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?
The 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.
One 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:
We 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:
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.
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?”
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.”
The 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:
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!”
- 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?
- 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.”
- 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):
1 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 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. 4 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.
5 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. 6 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.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 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. 9 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 another. 14 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.