Letters to Peregrinus #16 - On Conscience

Dear Peregrinus (Tuesday PM):

It has been some time, just before Lent began this year, since I have written to you. Thank you for accepting the truth that you are often in my awareness – “Iʼd like to tell him this when we next talk or write.” It is a human power of great significance that we can stay present to those who are far away, or with whom we are out of regular touch, or who have died and are now among our Ancestors. And, curiously, we may often feel more present to friends who are far away than when they are near at hand.

Pope Francis did finally publish his text, his Amoris Laetitia,[1] which is the fruit of his long labor of listening to the Church on the current experience of family life and married life, and all of this operating in tension with all the cultures and sub-cultures of the world. I do not know whether you have downloaded a copy of it and have begun to read it – all 264 pages of it! I encourage you to do so. He is so solid. But he is also real, his own person, and so he expresses judgments that you may esteem more than others.

Pope Francis has a decidedly mystical way about him, by which I mean that he speaks and acts from a living experience of God, even when so much pulls at his attention, demanding his response. To read him is to be brought inside that powerful relationship he has with God.

As I have been reading his text, I recognize the significance he places on our conscience. As a result, we each must re-acquaint ourselves with our grasp of that idea. Years ago I was helped to sort this out by a fine moral theologian by the name of Fr. Richard Gula, SS (1989)[2]. I wanted to share what I recall because Gula has good things to teach, but also so that I am forced to think again about this!

Gula writes that what we mean by conscience is actually three distinct things.

He speaks of Conscience #1. Here he refers to the capacity every human person has to recognize what is good, such that he or she feels a “sting” of conscience when veering away from the good. This ability to be “stung” is referred to among the theologians since Medieval times as synteresis – an inbuilt sense of the good. [3] Without this capacity to “sense” the good, we would have never been able to know what is good, and so to begin to form our personalities according to our response to that “inner teacher” (St. Augustineʼs term). Considering this from a darker viewpoint, we also have the power to destroy Conscience #1 within us when we feel its “sting” ... and then habitually ignore the warning it gives us. Remember Jesusʼs comment to Nicodemus in John 3:

19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.[4]

He writes, next, about Conscience #2. This concerns an effective commitment we make to be taught by others about how to become a good person, a person able to walk in the Truth and to be a source of genuine value in, and for, the human community. One “forms his or her conscience”: the process of learning from the experience of others about what is truly good and worthwhile, and then learning how habitually to form good (moral) judgments. We contemplate and are inspired by the luminous examples of profound people, wanting to be like them, starting with Jesus Himself. To put this another way, Conscience #2 begins to happen when a person finds within himself or herself a desire to make of his or her life a work of art. Think of that beautiful line from the Letter to the Ephesians 2:10 that reads:

10 For we are Godʼs handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God has designed us.[5]

Finally, he writes about Conscience #3. A person only becomes a person through the (moral) decisions he or she makes, and then implements in his or her action. We are what our decisions make us. (For this reason we are not accountable for our lives until we are old enough to reason and to consider, able to learn from others.) Finally, a person must decide what he or she will do, or not do. Pope Francis in his Amoris Laetitia document is talking about Conscience #3 when he says, as the Church has always said, that a personʼs conscience cannot and must not be violated. A person is given by God the freedom to decide and then to act – the freedom to become, and to be accountable for, the person he or she decides to become. No one, for any reason, may violate a personʼs conscience (#3).

Peregrinus, you will enjoy reading this new work from the remarkable soul of Pope Francis, as you and I both so enjoyed sharing our insights about his earlier encyclical, Laudato si. Watch how he navigates through the types of Conscience, and how he pushes back against those in the Church who may think things would work out much better if people esteemed less their conscience and simply obeyed.

 I leave you with this beautiful line from St. Paulʼs Letter to the Philippians 2:

12-13 So then, my dearest friends, as you have always followed my advice—and that not only when I was present to give it—so now that I am far away be keener than ever to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. [6]

Remember me in your good prayers, old friend,

Rick, SJ


[1] You can find the official version of it in PDF form at The Holy See website:
http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/pa pa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia.html

[2] Gula, Richard. Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary online defines “synteresis”: “A name for that function or department of conscience which serves as a guide for conduct; conscience as directive of oneʼs actions.” It is the word that corresponds to the “prick” of conscience one feels when he or she is veering away from what is right and good.

[4] New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 3f19.

[5] W. D. McH, “Introduction,” in The New English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press; Cambridge University Press, 1970), Eph 2f10.

[6] The New Testament in Modern English by J.B Phillips copyright © 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishopsʼ Council of the Church of England. Used by Permission.

No Comments