Formation of Conscience, Step Two: “Be an Adult”

Vatican PopeOne thought has remained with me from the first reading of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia: this is an ADULT document.  It is written by a mature adult man who is comfortable in his own relationship with God and with other people, able to see things both as they are and as they could be.  Through the lens of his own life’s experience he recognizes his own weaknesses and failures and owns his own need for God’s forgiveness and the help of others to get through any given day.  This mature adult man has written a document that presumes his readership is similarly disposed.  He writes directly, explicitly, and knowledgeably about the human condition, the role of the Church, and the relationship of the two.  It is, in short, a text written by an adult for other adults.  As Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago observed in his press conference on the release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis is calling us all to “an adult spirituality.”

What does an “adult spirituality” look like?  I ask this in connection with these short reflections on the formation of conscience, because I think it lies at the heart of the matter.

simple balanced cropped-500x500First, I think an adult spirituality is balanced, reasonable and well-integrated.  An adult point of view, it seems to me, is found when a person has learned — usually through hard experience — to steer a course between extremes.  Consider one simple example.  Some people seem naturally disposed to see everything through a negative lens: nothing can ever be done right, some people can just never say anything that is not immediately criticized, and no one can really be trusted.  I suppose if one crept along this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the home of cynicism.  On the other hand, some people are just as disposed to see everything in a positive light: they see the good in what others do and say, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Following this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the land of rose-colored glasses.  However, the wisdom of maturity would generally find, along  with Aristotle, the “golden mean”or, as the ancient Latin has it, “In medio stat virtus“: virtue stands in the middle.  Applying this to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia: consider some of the online responses one finds everywhere: some people were determined to condemn it even before it was promulgated while others were similarly inclined to “canonize” it, also without reading it.  A balanced, reasonable, and well-integrated adult would, of course, read the document and form conclusions both positive and negative.  Amoris Laetitia is not Holy Writ; neither is it from Satan.

respect-honesty-ethics-integrity-street-sign-photo-846x634Second, an adult spirituality is honest with one’s self and with others, especially about one’s own limitations.  When confronting challenges, an adult comes to know that there are limits to his or her abilities: intellectual, affective, and physical.  They come to accept that we all need assistance in a variety of ways.  In recognizing their own limitations, the mature adult tends to be more understanding of the limitations of others.  This is a key theme of Amoris Laetitia.  All are weak in various ways and we acknowledge and work within that weakness; we do not demand that a person first become strong before we work with them.  God’s grace and mercy is necessary for all and, as the Holy Father stresses, “true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” (AL 296)  A person does not have to “prove” or “earn” our mercy any more than we have deserved God’s mercy in our own lives.  Mature adults understand that.

keep-calm-because-stuff-happensThird, an adult spirituality acknowledges the contingencies of life.  In the sections of Amoris Laetitia which address the specifics of marriage and family life, the Holy Father shows a remarkable understanding of  how hard most people struggle with the uncertainties of life: holding a job that can support one’s family, dealing with fatigue and failure, the pressures of being a single parent and on and on.  Most people come to understand that the vast majority of folks are simply trying to do the absolute best they can despite whatever challenges they face.  Others may come to different decisions than we might, but there is a presumption based on experience that most people are trying to do their best.  However, here we find some tension again between those who have a more positive perspective on human nature and those who are more negative, and would never presume that other people would do their best!  Pope Francis recognizes this difference of perspective when he writes,

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.  But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

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Christ at Dachau

Fourth, an adult spirituality finds God’s presence in all aspects of life.  Experience teaches a person of faith that God is active and present even when a person feels alone, abandoned, or powerless.  There is a sense of tranquility that comes to a person, even in the midst of suffering, which communicates God’s “accompaniment” (to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite expressions) on that journey.  Just as God never abandons us, we are not to abandon others in their own need.  The Holy Father spends considerable time in AL reminding us that not only should those who are divorced or in irregular unions are not to feel themselves cut off completely from the church, nor are we to adopt practices and attitudes which convey or support such a feeling of isolation and excommunication.  Simply put, God never abandons us, and we cannot abandon others.

 

Fifth, an adult spirituality deals with the real, not the hypothetical.  Hypothetical situations abound, but we generally have to deal with one situation at a time, resolve it as best we can, and move on to the next.  While a certain amount of hypothesizing happens with all of us as we try to plan for the future, but in general, we take one very real circumstance on at a time.  I keep thinking of St. John XXIII’s famous passage in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims to the thousands of assembled bishops:

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        In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.  In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

In much of the criticism of Pope Francis and this Exhortation, one detects the same voice of the “prophets of gloom” which St. John XXIII mentions.  I think Pope Francis would agree wholeheartedly with his sainted predecessor that it is still God who is in charge and still “leading us to a new order of human relations” which goes far beyond our poor human attempt to understand fully.  Like those earlier critics of the Council, much hand wringing is taking place about “what ifs”: “What if” a pastor just looks for a loophole to let divorced and remarried people back to Communion?  “What if” a person doesn’t form their conscience as rigorously as they should?  “What if” people abuse this teaching and simply ignore the longstanding teaching of the church?  “What if,” indeed.  Realistically, will such things happen?  Of course they will, and no mature adult would deny that possibility.  On the other hand, shouldn’t we adopt a position that we will deal with those situations as they occur, if they occur, and when they occur?  In the meantime, as John did with the Council, let’s move forward. “Siempre Adelante!” as Pope Francis challenged us during his homily in Washington, DC.

