A flashback: My five-year old son is invited by his siblings to play the game LIFE. He’s thrilled to be included, and as a mom I am edified to see his siblings being so kind to him. After a few minutes though I’m watching his face turn from gleeful to confused as his eyes dart around the board while still trying to follow the spinner. Then I see his face grow tense with frustration. Uh oh. Sure enough, he jumps up, kicks the board while shouting at all of them, “This is stupid! I don’t know how to play!” My son is not a little boy prone to rash behavior-- he’s actually a gentle soul. Why did this happen?
Pondering this incident which occurred in my family of eight children nearly 20 years ago, I remain ever grateful for St. John Paul II and his encyclical Faith & Reason (Fides et Ratio) which changed my life… by forming my conscience.
We’re reading quite a bit about conscience and accompaniment lately. Weigel. Pope Francis. Cupich. Wuerl. Burke. Mueller. Tobin. Although there’s controversy about what constitutes ‘conscience’, at least it’s being discussed which happily is conscience -forming in itself.
Let’s consider this topic of conscience in light of the violence taking place across America—violence committed by young men; and the violence committed by young women often against their own bodies.
In an effort to not offend, or to be ‘tolerant’, children are instructed from early grade school right through college to identify and live according to their feelings and respect the feelings of others at all costs while development of their conscience is for the most part being ignored. Conscience is that inner voice that warns us not to beak the rules. The Ten Commandments and Natural Law come to mind, but schools teach neither one. Modern education is thus a form of nihilism which “…is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being…Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together…or together they perish in misery.” (Faith & Reason p. 111) Apparently teaching Truth -- the Rules of Life -- is considered too burdensome or irrelevant.
I believe these young people are angry and frustrated because, like my 5-year old at the time, they don’t know the meaning of life; they don’t know who they are. This nihilism permeates education such that “the human being must now learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning…(thus) one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.” (Faith & Reason p. 113) Not knowing the Rules of the Life, they become angry because they don’t know how to live in order to be happy.
Yet consider this: Children are taught objective, truthful rules of plenty of other lesser things. They know the rules of soccer and football, rules of Xbox’s Halo; and the playground game of Four Square. In fact, our lives are inundated with rules: Rules of the Road for driving a vehicle, Robert’s Rules of Parliament, HIPPA Rules, rules of military engagement. We have debate rules, chess rules, and other board games’ rules. We have mathematics rules called ‘proofs’ or ‘formulas’. We learn phonics rules as a tender four -year old.
St. John Paul II noted, “Once the idea of a universal truth …is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes.” (Faith & Reason p. 120) If there is no Truth, there is no conscience. Each person can determine what is good or what is evil. Without truth, we can make up our own rules. If you doubt me, just visit your closest school playground during recess. By choosing not to follow the rules above, we experience the consequences and chaos. For example, if I decide 2 + 2 = 5 I’ll forever err in every other calculation and be unable to hold a job. If I decide to speed, it won’t be long before I lose my license. I don’t decide the rules, but I do decide to follow them … or not. My happiness – and others’ -- depends on it.
So when it comes to moral rules and forming the conscience, why is this considered a burden? Why is this controversial? Why should the Church dumb down the rules like schools dumb down math?
“The highest norm of human life is God’s divine law –eternal, objective, and universal.”
Knowing the rules isn’t merely for the purpose of moral conformity though, but to know Christ and ultimately to be happy in this life and strive for Heaven.
If we don’t know the rules, how do we participate in Life? How do we gauge if we win …or lose?
“A properly formed conscience is an important part of the life
of every Catholic striving to live the faith.
But the Church’s teachings, not subjective feelings,
determine if a conscience is properly formed.”
(Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island)
Perhaps one might think forming our conscience is too arduous, but again, consider this: The NFL rulebook consists of a hefty 244 pages. Baseball’s is 184 pages. FIFA’s is 144. The NBA’s rulebook is 66 pages. Within these rulebooks every possible detail is spelled out: the court or field markings, ball size and weight, officials’ regulations, hand signals, players’ shoes and helmets, travel rules, fines, fouls, overtime, scoring, substitutions, timeouts…
These rules make for a consistent, fair game. Shouldn’t Life be the same way?
