Who are we to judge? How Scripture and tradition help to form our consciences

At the gathering of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015, church leaders discussed a wide range of challenges facing modern families, including—though not limited to—sensitive questions around Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, contraception and same-sex marriage. In their final report, the bishops noted that in cases where a marriage has broken down, “Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations” (No. 85). And in his final address to the synod, Pope Francis noted that “apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s Magisterium…what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”

To clear away some of this confusion, it is helpful to turn to the Bible and the tradition of the church, which provide widely applicable insights on the topic. Here let me offer four of the major contributions to the church’s understanding of conscience today.

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First, in the Hebrew Bible, the term most analogous to conscience is “heart”—lebab in Hebrew, kardia in Greek. There are literally hundreds of references to heart in the Bible. In fact, while the Protestant editions of the Bible translate most of these instances as “conscience,” the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version insists on keeping the specific word heart.

Often enough, heart is that which God judges. In Sir 42:18, God “searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets.” In these instances, heart is not identified with conscience, because the former simply refers to one’s deep, personal interests: Knowing one’s heart is like knowing where one’s true commitments are. Other times, however, Scripture suggests that God’s examination of the heart empowers it to become what today we would call a person’s conscience, as in Jer 17:10: “I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”

Occasionally the heart is where one recognizes one’s guilt. We call this a judicial conscience because it judges our past actions. In 1 Sm 24:5, we read that “afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak.” Here the heart is a conscience convicting the self, the fruit of an examined conscience.

Today we distinguish between a judicial conscience that looks back and a legislative conscience that guides future courses of action; there are a few instances of the latter in the Hebrew Bible. There conscience is not the heart but a voice, a voice that accompanies us. This notion of a voice being with us captures the con of conscience, a word that means “knowing with.” In Is 30:21, we read: “And your ears shall hear a word behind you: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or the left.” This voice directs our lives. Still, heart also occasionally becomes the guiding conscience that needs to be formed, as in 2 Mc 2:3: “And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.”

In short, conscience in the Hebrew Bible is found primarily as a matter of the heart. Though many instances of heart are no more than that which God examines to reveal our preferences, still other instances of heart are identifiably related to an active conscience, through which one turns to God, judges one’s past, guides one’s future and looks to be shaped by the law of God.

Listening to the Truth

As we turn to Greek and Roman philosophy, we discover that from Democritus on, conscience has a singular feature: It is judicial. Unlike the Hebrew notion of the passive heart that can be judged, this version of conscience does the judging. In fact, most often it disturbs as it judges. Though Cicero’s own conscience judged him well, in most of ancient philosophy the function of conscience is to cause us distress over our wrongdoing.

The Greek and Roman notion of conscience is found in everyone, but always as judge; like Yahweh, it judges each person. It does not dwell quietly in anyone when evil is done; it awakens the wrongdoer with pangs. Conscience forces us to recognize our own misdeeds. In that rude awakening, many encounter conscience for the first time. To have a conscience is to recognize one’s own guilt.

A guilty conscience is precisely one that recognizes a lack of connection between what we thought was acceptable and the guilt we feel afterward. Its pangs not only awaken us to our misdeeds; they awaken us to conscience itself. When we are awakened, we suddenly realize that we have within us a moral sense that does not like to be disturbed. By these pangs we begin to realize that we carry within ourselves a moral beacon that troubles us when we are wrong and validates us when we are right. That is what ancient philosophy gives us: the birth of conscience, the experience, like that of Isaiah, of a voice that we can hear. Conscience becomes a new form of understanding and a new form of listening to the truth.

Speaking the Truth of Christ

When we turn to the New Testament, St. Paul leads the way. First, he places his conscience in the light of faith and under the governance of the Holy Spirit. “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 9:1). On trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul states, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1; see 2 Cor 1:12).

There is a humility to his conscience, however. For all his reliance on following his conscience, he still acknowledges the outstanding judgment of God: “I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:4). God’s impending judgment does not replace one’s conscience, however; until the judgment comes, it is conscience that we have as a moral guide: “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (1 Cor 13:5).

According to Paul, we are called “to hold faith in God and a good conscience” (1 Tm 1:19; 3:9). Paul is mindful of the Gentiles, too. While they might not have the law, the law is written in their hearts and they have consciences that witness to them; and, like all, on the last day they will be judged (Rom 2:14–18).

Finally, Paul believes that it is through conscience that we grow, both the weak and the strong, together. In his discussion about idol meat, he considers those with unformed consciences who, on seeing their fellow Christians eating meat that has been offered to the idols, think that these Christians are participating in idol worship (1 Corinthians 8). Paul warns his fellow Christians that although they are strong in their consciences, they should be mindful of the confusion that they might be causing in others. In this bit of casuistry, Paul teaches Christians that loving one’s neighbor means helping and not scandalizing. With Paul, then, we have conscience as our moral judge and guide, with the realization that for all Christians, both the weak and the strong, there is always more to learn until we arrive at the day of judgment.