So, in forming our consciences, we do so as mature adults, striving as best we can and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will for our lives.

 

 

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Formation of Conscience, Step One: “Mind Your Own Business!”

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(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis never ceases to challenge us across a spectrum of issues.  How we treat the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, even nature itself are all matters of grave moral concern.  He reminds us that we best confront these issues through our encounters with one person at a time, by being the hands of God’s own mercy.

Pope Francis bases his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) on several fundamental principles, which I hope to examine in future blog posts.  Here, however, we consider briefly perhaps the most fundamental: the matter of the individual moral conscience. The expectation of the Church, well expressed by the Holy Father, is that we confront life’s challenges in a morally responsible and mature way.  More about that in a moment, but first, what do we teach about the conscience?

76_2731812The core of the Church’s teaching on conscience is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (GS), 16:

In the depths of conscience, a person detects a law which he does not give to himself, but which he must obey. Always summoning the person to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For the person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.

VaticanIIOne thing many observers forget, however, is that we are bound to follow our conscience, even if that means we are responsible for errors we make!  GS 16 continues:

The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

So, in summary: we must make every attempt to properly form our consciences, but we are bound to follow our conscience even if later that judgment is found to be in error.  Saying that something is “in accordance with my conscience” does not mean that it is necessarily accurate or correct or infallible.  It means that we take adult responsibility both for the formation of conscience and our actions taken in response to it.

With this as context (read more about the moral conscience  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), we return to Amoris Laetitia.  In AL 37, the pope writes:

Pray-for-one-AnotherWe have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

So we arrive at the first point I want to make about the conscience.  The conscience is subjective: it belongs to each, individual, human subject.  While other persons: family, friends, pastors, bishops, deacons, religious, catechists, scientists and teachers may assist me in the formation of my conscience, ultimately, as Vatican II teaches, I am alone with God in my conscience.  Someone else’s conscience cannot serve as — or replace — my own conscience.

Therefore, my first reflection on the formation of conscience is simple: “Mind your (my) own business”!  Consider the following scenario:

SCENARIO:

At Mass, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  John and Jane Doe, longtime parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Anytown, USA, join the communion procession, approach Deacon James Jones and receive Communion.

REACTION #1:

Mrs. Smith approaches Deacon Jones after Mass.  “I’m scandalized, Deacon, that you gave Communion to those two!  You know as well as I do that they’re divorced and re-married outside the Church!  How dare you violate the Church’s law?”

REACTION #2:

After Mrs. Smith storms off, Dr. Baker heads over to the deacon. “What the hell is going on, Deacon?  Those two people haven’t received Communion in years.  Yes, I know they’re very active here, but they used to respect our church’s laws.  Now, this?  You know they’re divorced and all, Deacon, and you gave them Communion anyway!  The bishop’s going to hear about this.”

xelr0ija02tp7fwysm351br5fol_largeThe weekend after AL was presented to the world, a friend presented me just that scenario.  “What would happen if a divorced and remarried couple, who had refrained from receiving communion for many years, began receiving communion again?  That would be a terrible scandal, and the pope says we are to avoid scandal!”  What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion?  This process of conscience formation, which as the pope reminds us, is not done with a view to sidestepping the law.  However, it is done with due consideration of unique aspects of their own past experiences and current responsibilities for their children and so on.  And, they each reach a decision point in conscience.  And, “according to it [each of them] will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”

BOTTOM LINE: If a person winds up receiving Holy Communion unworthily, the responsibility for doing so rests with that individual, and no one else.  We do not force our own conscience on someone else.  “We are called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

So, consider a third possible reaction:

REACTION #3:

Mr. and Mrs. Williams approach the Deacon after Mass, beaming with joy.  “It was so wonderful to see Jane and John receiving Communion this morning!”

FOR REFLECTION

  1. How do we assist others in the formation of conscience?  Do we get to a point where we “let go” and let them arrive at their own decision in conscience?
  2. When we see someone acting in a particular way, do we presume that they are acting in good faith, or bad faith?  Notice in the first two reactions above: the presumption was being made that John and Jane were acting “in bad faith” and flaunting their “irregular” situation.  In reaction #3, however, the presumption was that they were acting “in good faith.”
  3. At what point do I have simply have to mind my own business concerning others?

Consider St. Paul’s advice to the Romans (14:1-14)(emphasis added):

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.