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If a person does something that is gravely wrong "in good conscience" does their doing it "in good conscience" mean that it is not a sin for them or alternatively could it even make their sin all the greater?
We are truly blessed to have Pope Francis, but that does not mean that he gets everything totally right. He emphasises the primacy of conscience.
The implications are that, if you do something in good conscience then for you it is morally right. But is it?
Let us look at some examples. Take the case of a very important leader, a man who has been called by God to a position of great importance, who is in a position to make a major difference for good in the lives of thousands,
perhaps millions, of people.
But suppose an ordinary person happens to know of a secret sin of this leader which, if revealed, could destroy him and prevent him from doing all the good he could otherwise do.
If the great leader decides "in good conscience" that to prevent this damage, he will place the ordinary person in a situation where he is likely to get killed, does his doing it in 'good conscience' justify his actions before God? Read the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah, in 2 Samuel 11.
Does it exonerate King David if his actions were done 'in good conscience'? No! "The thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord." 2 Samuel 11:27.
There is a message here for all who think that they can take the life of another 'in good conscience'.
That includes the life of an unborn baby.
King David was challenged while here on earth. It is better to be challenged and to be forced to repent while here on earth, than to have to do so on the other side.
A Different Example
Take the case of a person who comes to genuinely believe that some laws are unreasonable, and that one can dispense with them.
When disregarding commandments, some people speak of "being free in the Spirit". "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1
But the freedom in the Spirit which St. Paul is writing about here is freedom from trying to save oneself by keeping a litany of rules and regulations like how far one could walk on the Sabbath etc.
St. Paul clarifies that this is not freedom to ignore the basic commandments of God when he declares, "You have been called to freedom, but do not use this freedom as an excuse to indulge your flesh (sinful desires)." Galatians
Meanwhile the story explaining Original Sin centres around Adam and Eve breaking what they are led to consider an unreasonable rule. Read Genesis 3:1-7.
There are several modern examples where some think that certain rules are not of God.
Celibacy is one. It was not introduced by Jesus. Some of the apostles were married, though while married men were ordained in the early church, they were then expected to renounce sexual relations with their wives.
(See my book "Answering God's Call". By post Ireland c7.50 from Diary office.)
But while the present rule of celibacy was not introduced by Jesus, He declared "Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven."
Take the case of the priest who considers the celibacy rule to not be of God, and so believes that he can, in good conscience, have a partner (female or male) with full sexual relationships.
Does the fact that he genuinely believes that he is free in the Spirit, exonerate him before God? It doesn't.
He is leading a double life. He is also gravely in breach of a rule validly introduced and upheld by the Church to whom Jesus said, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven" Matthew 16:19.
God still loves him. The God who works through imperfect people, may at times work through him. But, without repentance, he will never come under God's ongoing anointing. He may (or may not) have Jesus living in him, but
he himself is not living in Jesus, nor, without repentance, will he bear the fruit that can only be borne by those who are living in Jesus.
Instead of being under God's anointing, he risks the verdict pronounced by Peter on those who give way to their passions, "They are under a curse" 2 Peter 2:14. Or even the verdict of Jesus, "Anyone who does not live in Me
is like a branch that is cut off and withers" John 15:6.
Unless he repents, one day he will answer before God for all the damage his double life has caused; including all the graces that were blocked because he was not living in Jesus.
I have given celibacy as an example. There are many other possible examples:- sex before or outside of marriage, gay 'marriage', remarriage after divorce, etc.
Another Different Example
Take the case of a wealthy person who says to himself in all good conscience, "This is my money to do with as I wish."
Does the fact that he does so in total good conscience mean that he is free to keep his wealth for himself and to live a life of selfish luxury?
Read the story of the rich man in Luke 16. Read in particular Luke 16:27, where the rich man, finding himself in torment in 'Hades', asks that Lazarus be sent from Heaven to warn his five brothers, so that they may not end up
in this place of torment also. But Jesus has Abraham replying, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them." Luke 16:29.
Here we see that the primary sin of the rich man and of his family wasn't their selfish use of their wealth. Their primary sin was their failure to listen to "Moses and the prophets", that is to the word of God.
If as a result of failing to listen to the word of God, one does something that is gravely wrong in 'good conscience', then one's guilt is not removed but rather doubled.
Primacy of Conscience?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1795 says "Conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (GS 16)."
Under the heading Erroneous Judgement it states, "When a man takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded by the habit of committing sin .... the person is culpable
for the evil he commits." (1791)
The flaw in these two statements is that they presume that if a person takes time "to find out what is true and good", and if he isn't "blinded by the habit of committing sin", God will be able to guide him through his conscience.
This is only true if one's conscience has been immaculately conceived. These statement take no account of the impact of Original Sin on our conscience.
Clause 1792 in the Catechism does, however, flesh out clause 1791"Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of
conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgement in moral conduct."
But even this clause fails to point to the role of Original Sin.
Take again the example of a priest who comes to believe that he can in good conscience have a partner, (male or female). Or a married minister who feels he can, in conscience, cheat on his wife - and sadly that too happens!
In these cases one can point to elements of enslavement to one's passions, and to elements of lack of true conversion, and to the implicit rejection of the Church's authority. But the root problem is Original Sin. And if one
does not identify the root problem, then one will not find the appropriate remedy.
In the Biblical story of Original Sin, the fall involves the corrupting of conscience, by which that which is wrong comes to appear good.
While the story of Adam and Eve is a Biblical story to explain the origin of sin, in everyday life we see, again and again, how the corrupting of conscience leads to people being led to believe that that which is wrong is
good, and also being in denial about the consequences of their wrong choices.
The denial factor is very clear in the case of an alcoholic. The very last person to recognise the hurt that the alcoholic is causing to his family, is the alcoholic himself.
But denial isn't just a problem that affects alcoholics. It is part of the human condition, a consequence of Original Sin, of the corruption of conscience.
So too is the vulnerability to thinking that that which is wrong is good, and the tendency to only see what suits us and to ignore what doesn't.
That is why God has given us commandments. They are a gift given to us by God to guide us because our conscience has been damaged by sin.
In the Gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus, when the rich man begged for a messenger be sent to his brothers to warn them. Abraham did NOT tell him, They have a conscience; let them listen to it. No! Instead he told
him, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them." Luke 16:29
From this we see that even the title 'primacy of conscience' is somewhat misleading.
The true primacy is not of conscience but of God and of the word of God. When one speaks loosely of the primacy of conscience, one risks fostering the "mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience" of which the new Catechism
warns (CC 1792).
Due to Original Sin, it is quite difficult to accurately hear the voice of God. This applies when we seek to be guided by God in our everyday decisions, and it applies in our moral choices.
Even our "secret core and sanctuary" where our conscience resides, needs redemption. It was not immaculately conceived.
And redemption is a process, and is not achieved by a simple prayer.
It requires coming to a living relationship with God; inviting Jesus to live within you; accepting Jesus as your Lord, including Lord of your conscience, and this also involves accepting His teaching. Add in taking the further
steps to live in Jesus by dealing with what needs to be dealt with in your life.
Finally it involves coming to so love God that you commit yourself to doing His will in all things.
Only when these steps have been taken and embedded, is one's conscience well on the way to being redeemed; and only then can the Holy Spirit begin to guide you. Even then - and I speak from personal experience - one has to be both humble and careful in seeking to hear His voice,
Yours, in Christ,
Thaddeus Doyle (Rev.)