Finally, Thomas Aquinas offers a further development on conscience. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks whether an erring conscience binds. He answers that “absolutely speaking” every variance with conscience, “whether right or erring, is always evil.” Aquinas explains that though the error is not from God, the dictate of an erring conscience “puts forward its judgment as true, and consequently as being derived from God” (I-II, q. 19 a.1); therefore, when erring conscience “proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God.” For Aquinas, conscience is what God gives us to discern the right, and therefore we must always obey it.

Nonetheless, as Paul teaches, even though we must follow our consciences, we might still be in error. Immediately after the question of whether we can ever reject the dictate of conscience, he asks whether the will is good when it follows an erring conscience (I-II, q. 19 a. 6). Here, Aquinas determines whether we are responsible for the erring conscience and writes that if we could have known the truth and avoided the error, then we are not excused from the wrongdoing; if we could not have known otherwise, then we are excused.

Tradition Today

If we want to know what our tradition today holds about conscience, nothing could surpass the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” Having seen the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek and Roman philosophers, St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe we can understand why the council used words like heart, law, voice, error, dignity etc. The text that we hold today rightly embodies the sources that produced it (No. 16). Let us read it anew:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.
In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems that arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

Many Catholics today think of conscience primarily as that which gives us the right to dissent from teaching. That opinion, unfortunately, is a truncated notion of conscience. Any right to dissent derives first from the responsibilities we have to conscience—that is, to examine our own conduct, to form and inform our consciences daily and to determine the right direction of our lives. The language of conscience is not so much the language of a right, therefore, but of a duty always to act in conscience—that is, the obligation to find and to follow what we understand to be God’s will.

