During my years in Peru, I saw parishioners attacked, humiliated and tortured by police or insurgents. They experienced the high cost of striving to “obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Meanwhile, in the United States, some folks were appealing to the same principles of “dissent” and “conscience.” However, it did not involve such a great price. Instead it seemed to make their lives easier. Catholic college professors who dissented from Church teaching not only kept their jobs, but received praise and new opportunities. Individuals or couples, finding difficulty with questions of sexual morality, said they were “following their own consciences.” Politicians likewise evoked freedom of conscience so they could endorse abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research – and still call themselves Catholics.
Something is wrong with this picture. I cannot give a full exposition on conscience, but today’s readings from Acts provides a good starting point to get things untangled.* When Peter and the other apostles told the Sanhedrin authorities, “We must obey God rather than men,” they were not acting out of convenience. On the contrary, they were laying everything on the line. It would eventually lead to beatings, incarceration and death by capital punishment.
Jesus predicted Peter’s death, as we see in today’s Gospel. “You will stretch out your hands…and someone will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21:18) We know from early Christian writers that Peter would eventually go to Rome and, as Tertullian states, “endure a passion like his Lord’s.”** Origen and others testify that Peter was crucified, head downward. This happened in the Ager Vaticanus, the area on the west bank of the Tiber where Nero had constructed his arena.
From Peter’s example, we see a crucial criterion for judging the correctness of ones conscience. Does it cost me something? Does it require personal sacrifice? Is it taking me closer to the total self-giving implied by the word “love”? An appeal to conscience, which makes ones life more comfortable, is prima facie suspect.
The Catechism refers to conscience as “man’s most secret core.” There each person finds himself “alone with God” and discovers a “law inscribed by God.” (#1776) At the same time the Catechism notes what should be obvious to everyone: Because we are “subject to negative influences” and “tempted by sin” we prefer our own judgment to God’s. (#1783) For that reason our consciences require formation.
Notice that the apostles acted under the power of “the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32) Like them, you and I need to pray to the Holy Spirit before making moral decisions. But we also need enough humility (and horse sense) to recognize that for two thousand years the Spirit has been guiding the Christian Church, particularly through the teaching of the apostles and their successors.
In his book, By What Authority?, Mark Shea gives examples of men who broke away from the authority of the living magisterium – with disastrous results. For example, throughout Christian history, especially in the last five hundred years, certain leaders have used the Bible to justify polygamy.*** Although most of us would feel a gut level repugnance to such an idea, it is difficult respond decisively without some appeal to constant Christian teaching. The same applies to vexing questions of abortion, homosexual behavior and birth control – not to mention doctrinal issues such as the Trinity.
Last week I mentioned Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. He considers himself a Christian, even though he rejects Christ’s divinity, endorses goddess worship and believes that the early Church covered up Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene. He can espouse these positions with equanimity – and still claim to be Christian - because he has the same understanding of conscience as a dissenting theologian, a follower of Archbishop Lefebvre or a pro-abortion Catholic politician. In the final analysis, each one is obeying men rather than God.
Jesus addresses to you and me the same question as he addressed to Peter: Do you love me? A most challenging aspect of that love is proper formation of conscience – putting God in first place and obeying him.
*The Catechism has sixty-nine paragraphs with the word "conscience." By way of contrast, the words "sex" and "sexual" appear in only seventeen. (So much for the view that the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.) Paragraph 1778 presents the definition of conscience, followed by the famous quote from John Henry Newman:
Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ. (Letter to Duke of Norfolk, 5)
**'Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood; where Peter endures a passion like his Lord's; where Paul wins his crown in a death like John's[the Baptist]...
si autem Italiae adiaces , habes Romam unde nobis quoque auctoritas praesto est .  Ista quam felix ecclesia cui totam doctrinam apostoli cum sanguine suo profuderunt, ubi Petrus passioni dominicae adaequatur, ubi Paulus Ioannis exitu coronatur... Tertulliani Liber De Praescriptione Haereticorum XXXVI [2,3]
***Including not only Brigham Young and David Koresh, but also such heavyweights as John Milton and Martin Luther!
From Archives (Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies
Fr. Jim's Homilies
Fr. Michael White's Homilies ("messages")
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
Parish Picture Album
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (Learning from the Virginia Tech Massacre, Supreme Court Decision, Working Together: Capital Campaign & Appeal, Retreat in Oregon)
Bulletin (Deacon Abel Magaña, Mayday for Marriage, Mother's Day Novena)
Archbishop's remarks target office seekers Catholics obligated to follow conscience of faith
North Korean Martyrs: Today
Dave Armstrong Debates with Anti-Catholics
The Sister Servants of the Eternal Word
Quentin Tarantino on The Passion
Reversal of fortune for Turin Shroud
Iraq and Just War, Revisited by George Weigel
Liberal Larry on Andy Rooney; Man of the People (notice to humor impaired - this is parody)
The Seattle Times Goes Deep
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru Home
The Seattle Times Goes Deep
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru