Fr. James F. Keenan, SJ

Conscience and Synod on Youth

October 24, 2018

As I write, a monthlong synod — a church assembly that can be regional or international — is being held to discuss how the church can better accompany young people. 

This synod has cardinals, bishops, priests and laity participating, and among them is Cardinal Cupich, who was personally appointed to the synod by Pope Francis and is moderating one of the English-speaking working groups. 

Reports that came out of the working groups indicated that conscience had emerged as a focal concern of the synod. In fact, it was Cardinal Cupich’s group that asked the synod to make the church’s teaching on conscience more accessible for young people.

This is great news both theologically and pastorally. Theologically, conscience is the center of our moral responsibility. For most of us, our first experience of conscience is when we discover a discomfort within ourselves over something we did or failed to do. We find ourselves blaming ourselves, recognizing that there is within us something that holds us accountable. It is a disquieting discovery.

In time we realize that conscience not only looks back at past failures but ahead, directing us in making choices about relationships, work and most things that matter. As we mature, conscience eventually becomes a moral beacon, illuminating the landscapes of both our past and possible futures.

Surprisingly, one of my mentors, the late Father Klaus Demmer, claimed that the church spends too much time telling us what to do, instructing us on specific matters while ignoring more important, fundamental responsibilities. 

Demmer said that the first moral task for the church is to teach loud and clear, early and often, that we each have a conscience. As we all know, we forget often that we have a conscience until it once again kicks in and wakes us up about something we should have addressed much better than we did. The church should not tire of reminding us that we have a conscience.

The second task is to remind us that we must form and follow our consciences. Clearly, we need to spend our lives humbly learning what constitutes right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice. But we must also obey our consciences as we are forming them.

As Thomas Aquinas teaches, we cannot disobey our consciences without sinning. Think of it: If we go against our conscience, what moral reason could we possibly have for contradicting our moral reason?

The lesson of forming and following our consciences is a lifelong one, and one that the church cannot stop teaching.

Demmer added, then, that if the church has any time left after all its evangelizing on the first two lessons, then it can occasionally turn to the third one and offer particular moral instruction.                      

I think the reports from Rome suggest that the synod is trying to get these theological priorities in order.

For the past five years, Pope Francis has referred to the pastoral work of the church effectively as accompaniment. Accompaniment provides a beautiful image: ministry as a sense of walking with another.

Pastoral work is not so much teaching from the pulpit or from the front of a classroom, it is more an engagement, a listening and a responding, a sharing. The model of pastoral ministry is moving from a teacher to pupil to one among people on a journey, between one pilgrim and another.

Mind you, ministry as accompaniment is not about ministers relinquishing their authority; it is rather recognizing that the other person has competency, too.

Pastorally, accompaniment is only genuine and true if the competency, and therefore the consciences, of both the minister and the laity are respected. On this matter, Pope Francis returns time and again.

If we say someone is accompanying another without respecting her or his conscience, then there is something deeply manipulative and condescending about the accompaniment.

But when we respect the source of another’s moral core, we become humble pilgrims searching for wisdom together, with that light that illuminates our way. Assuredly, such a journey is a very promising one.


  • synod on young people