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Leo Cleary
1 year 8 months ago
A clearly written article, with ancient and contemporary sources. This kind of Catholic journalism is greatly needed at a time when language and the meaning of words have become all too loose. Good work Fr. Keenan
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 7 months ago
It is hard to imagine that the male-only priesthood is the Church's understanding of God's will in the 21st century. Canon 1024, a judicial heritage from Hebrew and Greco-Roman law, is the culprit, and the Church does have the freedom and the authority to act in conscience.
Patrick Murtha
1 year 7 months ago
Mr. Gutierrez, the ways of God are not the ways of man. Instead of continuously harping against the male-only priesthood, try first to understand the Fatherhood of God, try to understand why Christ and His Church has a "male-only priesthood." As Christ said to His Apostles on the night of the First Mass, "If you love me, keep my commandments...He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them; he it is that loveth me. And he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father." (John 14:15, 21). And we have seen Christ's commandments through both Scripture and Tradition, the two sources of Revelation. Furthermore, try to truly understand the nature of fatherhood, try to understand that both male and female, both man and woman, were designed by God for different vocations, different callings. But they are to work together. In the mayhem of the modern world, with the indoctrination of Darwinism and Socialism, people begin to care little about society and their place in society, and a lot about themselves and how to better themselves alone. But that is not the way God intended man to work. It is clear from Scripture, from Tradition, and from history how the nature of males and females incline them towards specific and even sex-oriented tasks for the common good of people, and not merely people of their own ilk or sex. Look at the Congress. Does a male representative only represent the males among his constituents? If he does, I pray that both men and women vote him out of office. Does a wealth congressman only represent wealthy constituents? If he does, I pray that both rich and poor vote him out of office? A good representative represents that good of his constituents. So also, the man works within his vocation and the woman works within hers, both for the sanctity of souls, both together within the nature of their individual sexes and within their own individual talents. It is this modern mess that muddles everything, and makes people think that everyone can be and should be everything for themselves--the popular blunder of ol' Mr. Emerson. As I have said time and again, when certain responses here have become so tunnel-visioned with anti-patriarchy and anti-fatherhood comments, which come under a shallow and foolish guise of being "pro-woman" which is really being anti-woman and anti-feminine. Even Our Lord wants us to understand the distinctions between men and women, as He responds to the Pharisees, "Have you not read, that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female?" (Matt. 19:4) And again, remember Christ's word, "Thus there shall you pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done..." God bless you!
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
The author's conclusion that "conscience" and "heart" in modern terms are equivalents is not correct in my opinion. Such a conclusion would be correct only if one were to remove the dogma of Original Sin from Traditional Christianity , jettisoning concupiscence and the effects of the Fall. Without boring the readers as to why the conclusion using plain simple language, is that people often act out, rationalizing or ignoring their conscience. To say that God judges the conscience makes as much sense as God judging gravity. Folks have a tendency of tripping and falling down, or sometimes jumping without regard to the gravity (I am really simplifying here). Point is, its the Heart-where all of this actually goes on within the Person is very distinctly different from Conscience. For conscience is one of many "inputs" in the realm of the Heart. The Lord judges the Heart. If I may digress, its likely that this misunderstanding is a contributing factor to the denial of sin by many of our coreligionists, because they equate conscience with the heart. Totally, ignoring the Tradition which states that it is everyone's responsibility to seek Truth and better form their own conscience (our life is a journey in Christ). In my humble opinion one is living a lie if they seek to ignore the Teachings of the Church, preferring to opt for their homemade version (Tradition describes this as a poorly formed conscience) of invincible ignorance. (I suspect, that with this statement, some will be lifted off their chairs). Scripture tell us unequivocally that God is Love. Amen... In my opinion, the reason for the difference with Protestantism generally, is that they tend to reject Tradition. (Episcopalians and Anglicans excepted here). Additionally, there are seven important Deuterocanonical books that are missing from all their Authorized Scriptures, that in my opinion would clarify their misunderstanding. But its not "Scripture" to the Protestant. Sad in my opinion... Just my opinion, in The Risen Christ,
James Addison
1 year 7 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I am confused by two points in your comments and would appreciate any clarification you might provide: 1. You claim that the author "concludes" that conscience and heart in modern terms are equivalents. In my reading of the article, I found just the opposite. I believe the author actually offers a nuanced discussion of both heart and conscience, referencing Old and New Testaments and the Council to elucidate similarities and differences between the two. How do you come to your claim that the author concludes equivalency? 2. Regarding the Lord's judgment, your comments seem to imply that it the heart, and only the heart that is judged. Have I understood your position? Again, I believe that the author -- with reference to Scripture -- justifies a broader understanding of the Lord's judgment. While you generously describe your comments as "just my opinion", I believe the criticism you offer ought to be accompanied by a more careful explanation of the faults or gaps you identify. I look forward to your reply. kind regards,
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
James-I respect your opinion, as I see it I have commented, Don't know if you are a coreligionist, but I have always found the CCC an excellent primary resource. Take care...Jn 19:22... Happy Easter, ... 1 Thess 5:17
Lisa Weber
1 year 7 months ago
I think ditching the doctrine of Original Sin as it relates to the story of Adam and Eve is a wonderful idea because it fosters misogyny in the church.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Lisa-Take that up with the Trinity, not me... Blessed Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary...
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
