I’ve been truly blessed to work for over fifteen years for Our Lord and his Church in a number of ways. I’ve served in youth and young adult ministry, religious education, sacramental prep for Confirmation, and as a high school theology teacher and campus minister. In the course of spending my days attempting to educate, motivate, and inspire faith in the people whom I’ve been called to serve, I’ve routinely encountered a particularly troubling obstacle, one that has become a familiar and oftentimes frustrating foe. In a word, it is the misunderstanding and misapplication of conscience which seems to me to be rooted in a fundamental confusion over the nature of freedom. Because this set of linked misunderstandings very often leads to significant (and sometimes severe) problems with the Church’s moral life, I’d like to clear some of this up today if you’ll indulge me!
What freedom is NOT
Freedom seems to be the ground on which many of us stand. We hear the word on the lips of believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, men and women alike. But when we actually take a closer look, we come to find that “freedom” seems to mean radically different things to different people. In my experience, most people seem to think that freedom is synonymous with autonomy. Interestingly enough, “autonomy” has its root in the Greek language and literally means “self-law” or “self-rule.” I think this is very telling, because it seems that the prevailing understanding of freedom in our society is to be completely, entirely without any kind of authority, rules, restrictions, namely anything that may hinder me from doing whatever it is that I want to do.
The problems to which this false view of freedom can lead are seemingly endless. But why is that? What’s really at the core of this misunderstanding of freedom? In short, I would say that when “freedom” becomes your ultimate end, by definition it becomes your God. And when freedom is your God, you are your God. This may sound extreme, but I stand by it because the question must inevitably become: Who is the one seeking, obtaining, and exercising this “freedom” that has become my life’s ultimate pursuit and goal? Me. Plain and simple. I am the center of the universe, and I call the shots in my life. This isn’t actually freedom at all, and in fact it’s a very dangerous place to be. We must never forget that freedom is a wonderful and sacred gift from God, but the gift exists to lead us to the Giver.
What freedom IS
Put simply, the Catholic Church teaches that freedom is “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1731). Freedom reaches its ultimate perfection when it is directed toward its source, God himself. It is thus authentic when it is in accordance with divine law and the natural moral law. Law is not a hindrance, far from it. Law enables us to know with confidence the true nature of things. For example, it is always and everywhere a violation of the natural law to directly kill an innocent human being. It doesn’t matter where I’m from, what cultural norms currently are, or what the end goal is. I must never break this law. If I am truly free, it means that I am living in harmony with the way things really are. Ideally, I discipline myself daily so that I will not only refuse to kill others, but I won’t even want to do such a thing. If I am breaking or desiring to break the natural law I am not free, for as Jesus himself says, “anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
I don’t think anyone could say it better than Pope Saint John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Freedom is immeasurably greater than mere license. It is not so much about being free from something (rules, regulations) as it is being free for something (virtue, harmony with God and neighbor). Referencing language from Sirach 15:14, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world describes freedom in this way: “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). So if this is the true nature of freedom, what about conscience?
What conscience is NOT
How often have you seen a scenario like this happen in the middle of a conversation (or a parish staff or faculty meeting for that matter)? Moral topic X or difficult situation Y comes up. A back-and-forth ensues. Before too long, someone references the Church’s clear and unambiguous teaching on the matter. At this point, some people in the room start to… let’s just say they react vigorously. In a flash, tempers flare, accusations fly, and the more conflict fearing parties are looking for the nearest exit. The arguing parties now at loggerheads (or, God forbid, fisticuffs), it’s high time that someone make a vague appeal to “just follow our consciences.” Sound familiar? I’ve seen it many times.
Conscience is regularly misunderstood and misrepresented, even by leaders in the Church on occasion. This is only a surprise for those who forget that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). For many people I’ve encountered over the years, it seems that conscience is basically like a “get out of jail for free” card. The mere concept of objective good is oftentimes cast aside and objectively evil actions are dismissed with a casual wave of the hand. “God will understand,” some say. I agree. He understands far better than we do what our actions are doing to us and to others. Truth never changes, for the person who said “I am the truth” is also “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (see John 14:6 and Hebrews 13:8). At the end of the day, no matter how much I may wish it were otherwise, Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s words are true: “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”
What conscience IS
Conscience, like freedom, is so much more than what it’s often presented to be. It is, in the words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” We are required to follow our consciences because we are obliged to follow what we know to be right and just. Gaudium et Spes 16 elaborates beautifully in this passage:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.
There could not be a more elevated view of authentic conscience. But notice, there is no notion here of conscience being absolutely perfect or infallible. Far from it, because I am still the voluntary agent who must choose according to my conscience. So what am I choosing? We’ve all been there. I consider doing something. The moment I do, something stirs in the core of my being. I know it’s wrong to do that thing. Excellent! In the words of the Catechism, my conscience has just “perceived and recognized the prescriptions of the divine law” (CCC 1778). End of story, right? WRONG! I still want to do it! But it’s wrong. So what? I want to do it anyway!
The truth is that the more we sin, the more we harm our consciences. We can choose to ignore them or to pursue courses of action that will confuse and distort the calibration of this God-given compass. So how can we hope to have consciences that won’t lead us astray? We must form them! I have a responsibility before God to make good use of the intellect and will that he gave me. Furthermore, I have a responsibility to utilize my freedom to pursue habits and relationships that will help me to ensure that my conscience is increasingly aligned with the divine and natural laws. This education in virtue is a lifelong endeavor, and it is the path to ensuring that my conscience is leading me to the true and authentically good.
To conclude, we must remember that none of this can be done without God’s grace and merciful love. We are sinners, and we are thus fallible – prone to erroneous judgments carried out with sincerity, but sincerely faulty reasoning. We must form our consciences in the light of the Cross of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must prayerfully ask God each day to help us grow closer to him. Only in this way will we be able to know and live in true freedom: the freedom for excellence, the freedom of the Son of God, the freedom to see ever more clearly what is truly good and to choose it every time.