Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Conscience and our journey towards adult Christianity

Conscience and our journey towards adult Christianity

“The world’s Creator has stamped our inmost beings with an order
revealed to us by our conscience;
and our conscience insists on preserving that order.
Human beings ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts.
Their conscience bears witness to them’ (Romans 2:15).
And how could it be otherwise?
All created being reflects the infinite wisdom of God.
It reflects it all the more clearly, the higher it stands in the scale of perfection.”

(Cf. Ps. 18:8-11)
(Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth” (April 1963),
(Pacem in Terris), #5.)

“For we have in our hearts a law written by God.
To obey it is the very dignity of the human person;
according to it we will be judged.
Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person.
There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths.”
(Second Vatican Council, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (December 1965) (Gaudium et Spes), #16.)

Our existence – our very being – is what it is. Thomas Merton sums it up nicely:

If we take a more living and more Christian perspective we find in ourselves a simple affirmation which is not of ourselves. It simply is. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1968/1989, 266.)

Life is a journey in which we gradually join our “Yes!” with the “Yes!’ of our beings. The sad truth, however, is that by the time most of us reach our middle years, our lives are hedged around with a thicket of unreality. It is hard to connect with that “simple affirmation”.

Merton thus continues:

In our being there is a primordial yes that is not our own; it is not at our own disposal; it is not accessible to our inspection and understanding; we do not even fully experience it as real (except in rare and unique circumstances) …. Basically, however, my being is not an affirmation of a limited self, but the ‘yes’ of Being itself, irrespective of my own choices. Where do ‘I’ come in? Simply in uniting the ‘yes’ of my own freedom with the ‘yes’ of Being that already is before I have chosen to choose. (Ibid.)

My very creation is a statement by God – a Divine “Yes!” Conscience may therefore be understood as the voice or witness of God in and through our beings. At the core of my being there is something that is non-negotiable – an ‘existential must’. My true freedom and my unique and communal identity, is found in submitting to that ‘must’ rather than any familial, cultural, political, societal or ethnic ‘must’.

When I was baptized into Christ (cf Romans 6:3), my very being took on a whole new power and authority, energy and direction. My being is a being-in-Christ. My true life is found through Him, with Him and in Him. St Paul expresses this powerfully:

I live now, not I but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:19)

We can think of life as a conversation, a constant listening to what is happening in order to hear the truth emerging in our experience, so that we can submit to that truth. Conscience summons us to this journey. Vocation is the journey – you are your vocation.

Nobody has the right to obstruct that journey which is in Christ – a journey that is necessarily both unique and communal. It is in our best interest to seek that journey. Far from leading to individualism, this is a journey through relationships into communion.

Yes, we are all prone to self-deception and selfishness. We must therefore cultivate the habit of facing honestly what is going on within us, always submitting to the truth of that in so far as we can know it. This work never ends. Pope Francis reminds us that this work should be accompanied by frequent encounters with the Lord in:

The Lord speaks to us in the depths of our conscience, he speaks to us through Sacred Scripture, he speaks to us in prayer. Learn to stay before him in silence, to read and meditate on the Bible, especially the Gospels, to converse with him every day in order to feel his presence of friendship and love. (Pope Francis, Message to young Lithuanians on the occasion of the ‘Sixth National Youth Day’ of Lithuania, 28-30 June 2013)

The voice of conscience will summon us into the truth without counting the cost. Counting the cost can lead us away from conscience. Conscience is a way in not a way out. This is an intrinsic part of adulthood, central to accepting accountability and responsibility for one’s life. So Pope Benedict writes:

My encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself. (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (2007), #33.)

Thus, one of the primary roles of the Church as Teacher, is to help us to be faithful to that deep call of God in our beings. Thus Pope St John Paul II reminds us of a profound truth, a truth with huge ramifications for us all in our contributions to and participation in the Church:

The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it. (Pope St John Paul II, encyclical “The splendor of Truth” (August 1993) (Veritatis Splendor), #64.)

And again, St John Paul II reminds us:

Respect for a person’s conscience, where the image of God himself is reflected (cf. Gen 1:26-27), means that we can only propose the truth to others, who are then responsible for accepting it. To try to impose on others by violent means what we consider to be the truth is an offence against human dignity, and ultimately an offence against God whose image that person bears. (Pope St John Paul II, World Day of Peace Address, January 2002.)

I conclude with a small meditation by Pope Francis. In his Angelus Message of 30 June 2013 he said:

This Sunday’s Gospel Reading (Lk 9:51-62) shows a very important step in Christ’s life: the moment when, as St Luke writes: “He [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Jerusalem is the final destination where Jesus, at his last Passover, must die and rise again and thus bring his mission of salvation to fulfilment.

From that moment, after that ‘firm decision’ Jesus aimed straight for his goal and in addition said clearly to the people he met and who asked to follow him what the conditions were: to have no permanent dwelling place; to know how to be detached from human affections and not to give in to nostalgia for the past. 

Jesus, however, also told his disciples to precede him on the way to Jerusalem and to announce his arrival, but not to impose anything: if the disciples did not find a readiness to welcome him, they should go ahead, they should move on. Jesus never imposes, Jesus is humble, Jesus invites. If you want to, come. The humility of Jesus is like this: he is always inviting but never imposing.

All of this gives us food for thought. It tells us, for example, of the importance which the conscience had for Jesus too: listening in his heart to the Father’s voice and following it. Jesus, in his earthly existence, was not, as it were ‘remote-controlled’: he was the incarnate Word, the Son of God made man, and at a certain point he made the firm decision to go up to Jerusalem for the last time; it was a decision taken in his conscience, but not alone: together with the Father, in full union with him! 

He decided out of obedience to the Father and in profound and intimate listening to his will. For this reason, moreover, his decision was firm, because it was made together with the Father. In the Father Jesus found the strength and light for his journey.

And Jesus was free, he took that decision freely. Jesus wants us to be Christians, freely as he was, with the freedom which comes from this dialogue with the Father, from this dialogue with God. Jesus does not want selfish Christians who follow their own ego, who do not talk to God. Nor does he want weak Christians, Christians who have no will of their own, ‘remote-controlled’ Christians incapable of creativity, who always seek to connect with the will of someone else and are not free. Jesus wants us free. And where is this freedom created? It is created in dialogue with God in the person’s own conscience. If a Christian is unable to speak with God, if he cannot hear God in his own conscience, he is not free, he is not free.

This is why we must learn to listen to our conscience more. But be careful! This does not mean following my own ego, doing what interests me, what suits me, what I like…. It is not this! The conscience is the interior place for listening to the truth, to goodness, for listening to God; it is the inner place of my relationship with him, the One who speaks to my heart and helps me to discern, to understand the way I must take and, once the decision is made, to go forward, to stay faithful.

We have had a marvelous example of what this relationship with God is like, a recent and marvelous example. Pope Benedict XVI gave us this great example when the Lord made him understand, in prayer, what the step was that he had to take. With a great sense of discernment and courage, he followed his conscience, that is, the will of God speaking in his heart. And this example of our Father does such great good to us all, as an example to follow.

Our Lady, in her inmost depths with great simplicity was listening to and meditating on the Word of God and on what was happening to Jesus. She followed her Son with deep conviction and with steadfast hope. May Mary help us to become increasingly men and women of conscience, free in our conscience, because it is in the conscience that dialogue with God takes place; men and women, who can hear God’s voice and follow it with determination, who can listen to God’s voice, and follow it with decision.”