William, As you know, it is not God who defined the doctrine of original sin. It was a human being, a 4th century male human being, a brilliant, but very fallible human being who had not the benefit of the scientific body of knowledge upon which we fallible human beings can draw upon today. I'm sure there is much we have wrong and that there will continue to be breakthroughs in knowledge, scientific and others, throughout human history. When those breakthroughs are made, the sensible thing to do is to re-examine "doctrine" (secular and religious) that was based on incomplete knowledge and refine and re-define where called for. Tough to do for people who claim that they have never been wrong and cannot be wrong because all of their doctrines are essentially defined by God. Although some think that human beings can read God's mind, can channel God's thoughts into "infallible" teachings, I am not among them. Augustine can be excused, due to his lack of scientific knowledge - geological, of how the earth was formed, astronomical, of the universe, biological, of evolution - no knowledge of cosmology. The men who run the Catholic church today do not have that excuse. The men today do teach that the creation story is not to be read literally. They don't, unlike some fundamentalist christian groups, claim that the universe was fully formed in six, 24 hour days. They know that Adam simply represents "man" and Eve represents "woman" and that there was no single first couple that disobeyed God at the urgings of a talking snake. The story is rich in meaning, but it cannot be read literally. If it is read literally, much of the rich meaning is lost. However, the men who define church teachings have an interesting habit of picking and choosing scripture passages to interpret more literally, that serve to uphold their own "authority" and their own interpretations of selected bible passages, often somewhat self-serving interpretations. Proof-texting is alive and well in Rome. Throughout church history the men who run the church have held on tightly to Augustine's interpretation, his definition of "original sin" based on a literal interpretation of the ancient Hebrew scriptures of Genesis. As you surely know, there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis. In one, the first humans are created at the same time in the same way by God. In the other, the man is made first, and the woman is made later, from the man's rib. This leads to an interpretation that women are of less importance than man. Women were created so that the male would not be lonely, and she was not created individually by God, but created out of the man's body.. Unsurprisingly, the men who have run the church, including recent popes, prefer the version of Genesis that has woman made from Adam's rib. The rest of the story, Eve convincing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, is an interpretation that casts Eve (woman) forever as temptress, who causes men to sin. The theologians of ancient times then essentially reduced the role of married sexual relations to a utilitarian function. This ancient, but incomplete understanding, is perpetuated up to this very day through the teachings of Theology of the Body, and its insistence on the very unnatural way of limiting family size that they insist on calling Natural Family Planning. Sex is licit only if open to procreation. According to Augustine and others, abstinence was required at all times unless more children were needed. The church passed laws that prohibited priests from having sexual relations with their wives for a specified time period before presiding over the mass. Because sex to them, was, and is, a disturbing drive, too pleasurable to be "good", and men must learn to control this disturbing natural human drive.. The blame was, and too often still is, put on the woman. Women were to be subservient to male purposes. They should keep house, and bear and raise children. The men who run this church have barely taken baby steps beyond this ancient patriarchal thinking. At this stage of history, deliberately clinging to patriarchy implies that misogny may also be present. Both are sinful. Just my opinion....
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Miss Sandi, Who told you that, I would ask for my money back if I paid anything for the seminar. Honestly, it's something so ridiculous that I will refrain from commenting, however you ought to ask yourself what constitutes Authority?..Nuff said God bless you dear... 1 Thess 5:17
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Who told me what? What seminar are you talking about? I have never paid anyone any money to read the bible, nor to read Vatican documents, nor to read books and articles by theologians. I have not paid anyone so that I can read about history and culture and science. I believe this is necessary in order to inform, and form, my conscience. I am human, thus fallible. However, I know that God gave me a mind and expects me to use it. He does not ask us to be passive children, but mature adult believers. So, while it is certainly possible that sometimes I reach incorrect conclusions, I feel reasonably confident about mine, because they are arrived at after a lot of study, reflection and prayer. Of course, if someone provided evidence that my reading of church history and church documents is wrong, I would certainly take it into consideration. The thing is, for much of my life, I accepted it all without question. The church could never be wrong, after all, it speaks for God. It said so in the bible - God will always be with the "church", with those who follow Christ. Of course, God never appointed a pope, and Jesus himself never knew anything at all about an organization called the Roman Catholic church. He never ordained a priesthood, much less a hierarchy. He was, after all, a Jew. But I had a proper 1950s and 1960s Catholic education, even memorizing the Baltimore Catechism as a young child so that I could feed it all back, word for word. We weren't taught to think, and questions about teachings were not allowed. But I grew up, and as I got older, there was a great deal of cognitive dissonance between what I had been taught and what I knew and observed from life. So I began an extensive program of self-study, eventually realizing that the men in Rome don't actually know and more than I do. Realizing that my conscience is up to me to inform and form, a moral responsibiity I cannot duck, not passively allow others to do for me. So, I am with Aquinas on this (opposed to him on some matters) - Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins. What is so ridiculous that you can't even comment? Perhaps it's that you can't comment, beyond generalities? Your reference to "Authority" is a bit of a giveaway, I'm afraid.. There is nothing ridiculous about any of it. Unfortunately, it is all too real in the Catholic church of the 21st century, as it has been for rmost of the church's history. I can only assume that you have not studied very much, outside of the CCC. Sometimes there seems a lack of breadth and depth of knowledge in your comments. Many people choose not to study, to educate themselves. It's far easier to let others do it for them and to let those others tell them what interpretations to hold. Are you among them? Since reading from anyone who is not Catholic might at this point be too much of a leap for you, maybe start with a few Catholics. Some good (although, in your mind, probably heretical) Jesuit authors include Thomas Rausch, John O'Malley, Anthony DeMello, and Paul Coutinho, SJ who wrote a book called "How Big is Your God?" - a good question for you to reflect on. Maybe read a bit of Richard Rohr, OFM, Thomas Merton, Ron Rolheiser, and Henri Nouwen. If you want a challenge, John of the Cross. You could try The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich. The mystics, both from earlier eras and our own, are wonderful at teaching us how to open our minds so that we can began to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit. I would also recommend looking for a Centering Prayer group. Centering Prayer also helps us to open our minds and souls to better hear God speaking to us. Peace and blessings.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Thanks for the peace and blessings... in The Risen Christ,
