By Fr Anthony Le Duc SVD
Diversity is an undeniable fact about humanity. Diversity exists in gender, age, culture, religion, social and economic class, and a host of other things that make one person’s life different from that of another. Looking at how there are so many differences that exist among individuals and cultures in the world, one might conclude that there cannot be any unifying factor that connects everyone. Although it might seem that way, in fact, all people no matter what age or ethnicity do share at least this thing in common—everyone is endowed with a conscience.
The Lenten Season is a good time to reflect on what it means to have a conscience. Of course, Catholics are asked to make a thorough examination of conscience every time we receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Indeed, we are encouraged to examine our conscience every night before we lay down to rest. But it is not just Catholics who speak about conscience. People of other religious traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism also give great importance to the conscience. People of no religion, including atheists also claim that they have the moral sense which is characteristic of a conscience. Pope Francis does not dispute the atheist claim to a conscience. In an interview, Pope Francis encouraged those who did not believe in God to “abide by their own conscience”. The Holy Father said, “There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one's conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one's mind about what is good and evil".
When people act according to a well-formed conscience, oftentimes they end up doing God’s will even if they do not themselves believe in or know about the existence of God. St Paul made this observation in relation to Jewish Christians who knew well about God and God’s laws, but were just as likely to transgress them while Gentiles believed in idols, but often acted honorably. According to Paul, Gentiles who acted morally did so because they followed the law that was written on their hearts, in other words, their conscience (Romans 2:14-15). God’s law written on the heart, as Thomas Aquinas and other theologians would point out, was the law to do good and avoid evil. It is up to the conscience to implement this law in the concrete every day matters that affect one’s life and the lives of others. Our conscience can serve as both witness and judge as to whether we have transgressed the law or carried it out faithfully in the decisions that we make. A healthy conscience will be able to confirm to us whether we should feel peace or guilt and discomfort after having made particular choices or undertaken certain actions. In Paul’s letters to early Christians, he often claimed that he had a clear conscience because he tried to do everything in accordance with the will of God.
Unfortunately, in certain individuals the conscience can malfunction and can even stop working all together. In the Old Testament, a person with a faulty conscience would be described in terms of having a stubborn heart, or being hard of heart. Those who did not act in accordance to the law of love were said to have hearts of stone and not of flesh. The heart no longer serves as the seat of tenderness when it is indifferent to sin, oblivious to the pains and suffering of others, and ungracious to God’s offer to be a part of one’s life.
It is when the conscience becomes so hard that people are able to make decisions that are simply unconscionable. Recent mass shootings by white supremacists in the synagogue in the United States and in mosques in New Zealand represent the extreme of the unconscionable. But we do not need to cite such exceptional cases. There are many things that point to the widespread hardness of human heart—the ongoing disrespect for life of the unborn in all stages, rejection of migrants, sexual abuse of minors by those in positions of trust, indifference to the poor and the oppressed, degradation of the ecology, and the perpetuation of misinformation that sow inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife and division rather than harmony and collaboration.
The current state of the world was already observed by Pope Pius XII in his 1946 Radio Message to the Participants in the National Catechetical Congress of the United States with his prophetic word: “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” It is this sense of sin, the understanding of right and wrong, and the ability of our conscience to deliberate on the law of God written in our heart and accurately serve as witness and judge to our actions that we must revive and recover in our lives. As Catholics, we have the privilege to form our conscience not simply based on “instinct,” but based on numerous resources that are available to us—the Gospels, the Church’s tradition and magisterium, and the examples of countless saints who show us how to successfully overcome the challenges of making difficult life choices. We also have the Christian community whom we can come to for any matter in our life. The Scriptures tell us to “take counsel from every wise person and don’t despise useful advice” (Tobit 4:18). Listening to others helps to keep us humble and open in our effort of seeking the truth. With all these available resources, there is no reason why we would fall into the danger of developing an individualistic morality with a potentially unchecked conscience.
Among the many resources that help each of us to form our conscience—to maintain a tender and responsive heart— are the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation. As we journey through this Lenten season, each of us is asked to make a good examination of conscience and confession. It is what we can do to make our heart pure once again. It is what we can do to counter dangers of having a conscience that is unmoved by evil, indifferent to sin, and unresponsive to grace. May each of us take this opportunity to seriously look into our conscience, to make amends for our shortcomings, and earnestly ask God to once again create in us a clean heart.
Fr Anthony Le Duc is a Divine Word Missionary priest of the AUS Province, based in Bangkok.