The 12th of 15 in a Series of Meditations on the 15 daily intentions offered by members of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.
Wherein we pray for our Conscience: that it may never be swift to judge what is the chaste thing to do, swifter still to execute it and wholly protected form all the assaults of demons.
We do, however, imagine religion to be different. We can make it up anyway we want. Some of us can even cite Catholic teaching on this. In his declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, Pope Paul VI said,
On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.His late Holiness was making a point about two different things: no secular gov't has the power or authority to compel in matters of conscience; nor has the Church any obligation to retreat from her claims to teach the full truth of Jesus Christ. The Pope also acknowledged that at times the Church had forgone the evangelistic examples of Christ and his Apostles and opted, instead, to - essentially - have secular gov't pass laws that compel in matters of conscience. I like to call this absentee evangelism.
This is not, however, a statement of freedom for the Catholic to do whatever she wants because her conscience says it's ok. These two teachings, in concert with the Church's tradition, were balanced by a reminder in the same document:
In order to be faithful to the divine command, "teach all nations" (Matt. 28:19-20), the Catholic Church must work with all urgency and concern "that the word of God be spread abroad and glorified" (2 Thess. 3:1). Hence the Church earnestly begs of its children that, "first of all, supplications, prayers, petitions, acts of thanksgiving be made for all men.... For this is good and agreeable in the sight of God our Savior, who wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:1-4). In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church.(35) For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself. Furthermore, let Christians walk in wisdom in the face of those outside, "in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love, in the word of truth" (2 Cor. 6:6-7), and let them be about their task of spreading the light of life with all confidence(36) and apostolic courage, even to the shedding of their blood.
The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never-be it understood-having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. At the same time, the charity of Christ urges him to love and have prudence and patience in his dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the faith. All is to be taken into account-the Christian duty to Christ, the life-giving word which must be proclaimed, the rights of the human person, and the measure of grace granted by God through Christ to men who are invited freely to accept and profess the faith. (Double emphasis added.)
The Christian, having made a choice for Christ, is called to continually offer up his freedom to be more and more conformed to the will of God. You can't play baseball with some guy picked to play half the pitcher's game, nor can you make a Designated Protestant Doctrine in matters of faith against the Church's teaching.
The Church cannot use secular Authority to compel in matters of conscience. Yet she is not compelling the Christian who has already settled the this question for himself and already made a choice declaring, Domine Deus, firma fide Credo et Confiteor omnia et singula quae Sancta Ecclesia Catholica proponit quia tu, Deus, ea omnia revelasti, qui es aeterna veritas et sapientia, quae nec fallere nec falli potest. Lord God, with a firm trust I believe each and every proposition of the Holy Catholic Church because you, God, have revealed them all, you who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. We then add, In hoc fide vivere et mori statuo. In this faith I will live and die. We've made a choice already. Our job in God's grace is to stick to it.
The Prophet Samuel makes a bold statement to King Saul, who has disobeyed God. Quoniam quasi peccatum ariolandi est, repugnare: et quasi scelus idololatriæ, nolle acquiescere. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey.
What had the King done? Saul was given a clear command of God to kill all the Amalekites and destroy all their wealth. But he ignored that and - doing what any good war leader would do - he allowed for there to be plunder. Saul's defended his choice by saying that the men had made sacrifices from the plunder. So they had paid their tithe, as it were. They gave thanks to God. Samuel goes to Saul to say look, you have sinned in disobeying God, and Saul's reply is very telling: his men took sheep "to offer sacrifice to the Lord their God" which must be good, right? (Now a sacrifice would be a feast for a family, so, yes, "to the Lord" but also "for all of us...") They were not, you know, really disobedient. They were doing something good.
Samuel says, no, that's not the case. Doing what you are told is good. Disobedience is always bad. How bad? Samuel compares it to Witchcraft and to Idolatry. We might argue at this point about the "Primacy of Conscience" whereby even an "erring conscience is binding". And so we must follow our conscience. No one can compel...
To this proposition Aquinas says "if erring reason [that is, the conscience - DHR] tell a man that he should go to another man's wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know." (Summa II.i.19.6) The Catholic teaching is not that the Conscience will always lead us right, but rather that a Conscience, properly formed by the Church into conformity with the Law of God will always lead us right. As Catholics, we must submit to the teaching of the Church even if our erring conscience would lead us elsewhere. We reform the conscience, we train it up in the ways of the Lord. We do so for the inculcation of virtue, whereby the knowing and doing of the Good becomes effortless.