Greg Redford
1 year 7 months ago
You do realize that telling Sandi her comments are ridiculous and that she should ask herself what constitutes Authority could be seen as yet another patriarchal dismissal, and refers her back to a set of stipulations made by the same group of men? Not the most compelling engagement. You are arguing from inside the language-game, as Wittgenstein might say.
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Thank you for noticing, Greg. The patriarchal talking down to a mere woman tone is also at play in slightly more subtle, passive-aggressive ways in the use of "Miss" before my name, in the use of "dear" after "God bless you", and his 'kindly' concern for this unfortunately wayward child (I am worried about you) . The only men who might get a pass on calling an adult women "Miss Firstname" are those raised in the old south, trained to address all women as "Miss" no matter their age or marital status. Since Mr. Rydberg is Canadian, this exception does not apply to him. These words and phrases are examples of the type of patriarchal condescension that Rome, and many priests and bishops, so often displays towards women, telling us, essentially not to worry our pretty little heads about serious matters, which are rightfully decided by men. Unfortunately, Francis is just as bad as his predecessors were when it comes to how he talks about women and how he treats them.
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Lisa, As is too obvious every day in this church, from the very top in Rome, to the parish, to the comments on websites like this one - very few Catholics, including women, and even fewer men, have ever reflected on the deep misogny in many teachings of this church, many based on the intrinsic patriarchy and misogny of the ancient texts of the bible.. Patriarchy and misogny were simply accepted for almost 2000 years in the church, just as they were accepted in the general culture. But, today, more people see this and more people understand that this misogny and patriarchy cause real harm. Except most of the men in charge of the Roman Catholic church. They have yet to examine their consciences on how they continue to perpetuate the sins of patriarchy and misogny. Augustine read and understood the stories in the scriptures literally, as did everyone in his era. They did not have the scientific information we have today. He simply accepted the creation story in Genesis as literal fact, along with accepting the inferior status of women without reflection or question, and, after giving up the hedonistic lifestyle he had led, overreacted when it came to sex. Once he was convulsed with guilt, he began to see sexual relations in marriage as simply being a necessary evil, meant to continue the human race. He totally abandoned his mistress, the mother of his child, rather than marry her - I believe she was not of the "right" social class. Augustine's beliefs still form much of the foundation of the church's teachings on contraception, along with his and other church fathers overreliance on the understandings of the pagan Greek philosophers as far as "natural law" is concerned. So, according to Augustine, with certain exceptions (Mary, his own mother, for example), women were temptresses, following in Eve's footsteps. They could lead men to sin, as Eve did, because of their sexual attractiveness to men. The depth of the misogny is so apparent in this particular biblical myth that I had to laugh at myself when it first hit me, as I had not seen it for most of my life. We get these stories and teachings drummed into us from early childhood and never really think about them! Or at least I didn't, for a very long time. One day it did hit me - according to the original sin teaching, God condemned all descendants of Adam for all history to suffer for the sin of Adam in eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:6). It was only when the male human disobeyed and ate of this tree that the human race was condemned. The female wasn't important and so her "sin" did not condemn the human race. Note too how this "sin" is transmitted forever - through sexual relations! Adam supposedly could not resist Eve because of her sexual attractiveness. So it begins - it's the woman's "fault" because men are "unable" to control themselves when sexually attracted to a woman. So original sin became not only about the male's inability to resist the temptress, Eve, and so to disobey God's direct order, it became all about sex - giving in to the "lower appetitites", to sensuousness, - IOW concupiscence.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Miss Sandi-So tell me how comments like this about Revelation contributes to helping the sick and feeding the poor of this world and how does this assist them in coming to know the love of God in Christ through the instrumentality of His Church? I read the comments and frankly they portray a poor understanding of the Catholic Faith and the Fall and it's terrible Affects on humankind (Note: the sad affects of concupscience you describe according to the Revelation occurred AFTER the FALL not prior to it) why don't you sit down with someone at your parish, I am sure that misperceptions can be addressed... Just my opinion, because I am worried about you... in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, do not worry. My comments about the problems with some of the theology of original sin may seem to have nothing at all to do with feeding the poor. But this theology actually does relate to feeding the poor. You see, the sanctioned discrimination against women that was accepted for most of human history - in the general culture not just in religious culture - harmed women. It still does. But in the 21st century, in the developed nations, most of this is now confined to religious environments. Not to all of them of course - mainstream Protestants, most members of the Anglican Communion, and Conservative and Reform Judaism all have realized that reliigious discrimination against women is morally indefensible. Sadly, the Orthodox christians, and many evangelical Protestants, along with much of Islam, have yet not seen the light. The distorted theology that underlies Catholic teachings does hurt the poor. Rather than the Catholic church being the shining light on the hill, teaching the world that women ARE fully equal to men, it teaches that women are divinely willed (as interpreted by the male celibates of the Catholic church) to be subservient to men. They are not to be considered fully equal to men. It is the role of these male celibates to define the "proper" roles of women, and of course, there is no need to actually talk with women about these matters. This sets a very bad example to the world, sending a very harmful message. This perpetuation of patriarchy and misogny hurts all women, but it hurts poor women the most. BTW, I am very well educated in official Catholic teaching, at least as well as most parish priests I have known. But I have also not been hindered by studying only from carefully selected curricula and readings, as are so many Catholic seminarians. I have always been free to study from many sources, uncensored.. I recommend this process to you - it's amazing what you learn. And, as you so often say, it is just your opinion.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Miss Sandi- I apologize none of my business then, I didn't realize that you are not a coreligionist. I'll admit that I ought to have picked up when you mentioned as I recollect not going to Mass because you weren't getting anything out of it, or words to that effect. Maybe try leaving the door open? God bless and Godspeed...
