Forming a moral conscience

There is a current NY Times article about the “Vatican” and “bishops” being out of touch with the people of the United States.  My Franciscan brother, Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, has an insightful article over at his blog about what he finds truly significant about the poll.  Take a read. Interestingly, he touches on two points that are always close to my thoughts: (a) people and the formation of a moral conscience, and (b) US Catholics are really a very small percent of the whole-wide Catholic Church.

As a parish priest I suspect a part of my every day is spent in addressing questions from parishioners and visitors about questions that reside in the moral realm of life. If you think about it, a far greater percent of our daily decisions are there, but we don’t often think about them that way. And that may be because we have already formed our conscience on the matter, or we haven’t thought about it, or we are just too busy. What I have begun to suspect is that people are less clear about the distinctions between an “opinion,” a “conscience,” and a “formed conscience.”  It is the latter that the Church hopes to imbue in each one of the faithful – see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1783-1785:

1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. 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. 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.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Do we take the time to “educate our conscience” with the Word of God, prayer, petitions to the Holy Spirit for Wisdom, talking to someone in our faith community who might have wisdom on the subject, to someone who might hold a position in contradistinction from the Church, and do we listen and plumb “the authoritative teaching of the Church.”  All of those things go into the stew of our contemplation and pondering.  And then simmer for a while.  And a while longer.

In the betwix-and-between of all this considering, the Church would ask you to follow its teaching while you form your conscience. But in the end, one makes a decision based on the formed conscience as best as one can. From the Catechism:

1790  A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [formed] conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

The Catechism goes on to describe the situation if one reaches a conclusion different from the Church at the end of one’s sincere efforts to form one’s conscience – and I would suggest you read those paragraphs on erroneous judgment.  Then again consider the responsibility the church asks of you:  to “obey the certain judgement” of your formed conscience. Weighty stuff.

Where am I going with all this? When I read results like the Pew poll in the NY Times, and see the large percentages of US Catholics who want social and theological change in the church’s teachings, I wonder. I wonder if my pastoral experience is translatable to a larger audience. I wonder if we Catholics know more than the one sentence teaching from the Church, e.g., artificial contraception – “don’t.”  Do we know the values the Church holds up for our moral consideration, or the measure by which the authoritative teaching of the church tries to consider the weighing of good and yet competing values. Because if we don’t – or haven’t tried to enter into the tough stuff of moral deliberation – how is it that we can claim we are obeying “certain judgment” of our formed conscience?

And lastly, do we as American Catholics consider the sensus fideum coming from other parts of the Catholic world if it disagrees with our own sense of the faith? The larger part of the Body of Christ lives elsewhere. Do we allow their voices to form our consciences?

That’s enough for today…. time to pray.

2 thoughts on “Forming a moral conscience

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