Bishop's Blog

Secularism and Conscience

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This World Day of Peace, the Holy Father noted, is an opportunity to reflect together on the great challenges facing humankind in our time. "One of these, .... is that of religious freedom. Today we see two opposite trends, both negative extremes: on one side secularism, which often in hidden ways marginalizes religion to confine it to the private sphere; on the other side fundamentalism, which in turn would like to impose itself on all by force." The Pope affirmed that peace is the work of consciences that open themselves to truth and love.

How does secularism represent itself as a challenge to religious freedom and conscience? I would cite at least two ways.

First of all, secularism insists that we exist in a pluralistic world. So far so good. Pluralism is a demographic fact. Nothing more. It is not a philosophy or ideology. It does not imply that all ideas and religious beliefs are equally valid. The fact that we live in a diverse country requires that we treat each other with respect.

But pluralism does not require us to mute our convictions. Nor does it ever excuse us from speaking and acting to advance our beliefs about justice and the common good in public. Catholics who use 'pluralism" as an excuse or alibi for their public inaction may speak like disciples, but their unwillingness to act reveals an identity problem and empties their words of meaning.

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, John Henry Cardinal Newman helps to restore perspective: "The Divine Law is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience."

Secondly, there is the phenomenon of the idolatry of the autonomous individual. For the individual there is nothing higher than the self.

The corrective is to appreciate that although conscience acknowledges autonomy-the freedom of the individual to choose-it also acknowledges as a correlative the claim of the Creator and the common good. It asks the self to choose to submit itself to what is higher than itself.

The most basic principle of the Christian moral life is the awareness that every person bears the dignity of being made in the image of God. He has given us an immortal soul and through the gifts of intelligence and reason enables us to understand the order of things established in His creation. God has also given us a free will to seek and love what is true, good, and beautiful.

The second element of life in Christ is the responsible practice of freedom. Without freedom, we cannot speak meaningfully about morality or moral responsibility. Human freedom is more than a capacity to choose between this and that. It is the God-given power to become who He created us to be and so to share eternal union with him. Ultimately, human freedom lies in our free decision to say "yes" to God. In contrast, many people today understand human freedom merely as the ability to make a choice, with no objective norm or good as the goal.

We all have great skill at self-deception when it suits us. Conscience is never merely a matter of personal preference or opinion. Nor is it a self-esteem coach. It is a gift of God. It has the hard task of telling us the hard truth about our actions. The Church has the task of expressing God's love and leading us to salvation.

"Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act" (CCC no. 1796). "Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary" (GS, no. 16).

Conscience represents both the more general ability we have as human beings to know what is good and right and the concrete judgments we make in particular situations concerning what we should do or about what we have already done. Moral choices confront us with the decision to follow or depart from reason and the divine law. A good conscience makes judgments that conform to reason and the good that is willed by the Wisdom of God.

A good conscience requires lifelong formation. Each baptized follower of Christ is obliged to form his or her conscience according to objective moral standards. The Word of God is a principal tool in the formation of conscience when it is assimilated by study, prayer, and practice. The prudent advice and good example of others support and enlighten our conscience. The authoritative teaching of the Church is an essential element in our conscience formation. Finally, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, combined with regular examination of our conscience, will help us develop a morally sensitive conscience.

There are some rules to follow in obeying one's conscience. First, always follow a certain conscience. Second, an incorrect conscience must be changed if possible. Third, do not act with a doubtful conscience.

We must always obey the certain judgments of our conscience, realizing that our conscience can be incorrect, that it can make a mistake about what is truly the good or the right thing to do. This can be due to ignorance in which, through no fault of our own, we did not have all we needed to make a correct judgment.

However, we must also recognize that ignorance and errors are not always free from guilt, for example, when we did not earnestly seek what we needed in order to form our conscience correctly. Since we have the obligation to obey our conscience, we also have the great responsibility to see that it is formed in a way that reflects the true moral good.

Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and the right solution to many moral problems that arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. (GS, no. 16)

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Bishop's Religious Education
Related Themes Discipleship Conscience Moral and Ethics

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