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I am a Roman Catholic. Are you? Perhaps you are not, as you say you and I are not "coreligionists". Are you SSPX perhaps?
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
Ouch!
E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 7 months ago
"In England, the Church of England is a shell of its former self with less than one million attendees at Sunday service. The CofE has latched onto every liberal belief and action, which has not stemmed the loss or increased membership, and has attempted to maintain its clergy by accepting women and LGBTs What is the Church of England doing wrong to lose followers and ministers as it has married ministers, gay and female Bishops and now has adjusted to and accepted even more liberal proposals than some are considering or proposing for the Catholic Church as the panacea? Is this the future of a reformed Roman Catholic Church, another CofE, being proposed here.
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
Does your comment bear relevance to the discussion on Catholic teaching on original sin? Or do you wish simply to try to say that fear of loss of membership requires forever defending an ancient theology that has led to the church's teachings that relegate females to being second-class members of the church?
E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 7 months ago
"second-class members of the church" So what is your definition of 'second class'? This "ancient theology" has brought the Church through 2,000+ years, through the good and bad years, for decades and centuries. What exactly is your first proposed revision to the Church's teachings, a Public admission by the Pope that the Church teachings has been wrong for 2000+ years?
Sandi Sinor
1 year 7 months ago
When I was a child in parochial school, we were taught that there were seven sacraments. It was only much later that I realized that we were deceived. There are seven sacraments for males, but only six for females. That's just for starters. The men in Rome have written several documents that clearly show their views of women. I would suggest that you read them. Yes, the church does need to admit publicly that many teachings, especially those related to women, marriage, and sexuality were wrong. If they don't have the humility for that, they can say they were "misguided" based on incomplete data, since the foundations date back to ancient times. The church has a very hard time admitting errors. The church no longer has an "Index of Forbidden Books", it no longer teaches that slavery is "moral and in accordance with natural law". It no longer tries people for heresy for stating that the earth revolves around the sun. It not longer bans loans made at interest. It no longer condemns freedom of religion. It no longer condemns democracy. It no Shall I go on? The church has been wrong many times. That's understandable. What is not is the refusa of the male celibates who run the church to admit when they are wrong. We've seen this most recently in the sex abuse scandal. They don't admit that there is a foundational problem in the way the church is governed, rooted in church teachings. Instead they say "Mistakes were made". Not a single bishop has been held accountble for these mistakes that were so mysteriously made under their orders. Yes indeed, the church needs to publicly admit when it is wrong, and apologize for the harm done. As far as the many ways the church treats women as second-class, I simply don't have time to do your homework for you. I would recommend that those who are in denial about the church's patriarchy-based sins against women open their minds, and begin some serious study.
Richard Booth
1 year 7 months ago
I made a comment like the above about Augustine's punitive sexual theology - the necessary evil. I was told I did not understand Augustine. I think I do. Hence, Augustine having been adopted by the Church, it is no wonder there are so many sexual "sins" that clerics have created. I remember taking high school biology from a priest-teacher in the seminary. He told us to skip the chapter on procreation!! I wonder what his issue was.
Richard Booth
1 year 7 months ago
For different reasons, I agree with "ditching" the doctrine of Original Sin - it is like bad parenting - that is, punishing all the kids for the negative behavior of one.
Greg Redford
1 year 7 months ago
I don't think the author makes the equivalency you suggest, between "heart" and "conscience." In fact, I think the author goes to some effort to show they are different.
Barry Fitzpatrick
1 year 7 months ago
Fr. Keenan gives us a lesson in clarity of thought as he distills the insights found in the Bible and the Church with regard to conscience and conscience formation. How I wish I were his student at BC. Much has been clouded over in the name of conscience as the ultimate arbiter of good decision-making. We don't like words like judgment and guilt, and we have on occasion ignored the "fruit of the examined conscience" in reflecting on our own decisions. What are we "teaching" about conscience formation and what situations are we throwing in the path of our students in Catholic schools to assist them in this sacred task? The well-formed conscience "disturbs as it judges," and in our formative approach to teaching young people we can hope to disturb as much as possible. Pope Francis talks about descending without getting lost in our ministry to others. Where could that be more true than with those whose consciences are in an embryonic state? I think of the young man who shared his personal objection to abortion, unless, of course, such a situation confronted him and his girl friend. There is much need for disturbance there. Fr Keenan carefully reminds us of the unsurpassed wisdom of Vatican II's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." The emphasis is on the "voice of conscience" speaking to the heart so that we may decide on the side of love. What blinds us to this possibility and what deafens us to that voice is "habitual sin," which numbs the conscience and the heart too. We convince ourselves we are right because we don't have the deep personal relationships we need to stand up, listen, reflect, and ultimately change in a lasting and meaningful way. Among the rights bestowed on us with our conscience is the right to hear that word, whispered deep inside us, telling us "This is the way; walk in it." Thanks, Fr. Keenan, for the reminder.
