am reminded of how many good changes that could not have come about without the response to a radical call to courageous virtue. I admit it is unsettling in this earthly life to have no one telling you what to do and how to do it to attain salvation.
But if one believes in the Christian testament at all, it is to believe in one certain thing: those souls acting on sincere, good will would never place themselves outside of heaven. As C.S. Lewis encouraged, "It is safe to say that only the pure of heart can see God, for only the pure of heart want to." It is not only safe for one's own soul to obey the church, but good to do so. No saint would simply call for any rebellion for the sake of itself, as this is more worshiping a statue made of salt than it is being a salt for the earth. But sometimes, the letter of a given law undermines the spirit of that law to the point of a ridiculous and ineffective obscurity and sincere discernment must be undertaken.
There is no lack of issues worthy of debate in our own church nor in our culture at large.Whether we are toe-to-toe with our brethren regarding preferences in liturgical worship or the laxity of tribunals hearing annulment petitions to abortion and euthanasia,our conscience serves as something of a window to the Spirit. A misinformed conscience may be like a dirty window, yet it is not our duty to ignore it, rather to cleanse it before we listen again.It is a sixth sense given to be used, developed continually and respected.And though the commission in the very catechism itself behooves us not only to pay attention to our conscience, but to form it rightly with a duty to follow it, this appeal to conscience in gray areas of faith has become a divisive issue in the Body of Christ.Some say our authentic conscience would never prompt an action contrary to what the Magesterial teaching obliges us to, and if it does, this is a sign that our conscience is misinformed, or worse-the prompting of a sinister spirit is at work.Conscientious objection becomes written off as a mantra for those invoking loopholes to excuse sin.Indeed this can very well be true.
While these perennial battles for authenticity abound in the the church, it does remind us that the rule of faith and teachings found in the Catechism itself, encyclicals, and other such authoritative guidance that seek to preserve the objective truths of the faith, do so on a basis unaccompanied and uncompromised by pastoral concerns of application to individual persons.It is critical for the faithful to understand the moral and ecclessial imperatives in this light, lest we run the risk of both undermining both the letter of the law and the spirit of it as well.It is imperative to have faithful pastors who interpret the letter of the law to see that the spirit is best kept without seeking to alter gospel principles.This local and personal synthesis of the faith is best achieved in intimate communication and relationship with our local Bishops,confessors,and advising pastors.
As catholics, we are accustomed to (and rightfully so) look for guidance in the written words of the church when a discerning conscience propels us to do so, and we as laity must especially never neglect the importance of the interpreting of these "rules" by the shepherds given to us by Jesus for this explicit purpose to teach, govern, and sanctify.The objective must be upheld at the same time that the individual remains the priority.
In trying to get to the heart of the matter in our discernment, we must seek to uphold what is ideal without tainting or changing it, in name or otherwise, all the while accepting that we live in an imperfect world that will never reflect in perfect actuality these ideals we strive for and profess.To become saints is not to pose in perfection but to acknowledge we have "missed the mark" when we have,and to also raise awareness of those issues which may not be specified as clearly as could be in church teaching, thereby in themselves having defected from Jesus' true intent in giving them.
Deeper insights into teachings have always been brought about by the Spirit leading one authentically to explore further what was handed to us through divine revelation.Much of the conservatism lauded today is the progressive's success of yesterday.Ongoing, organic development of the revealed,objective directives and principles must be applied to imperfect recipients without compromising either the letter or the spirit of the law.
As a soul in the discernment process, we take all of this into account.
Some say that one plays with fire when risking the soul in any digression of conscience. Indeed, we do play with fire. However, presuming we have taken dutiful pains in praying, silently listening to God, seeking guidance, and forming our conscience to the best of our ability, we really cannot do much more than hope we are playing with the fire that is none other than the Holy Spirit himself.
In our discernment, we would do well to remember the obedience and the courage of one very scared young woman, a Virgin dedicated to the temple who, at the Spirit's direct invitation, indeed played dangerously with "Fire."
Mary’s hearing, seeing, and subsequent “Fiat” to the Archangel Gabriel would be the modern day equivalent to the girl next door having what one would call a “vision” of sorts; an experience unable to be explained by ordinary human logic.This experience was one wherein she was sure that she was to say “Yes” to something that would appear to others to be scandalous.What is more, she had to have enough trust in the fact that what she was hearing was of God to begin with. How many of us have had the same experiences, where we knew we would be chastised or mocked for such a thing that could not be understood by others?
Mary answered that proposal.
She not only was faithful to her promises to the temple, she became the temple..
the sanctuary of our living God.
Let us pray, listening to the Spirit, discerning wisely before the Blessed Sacrament, with the obedience and courage of Mary.If we must play with fire,let us do so employing our faith and our reason. This is the best hope one has in the challenge of discerning the Fire of the Holy Spirit from mere smoke and mirrors.