Sometimes God commands things that are hard. That's the way things go. But it is impossible for God to command what is untrue, unjust, or evil, for God is goodness, truth and justice in his person. We cannot fail in love, in truth, justice, or goodness by following God's commands. It is better to follow these commands than to make up stuff on our own. Aquinas, again, "The eternal law cannot err, but human reason can. Consequently the will that abides by human reason, is not always right, nor is it always in accord with the eternal law."
Jesus walks us down this path as well, with an interesting saying about sewing and vintnering. Nemo assumentum panni rudis assuit vestimento veteri: alioquin aufert supplementum novum a veteri, et major scissura fit. No man seweth a piece of raw cloth to an old garment: otherwise the new piecing taketh away from the old, and there is made a greater rent.
Saul wants to take what he knows about running an army and do - mostly - what God has commanded. Our temptation always is to say that we can take our old lifestyle, our old patterns of thinking and just sew on a Christian patch. We can oppress the poor a little bit and deny our workers a little bit of their wages as a Christian. We can be alittle bit racist as a Christian. We can seek a little wealth as an end as a Christian. We can do a little sex outside of Marriage as a Christian. We can do a little sex inside a Marriage with contraception as a Christian. Samuel compares all of this to Witchcraft and Idolatry. We might as well do a little fortune telling and play a little with the Ouija boards and burn a little bit incense to Kuan Yin. (just a pinch, right?)
Jesus is clear: our old things will tear apart from the patch, our wineskins will burst spoiling both the wineskins and the wine.
When our conscience wants us to go against God, it is our job - our salvation - to reform the conscience. Not to make an idol of our will, nor to say, with Luther, "Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir." (God help me be standing here against God?) Rather we are to say, with David, Concupivi salutare tuum, Domine, et lex tua meditatio mea est. Vivet anima mea, et laudabit te, et judicia tua adjuvabunt me. Erravi sicut ovis quæ periit: quære servum tuum, quia mandata tua non sum oblitus. I have longed for thy salvation, O Lord; and thy law is my meditation. My soul shall live and shall praise thee: and thy judgments shall help me. I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost: seek thy servant, because I have not forgotten thy commandments.
Virtue is when doing the good has, by habit, become nature. The reverse is also true. Grace builds on nature. The reverse is also true. Sin functions like a chemical addiction: it builds on a weakness in our nature, using the choices we make, until it becomes engrained in a habit. As with chemical addiction, we (dys)function convinced that this sin is our nature and threatening the sin is seen as threatening our very selves. But weighed down under layers of habit, and anti-virture is the real, human nature in the image of God. Grace can still build on it. Grace, by way of the Sacraments, applying bit by bit, to remove encrusted rust, well-worn ruts of habit, layers of shellack and varnish, to oil joints, to limber muscles, to rehabilitate muscles, to restore life where was only necrosis, to bring light where only darkness was. The tiny spark of life in God's grace can be restored to a blazing light by which others can be guided to God's manifested presence. Grace builds on nature, until virtue's armor, treble-forged in love's flames, is strong enough to win through.
We form the conscience this way. We meditate on the law of God - not to find loopholes or ways around it, but to grow in it. We need our conscience. It is a gift from God to walk us through this world. We train our conscience properly because we know we are fallen, but when push comes to shove, we pray it will guide us right. Only a properly trained conscience can guide all the time. For some God's grace even reaches in: St Paul says the Law of God is written on their hearts and they obey even without knowing. But for those of us who struggle he says it's even possible for our conscience to become seared as with a hot iron so that we no longer feel any compulsion to the Good and just do whatever we feel like.
Those of us who come late in life to this Confraternity may well know what this means, as huge parts of the conscience, like scars, must be cut off and healed by God's grace so that they can be rehabilitated; so that the conscience can once again be submitted to God's will without compulsion, but in love.
By way of Postscript: Absentee Evangelism. I think the churches have long be satisfied with laws that laid a Christian Veneer on Society. Blue laws, that kept businesses closed on Sunday, eventually fell. But why do Christians now, as well, shop on Sunday? As long as no one could do anything on a Sunday, no one bothered to talk about it. But the Church failed as teacher because even when the secular laws changed, Christians should still be respecting the Sabbath, right? The veneer removed, we discovered we had long all been pagans together. We should be more like the National League who did not fall to the temptations offered by the wealthier American League (even though that cheating has given them a two series advantage since 1973...).