Richard Booth
1 year 7 months ago
Whether one uses the metaphor of "heart" or "conscience," the author gives us a slightly different view from that which many of us were taught. In my time, an examination of conscience was an intrapsychic job one performed to discover how many and what kinds of "bad" things one has been thinking about, fantasizing about, and/or doing. It was an extremely self-punitive approach which often led to neurotic scrupulosity (fiddling with pebbles) and reducing one's sense of autonomy and worthwhileness. It also kept priests busy in the box - at least something to do, given what they were not doing. There was very little reference to the love the Christ has for us. I have found myself wondering what the state of mind priests and nuns must have been in if they felt they could freely humiliate people often no worse than themselves. For these reasons, I found parts of this article refreshing. A type of general confession model could be more developed and discussed than it has thus far.
E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 7 months ago
All Catholics, in particular Catholic politicians, need to be warned by their bishops that by calling attention to their Catholic faith and in the same breath voicing support for abortion rights, same sex marriage and other acts contrary to Catholic teachings a public act of scandal — as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2284-6) — is committed. Paragraph 2286 is directly applicable to people in political positions. It reads: "Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structure leading to the decline of morals." Can two prominent Catholic politicians or judges reach opposite positions on these topics claiming a "well-formed conscience" ? Then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed "Conscience and Truth",his 1991 presentation to the American Bishops in Dallas Texas. The full address can be found at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/ratzcons.htm The following summarizes the conclusions; Cardinal Ratzinger touched on the correct understanding of conscience," "Conscience is understood by many to be sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock on which even the magisterium can founder. It claimed that in the light of conscience no other reason applies. Finally, conscience appears as the supreme level of subjectivity; but conscience is an organ, not an oracle; it requires growth, exercise and development." For those who hold that one's own subjective conscience is infallible, superior to all others and that the Church Authority cannot impose restrictions on those whose conscience brings them to decisions contrary to the Church's teachings, Cardinal Ratzinger points out the obvious error in this rationalization by the following "It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth - at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity." Cardinal Ratzinger describes the concept of the erroneous conscience as follows: "The erroneous conscience, by sheltering the person from the exacting demands of truth, saves him ... - thus went the argument. Conscience appeared here not as a window through which one can see outward to that common truth which founds and sustains us all, and so makes possible through the common recognition of truth, the community of needs and responsibilities. Conscience here does not mean man's openness to the ground of his being, the power of perception for what is highest and most essential. Rather, it appears as subjectivity's protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality. Liberalism's idea of conscience was in fact presupposed here. Conscience does not open the way to the redemptive road to truth which either does not exist or, if it does, is too demanding. It is the faculty which dispenses from truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which should not like to have itself called into question. Similarly, it becomes the justification for social conformity. As mediating value between the different subjectivities, social conformity is intended to make living together possible. The obligation to seek the truth ceases, as do any doubts about the general inclination of society and what it has become accustomed to. Being convinced of oneself, as well as conforming to others, are sufficient. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction and the less depth he has, the better for him."
Charles Erlinger
1 year 7 months ago
Here is my layman's version of "how things work" regarding the issue of conscience versus heart. My understanding is that conscience is the action of recognizing what is presented cognitively as truth in terms of moral rightness of a specific behavior. The cognitive presentation is the result of the habitual exercise of prudence, which is a virtue acquired at a natural level through practice and infused at the supernatural level through grace. I think of this situation as conscience being trained by the habitual exercise of prudence. Perhaps this is what is meant by the "formation" of conscience. What prudence works on in developing the truth about moral rightness, is the innate realizations about moral rightness often referred to as the natural law, supplemented by revealed positive law which would include such subjects as the Ten Commandments as well as all of the other behavior prescriptions in scriptures, advanced further by education and training enriched by cultural developments such as rights theory and religion. This process involves much more than the intellectual and spiritual activity of the individual person, and includes family and church and educational and cultural interactions. I think of this aspect of conscience formation as a kind of social interaction with God and with fellow humans, and in this light the "heart" terminology for conscience seems like a naturally appropriate metaphor. Corrections and clarifications would be welcomed.
J Cosgrove
1 year 7 months ago
I have a question. Should America Magazine examine its own conscience. The particular choice of articles and lack of coverage is amazing. For example, how many of you out there are aware of John McAdams. http://bit.ly/1SIKmUr http://bit.ly/1PNEEMz There are many more on this particular topic and given what is going on in the world today, the choice of opinions/news to not cover is an indictment against America, the magazine. Maybe they should spend a long time in the box. Here is one I wish they would cover. What is the cause of the high tuitions in universities these days. It is screwing up the fabric of US society. Just analyze Georgetown and Boston College to give us some insight. After all America should have an in at both these universities and other similar Jesuit colleges to do some very necessary investigative reporting. Examination of Conscience is about actions that affect the well being of others. Let's have at it.
E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 7 months ago
