John the Baptist, Titian, 1540
the Mass in Latin and English
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Dominica Quarta Adventus
“I am not conscious to myself of anything,
yet I am not hereby justified: but He that judges me is the Lord.”
A major reason for writing his epistles
to the Corinthians were the factions and rivalries that kept springing up,
causing division and even hatred among his newly converted Christians. In the
portion of that epistle read today, Saint Paul is telling us that instead of
trying to find fault with each other and the people around us, we ought to
devote that effort to being sure that our own consciences are formed in
accordance with the will of God and then, of course, that we act on the
dictates of that holy conscience.
Unfortunately, the idea of conscience is
one that is often misunderstood, and sometimes even used as an excuse for bad
behavior. So a few words are in order:
First of all the conscience is distinct
from our knowledge of the moral law. Everyone is expected to know the
Commandments, and how they are applied in a general sense. For example, we know
that the 5th Commandment prohibits the unjust taking of human life; we may
never go and kill an innocent person, but we may act in self defense or in
defense of another; it also prohibits behavior that would bring serious
physical harm to others or to ourselves.
Where conscience comes into play is in
trying to determine how a particular set of real world circumstances relate to
the moral law in actual application. The conscience is essentially the
reasoning process that allows us to take a Commandment like “Thou shalt not
kill” and apply it to a set of circumstances like the extent of life support
we might be morally obligated to provide for a comatose 37 year old mother of
two children. The conscience lets us take what we know in theory, and put it
into action in practical circumstances.
We are obligated to follow our
conscience, because it is our “best attempt” at acting in accordance with God's
will. It is possible that our conscience may be wrong, but since it is the best
we can do, we still must follow it.
This implies though, that we must make a
sincere effort to form our consciences properly, as far as our intellect and
education will allow. That means that we are required to pay some attention to
what the moral law says, and how moral people have applied the law to practical
situations in the past. What does the Catechism tell us? What has the Church
taught through the centuries? What have the popes said about this; or the
learned theologians? When we don't know, we ought to seek the advice of a
Obviously some people will require more
specialized knowledge than others. A priest, or a physician, or a lawyer will
need to have a more detailed knowledge of certain moral issues than people in
other occupations. But all of us should have a knowledge of religion and
morality that is at least as well developed as our knowledge of worldly things.
(Nothing sadder than the college graduate who never got beyond his Confirmation
class in 4th grade.)
While no one can know everything, we all
must realize that it is seriously sinful to purposefully remain ignorant of the
moral law on the false assumption that we would then not be guilty of sin when
we violate it. The person who says, for example, “I don't want to know anything
about the 7th Commandment,” is quite guilty of sins against that Commandment
when he commits them—not because he is following his conscience, but because he
is responsible for not having formed his conscience correctly.
Like many other things, a properly
operating conscience walks a “middle road” between two extremes. One must not
be lax in one's conscience, dismissing all sorts of sinful behavior as
unimportant—but equally, one must not be scrupulous, seeing sin in everything or
treating minor imperfections as terrible crimes.
Saint Paul tells us, as he told the
Corinthians, to be concerned with our own actions, and not to judge the actions
of others. That does not mean, however, that we should ignore other peoples'
evil actions. We have a duty to politely correct them in their misdeeds,
particularly if we are responsible for their upbringing, as parents of
children. Not to correct someone's fault often serves to approve of it. And
such correction is the way most of us have our consciences formed, particularly
at an early age.
Finally, let's remember Paul's
motivation for writing this letter to the Corinthians—particularly as we come so
close to the Christmas season. Paul wants us to have our hearts filled with
God's love. Not with judgment of one another, but rather with compassion for
each others' weaknesses and failings.