God gave Moses only 10 Commandments …on merely two ‘pages’. And just like sports rulebooks these rules are not just prohibitions. They allow us to play the Game! They’re like railroad tracks and if we stay on the track we eventually arrive at our destination. Off the track, well …. That remains to be seen. Or they’re like a perimeter fence for a soccer field atop a hill. Without the fence, you lose the ball and it’s impossible to play the Game. With the fence, the kids can play with abandon. The Ten Commandments allow us to live an adventurous life and live with abandon!
By this same reasoning, if subjective conscience alone determines when one can receive Holy Communion why do we bother preparing (i.e. conscience forming) little 2nd graders in anticipation of receiving the Eucharist? Or any other sacramental preparation? Or why do RCIA programs exist? Or, why not dispense with a priest’s homily (Its purpose is to form our conscience.) Why not just leave every thought, every action up to our individual, subjective conscience?
True, we are born knowing right from wrong. It’s called Natural Law and God places it in our hearts, but we still need to have our conscience nurtured, affirmed, and developed just like our intellect and will which need to be nurtured, affirmed and developed.
In light of this, I began thinking how hard JPII worked to form our conscience…and how today the world is worse off in spite of his heroic efforts. Or is it? Yes, the world is on tenuous ground financially, morally, environmentally, politically. On the other hand, look at the myriad of media outlets, Internet resources, new schools, new religious orders, and new apostolates that exist to form our conscience. Should I even attempt to name some of them?
For starters, this website Spero News, Mother Angelica’s EWTN Radio and TV, National Catholic Register (now owned by EWTN), Ignatius Press, Ascension Press, Verily Magazine Online, Opus Dei, Schoenstatt, the Nashville Dominican sisters, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, all kinds of Theology of the Body websites, Catholic catechesis websites, Catholic blogs, The Catholic Thing, Ethics and Public Policy, Faith and Reason Institute, Catholic Answers, Relevant Radio, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, University of Dallas, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University, Population Research Institute, writers/thinkers such as George Weigel, Brandon Vogt, Brad Miner, Robert Royal, Robert P. George, Scott Hahn, Christopher West, Peter Kreeft, Archbishops Chaput and Barron, Fr. Jerry Pokorsky, Fr. Paul Scalia, Mary Eberstadt, hundreds of pregnancy help centers and pro-life organizations, and so many more too numerous to mention here. One would have to be living under a rock not to be aware of these!
Given the extensive list above, there is no reason why people should be excused or coddled for not having a minimally informed conscience such that they need to be ‘accompanied’ into compromising the Holy Eucharist while persisting in their ‘irregular’ relationships. That’s not friendship. That’s not pastoral. That’s cowardice and that’s a lack of conviction. Moreover, it’s a lack of authentic love, for to love someone is to really want what is good for him or her and not allow them to wallow in their sins, but gently lift them up to the Truth because “Genuine love … is demanding. But its beauty lies precisely in the demands it makes. Only those able to make demands on themselves in the name of love can then demand love from others.” (St. JPII)
I have experienced authentic friendship and love by those who ‘accompanied’ me.
Gilbert Keith Chesteron
Unlike Cardinal Cupich who claims the Church needs to make a paradigm shift, I myself made the ‘paradigm shift’. The revolution was in me not Church teaching. I believe it was Gilbert Keith Chesterton who proclaimed,
“I don’t need a Church that’s right when I’m right;
I need a Church that’s right when I’m wrong.”
As for the angry teens bordering on despair, “There is no more urgent …task(s) than this: to lead people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life.” (Faith & Reason p. 125)
When kids play a darn good soccer game, none of them come running home shouting, “We followed the rules!” No. They exclaim, “We won!” They’re thrilled. The rules are not the end game; Heaven is; but they are what make it possible to even play the Game. With the rules – the Truth – they know who they are, why they are alive, and how to live and love. They have a sense of accomplishment, mission and joy! “Life is for Love; Love is for Life.” (St. JPII)
Spero contributor Diane Schlosser writes from Wisconsin.