Sunday, January 20, 2008

Conscience at Work

“Anne, what are you going to do to me?” he whispered.
“Nothing, dear. You’ve been punished already, I think.”
“No, I haven’t. Nothing’s been done to me.”
“You’ve been very unhappy ever since you did wrong, haven’t you?”
“You bet!” said Davy emphatically.
“That was your conscience punishing you, Davy.”
“What’s my conscience? I want to know.”
“It’s something in you, Davy, that always tells you are doing wrong and makes you unhappy if you persist in doing it. Haven’t you noticed that?”
“Yes, but I didn’t know what it was. I wish I didn’t have it. I’d have lots more fun. Where is my conscience, Anne? I want to know. Is it in my stomach?”
“No, it is in your soul,” answered Anne.

Anne of the Island
by L.M. Montgomery

Like nine-year-old Davy in the literary classic quoted above, there are times we probably wish we didn’t have a conscience. I remember being a young teenager thinking about the conditions necessary for mortal sin, one of which is that you must know what you are doing is a serious sin. It would be so much easier if nobody had bothered telling me what things were serious sins! I could do whatever I wanted with limited moral culpability. It made great sense to my thirteen-year-old brain. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way it works.

We have a responsibility to inform our own consciences and to make sure that we help develop our children’s consciences. Yes, we do have to tell them what sins are. We do need to teach them the commandments. We do need to let them know right from wrong.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and reject authoritative teachings. . . The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice.
(CCC 1783-5)

We all have that little voice inside of us that sends out warning signals when we are on the wrong path. Our task is to listen to it. A young woman I was speaking to recently told me how she was suffering from “Catholic guilt.” Raised Catholic and still Church-going, she was sexually active with her boyfriend and they were planning on moving in together soon. They do plan to be married eventually, but she was troubled by the situation. Her conscience was screaming at her, yet she was choosing to ignore it. I encouraged her to rethink their housing plans, bringing up studies that show it doesn’t bode well for their eventual marriage. I don’t know whether it did any good, but it was one more voice to add to the one protesting inside her.

Another person told me of a sum of money he had been given by accident. He asked whether he should return it. I told him that if he was asking, he already knew what he had to do. His conscience was working on him as well.

When we choose to ignore our consciences, they have a way of making our lives miserable. They keep shouting at us, begging us to pay attention. A CCD teacher told the following story about teaching the sixth commandment to her sixth-grade students. She told them, “We all know what adultery is, and the truth is that it will simply bring sadness to us and to those we love.” I thought that was a wonderful description of what it means to sin. When we sin, we bring sadness to ourselves and those we love. Our lives are much better when we listen to our conscience and live according to God’s laws.

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