Forming our conscience

Last week I wrote about Catholic men’s movements in the United States during the last 10-plus years. “Men also need support from other men and mentors. Catholic conferences, retreats, seminars, and parish groups provide a supportive and prayerful context for the emotional and spiritual support men need, but usually won’t ask for on a personal level. And so, groups of ordinary men of all ages, from every social and ethnic group, who simply want more out of their Catholic faith, are coming together to make it happen.” I then went on to note that our own parish has several groups that support the spiritual life of men: Men’s Prayer Group and the Knights of Columbus.

Over the last several meetings, the Men’s Prayer Group has talked about the need to fully form the conscience on topics that surround and penetrate our lives. Topics that range from the intensely personal, the intensely political, the inevitable practical, and all that lies between. We are such busy people, so pressed for time, that we need to pause and reflect: “on what basis am I thinking about this or about to make a decision regarding this?” There is a great difference between an “opinion,” a “conscience,” and an “informed conscience.” It is the latter that Church asks for and hopes to imbue in each one of the faithful as it beautifully expresses in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1776-1802.

It is a common refrain: the “Vatican” and “bishops” are out of touch with the people of the United States. It rises to the surface whenever the bishops, in their role as teachers of the faith, offer moral guidance. This is when, as a parish priest, I hear the common refrains, “the church needs to stay out of politics,” meaning the offered moral guidance disagrees with your already-held view. Or perhaps, “See! The church finally got it right!” meaning the offered moral guidance agrees with the already-held view. Trust me, all I would have to do is preach about immigration, the death penalty, marriage, cultural diversity, Catholic hospital services, Afghanistan, Israel, and all other matter of things – and only offer the teaching of the Church and the U.S. bishops – and at the end someone will say to me, “I knew you were a Republican.” The next person will say, “I knew you were a Democrat.” Most people are probably too busy to say anything.

Yet the U.S. bishops remind us we are called to bring our full formed moral conscience to the public square: “Americans share many blessings and strengths, including a tradition of religious freedom and political participation. However, as a people, we face serious challenges that are clearly political and also profoundly moral in nature.”

“We are a nation founded on ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ but the right to life itself is not fully protected, especially for unborn children, the most vulnerable members of the American family. We are called to be peacemakers in a nation at war. We are a country pledged to pursue ‘liberty and justice for all,’ but we are too often divided across lines of race, ethnicity, and economic inequality.”

“We are a nation of immigrants, struggling to address the challenges of many new immigrants in our midst. We are a society built on the strength of our families, called to defend marriage and offer moral and economic supports for family life. We are a powerful nation in a violent world, confronting terror and trying to build a safer, more just, more peaceful world. We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty and lack health care and other necessities of life. We are part of a global community facing urgent threats to the environment that must sustain us. These challenges are at the heart of public life and at the center of the pursuit of the common good.”

“As Catholics, we are part of a community with a rich heritage that helps us consider the challenges in public life and contribute to greater justice and peace for all people….The work for justice requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith.”

The formation of one’s conscience is a lifelong task and it includes the act to “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.” All of those things go into the stew of our contemplation.

Note: I am not unaware of the sad irony of this pastor’s column written more than a week ago, appearing in the bulletin/blog in the same week in which the Pennsylvania report on child abuse was released. I will no doubt have some who comment that church leadership has lost its moral compass and has no credibility. I understand. And so I would point you to a fellow Franciscan, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and his statement on the sexual abuse scandal in the Church. Let us pray for this generation of leaders that they will be on the forefront of purifying the Church.

And if you are wondering about the image… St. Catherine of Siena, who was never reticent about calling church leadership to a pure and holy standard.

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