By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Conscience is a popular topic today. It seems to me that during my grandparents’ generation (I am 32), Catholics did not speak much about conscience. People then were probably more sensitive to the importance of being guided in their judgment by God, whose word is made known in the church. Judging by the stories people tell me, at its best this culture unified Catholics and promoted all the fruits that come to a community open to the will of God.
At its worst, this culture risked letting the laity off easy, so to speak, since it seemed sufficient in all things to defer to the judgment of clerics and thereby to some extent miss out on a personally engaged faith.
During my parents’ generation, it seems Catholics became more sensitive to their duty to follow the voice of conscience rather than blindly punt their inner life and responsibility to their pastors. At its best, this culture ennobled the laity by inviting them to study their faith and to live attuned to the personal call of God. At its worst, this culture risked ignoring God and dividing Catholics. A crass individualism sometimes threatened to replace a genuine life of conscience, as efforts to form – and therefore empower – consciences were sometimes dismissed as unjust oppressions by authority.
My sense is that engaged Catholics today want to take the best of both generations and to leave the worst. All the dynamic and happy Catholics I know are committed both to their consciences and to their community. They understand that faith must be rooted in our hearts and live from our deepest motivations; but they also see that our hearts must be formed and that God wills to unite us rather than scatter us. An authoritarian church is a weak one; but so is a divided church whose members are irresponsibly uninformed about their history and identity. Engaged Catholics today do not take the Magisterium as an excuse for sterile passivism, nor do they take conscience as a license for destructive individualism. On the contrary, their engaged consciences are constantly pulling them into communion.
Conscience and community are not opposed. St. Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and 10:14-33. There we read about a diverse community of Christians, some of whom understood that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat vainly offered to non-existing gods. They knew that a Christian need not have scruples about eating such meat, for “we know that there is no idol in the world, and that there is no God but one” (8:4). Others, however, thought such meat was spiritually tainted. St. Paul sided with the former group, but – amazingly – he insisted that we bind ourselves by the sensitive consciences of the latter. Thus according to St. Paul there are situations in which we should refrain even from what is lawful in order to do justice to the community. Surprised? Clearly, the Biblically informed conscience is anything but individualistic: once again, there are times when we should bind ourselves by the consciences of others: “Eat anything sold in the market, without raising questions on grounds of conscience, for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1). […] But if someone says to you, ‘This was offered in sacrifice,’ do not eat it on account of the one who called attention to it and on account of conscience – I mean not your own conscience, but the other’s” (10:25-26, 27-29).
Conscience is not a license to ignore our neighbor and the common good. For the sake of others, St. Paul restricts us even from what we correctly judge to be lawful, not to mention what we erroneously judge so. A hard teaching? In any case, the stakes are high, since a careless exercise of freedom can lead another to sin: For, “If someone sees you, with your knowledge, reclining at a table in the temple of an idol, may not his conscience too, weak as it is, be ‘built up’ to eat the meat sacrificed to idols? Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died. When you sin in this way against your brother and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ” (8:8-12).
Much more could be said about conscience. For the moment, let us consider this aspect of the Biblical teaching: conscience and community go together. And let us allow our consciences to draw us into a fruitful solidarity, rather than into the sterile loneliness of passivism and individualism.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.