While the subject of the article is conscience perhaps Catholic universities and colleges are failing in one of their duties to impart the knowledge needed to develop a well formed conscience. Exactly what is a Catholic University today? "Holy See Rules Blatty Petitioners Have Established “Well Founded Complaint” "Vatican Finds Georgetown In Violation of Its Catholic Identity" "Washington, D.C. – Launched almost one year ago, the Canon Law petition of more than 2,000 Catholics represented by Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, whose best-selling book and blockbuster film The Exorcist were situated at his alma mater Georgetown University, has received a formal response from the Holy See.".... " The “Petition” asked the Catholic Church to require that Georgetown implement Ex corde Ecclesiae, a papal constitution governing Catholic colleges, and, only as a last possible measure, the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit in any of its representations. "........ "In a letter dated April 4, Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, wrote: “Your communications to this Dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University . . . constitutes a well-founded complaint.” Zani added: “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.” Blatty issued this statement: “I am deeply gratified that the prayers of my two thousand fellow Petitioners have been answered. There is still more work to be done, and I promise them that we will persevere.”" Source http://www.gupetition.org/ Perhaps the day is near when there will be fewer or possibly no "Catholic" University or College in America. Marquette University,another Jesuit school, should have been included in Mr Blatty's Petition.Now Marquette is trying to fire this tenured professor for upholding the free speech rights of a student. http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/12/19/catholic-university-marquette-suspends-professor-over-anti-gay-marriage.html And also Notre Dame, named in honor of the Blessed Virgin, who allowed the Vagina Monologues to be performed on its campus and is now honoring VP Biden who supports social practices that are opposed to Catholic teachings. The political correct inmates are in control of supposedly "Catholic" universities. Obviously Federal dollars trump,no pun intended, Catholic beliefs.
J Cosgrove
1 year 7 months ago
Perhaps the day is near when there will be fewer or possibly no "Catholic" University or College in America.
That day has come and gone. There still are some trappings of Catholic Identity as many of the universities but as soon as they started taking government aid, the game was over. I have a cousin who is a Protestant and married someone she met at a Protestant college in the early 70's. She said the school was religious but by the time she and her husband graduated, it was secular. Why? In order to get government monies it had to abandon all the requirements of their faith in running the school. The same has happened to Catholic universities and is creeping down into the high schools and grade schools such that Catholic education is more a veneer than substance. For example, at Catholic grammar school music concert recently, all the students sang "Imagine" by John Lennon. This is an anthem to Atheistic Communism and mocks religion. Neither the teachers or the students had any idea what they were singing. Not quite as blatant as the Internationale but close. So is this type of attitude now part of the fabric of America, the magazine. The magazine seems more political than religious. Everything tilts one way.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 7 months ago
Aquinas says, conscience may be certain but not correct. It strikes me that conscience can also be correct but not certain! This dilemma is caused by the convergence of moral objectivity and the necessity of practical moral subjectivity, leading to what may be in effect a correct but uncertain conscience. As a result, a person of good will may simply have to trust in God saying, “Lord, this beats me! You figure it out!” God is not a taskmaster, ready whip in hand! Even if we had been taught that way from early childhood. Conscience can also be “uninformed. How about “under-informed?” Is there subtle connective tissue between the two, or are they entirely contrary? Sometimes if conscience is “under-informed” but not “uninformed” uncertainty can arise despite correct moral anchors. When St. Joan of Arc was questioned by her interrogators as to whether she considered herself to be in the state of grace, she replied, “If not may God put me there; and if I am, may he keep me there!” I guess that pretty much sums up how one should relate to the question of a malformed versus a well-formed conscience, doing the best one can and leaving the rest to the merciful Jesus who told St. Faustina, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my merciful heart!”
Greg Redford
1 year 7 months ago
Great article.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 7 months ago
Hi Sandi, This comment is limited to your feelings expressed further down this site, that only Six of the Seven sacraments apply to women. I’ll try to explain, as best I understand why you are mistaken, showing that the whole Church, women included share even the Sacrament of Holy Orders in a specific way, contrary to how you feel. Many moons ago I listened to theological speculation offered by a knowledgeable priest, as we sat together sipping anything from coke, or beer to wine, others drifting by too. Once discussing Holy Orders as it pertains to Bishops, he said to me, “All priests are Bishops as there is only one priesthood,” For him there was no such thing as Episcopal “fullness” referring only to Bishops. He believed all priests have the “fullness of the priesthood.” I tend to believe that opinion. Rooted in the certitude of Faith, I was taught there are Seven Sacraments as you mentioned. The principal one is Baptism, which sacramentally empowers all the Baptized to share in all of the other Six Sacraments. Note the word “share.” The Baptized through Baptism, share in three principal characteristics of Christ – his Priestly character, his Kingly character, his Prophetic character. At Mass the priest at the altar speaks of “my sacrifice and yours” involving thereby all the baptized in the principal ministry of the priest – to “offer sacrifice” and so Baptism makes it possible for the whole Church, male and female to share in the holy orders from Christ in predetermined ways, to “do this in memory of me.” The laity share fully in the priestly characteristic of Christ, as there is only one priesthood, exercising the priesthood in a manner determined essentially by the Vicar of Christ, the Pope. He is endowed with that authority based as I understand it, on the “loosening” and the “binding” mandate conferred on Peter by Christ. Everything the Church teaches relative to Faith and Morals depends on the veracity of the “Keys.” If this is not a dependable and defendable truth, how then can the Baptized trust anything the Church says? Even Baptism becomes meaningless and the Catholic Faith a farce! At least so it seems to me. Incidentally there’s much more that Baptism does, besides making all, male and female members, “priestly, like sharing the Kingly and Prophetic character of Christ, prophetic not essentially about foreseeing the future – that too, of course, but mostly about Christ as teacher, which we are too, called through Baptism to proclaim Christ as Lord! Kingly because the Kingdom of Heaven is ours. I think I’ve said enough, or maybe not.

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