Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Starting the New Year with a good conscience

Sunday, January 2, 2011

In a recently published lengthy interview with a German journalist, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the sexual abuse of minors by some priests and asked himself a question not often considered in public discussion: How could men trained theologically and spiritually to serve the Lord in his people have committed this crime? He was not reflecting on the weakness of our sinful nature, which is common to all. In that general perspective, anyone of us is capable of any sin. Instead, he was asking how someone with a priestly vocation, whose conscience was formed according to the instructions of the church and the demands of moral living, could have done this terrible deed.

The pope’s question leads to reflection on the nature of conscience. Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action. Sometimes moral conscience is mistakenly related to matters of faith. People will assert that they have a right to believe what their “conscience” tells them. But faith is an assent to a truth revealed by God; judging what to believe involves deciding whether or not something is true. By contrast, judging what to do involves deciding whether or not an action is good. Judgments of conscience are about what is to be done in particular circumstances in order to do good and to avoid evil. People with no faith at all still have a moral conscience; they make judgments about what is an appropriate course to follow.

Since conscience is a judgment, it responds to rational argument. There are moral principles that shape a good conscience, and these often differ from a person’s particular inclinations. One cannot simply assert that an inclination to have sex means that one can sleep with a neighbor’s wife or abuse a child, as long as one is “at peace” with one’s personal conscience. Conscience is an interior “voice” that must be followed practically, but it cannot guarantee that a particular action is morally correct. Judging an action to be good doesn’t make it good. The primacy of subjective conscience in moral behavior does not guarantee that conscience has chosen correctly. Where, then, do the moral laws that shape a good conscience come from?

Positive law, the work of legislators, guides our actions. But positive laws can be morally wrong. Everything done in Nazi Germany was done according to the positive law of that nation. Our own law books carry dictates that were passed because some group had enough political power to get legislators to respond to their demands, whether or not the demand was morally correct. Positive laws carry with them punishments by the state if one breaks them, and that is usually enough to guarantee compliance, even to activities that are legal but immoral. What laws permit or command often shapes the moral conscience of citizens so that entire nations can consent to moral crimes; but evil acts, even when legal, lead to personal and social destruction. History is full of examples, and not only in dictatorships.

If civil positive law gives no guarantee to moral correctness, what other laws are there? For believers, there is divine positive law, commands given by God. Jesus said that if we loved him we would keep his commandments, and he commanded us to love one another as he loves us (Jn 15:12). Most of God’s “commands” in Scripture are general enough that they demand moral reasoning on our part in order to apply them. For example, how does a soldier love his enemy, as Christ commands, when his commanding officer has told him to kill him? This situation calls for principles to help determine the morality of a particular action in these particular circumstances.

Since we are made in God’s image and likeness, there is in the human heart a sense of morality that reflects what God wants. Because of our own ability to deceive ourselves, however, Christ has given us the church to help us with the moral reasoning that tells us more specifically what to do and what to avoid. The church’s moral principles are based upon the natural moral law and the demands of Christ’s Gospel. They carry authority as principles, but their application is often a subject for discussion between a Catholic and his or her pastor, confessor or spiritual counselor. Although actions are individual, morality is communal; otherwise each of us would belong to a church of one. That is the logical conclusion to the claim that personal autonomy means one can do whatever one’s “conscience” decides. A bad conscience, a false conscience, destroys freedom by enslaving individuals in their sin.

Making New Year’s resolutions is one way of forming one’s conscience. Why do I resolve to change my behavior? Because what I’ve been doing isn’t good for me and others. How do I decide what changes to make in my activities? Listen to the inner voice that calls us to do good and avoid evil and to the church’s moral teaching that helps spell out what is good and what is evil in practical terms. Then pray for strength from God to change your activities. That will make 2011 a genuinely new year.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago