Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Truth, love, and the role of conscience

It really should go without saying that without truth there is no love and vice-versa. Another way to state this is that without justice there is no mercy. Of course there is a difference between morality and moralism. Morality maintains the complementary relation between truth and love while moralism divorces truth from love and so leaves no room for grace, let alone mercy.

For Christians the Ten Commandments constitute the foundations of morality. When one looks at the Ten Commandments through the lens of Jesus' Two Great Commandments (i.e., love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself) one can easily see that the first four commandments are about loving God- the fourth commandment about honoring one's parents is perhaps the most interesting of the ten- and the final six concern love of our fellow man. Fr Basil Maturin, in his book Christian Self-Mastery: How to Govern Your Thoughts, Discipline Your Will, and Achieve Balance in Your Spiritual Life, noted: "It is by placing ourselves under certain laws of commandment and prohibition [dos and donts] that the heart becomes trained to turn toward its true end."

Commenting on the Ten Commandments, Fr Maturin pointed out:
These commandments say nothing directly about love. But they forbid that which destroys it and direct certain practices that tend to develop it aright. Love is there. Like a stream, it is ever flowing; it needs to be directed into its proper channel, and the soul needs to be warned against that which destroys it

Yesterday the National Catholic Register published an article by moral theologian Dr Mark Latkovic, professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, about conscience: "The Primacy of Conscience, the Synod and the Catholic Faith." In his piece, Dr Latkovic provides a concise and very readable summary on the important, even the "sacred," role of conscience in moral decision-making, while noting that un(in)formed conscience does not reign supreme. Pointing to the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, he notes that conscience is the "echo" of God's voice within us. Formulated more traditionally, "conscience makes reference to the law inscribed on our hearts."

Fundamentally, the "law inscribed on our hearts" is the law of love. Adhering to the law of love prevents morality, moral decision-making, from ever becoming autonomous. Keep in mind that what constituted the primordial sin that resulted in original sin was the desire to be autonomous, to become a law unto one's self, becoming "like gods" knowing as God knows (Gen 3:5).

In order to link Fr Maturin's insight about directing our love into its proper channel to Dr Latkovic's important observations about conscience we turn to Pope St John Paul II's 1993 encylical letter Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth), particularly a section Dr Latkovic cites at length:
the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth, but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth, but also because the magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience (par 64)
While I am neither a cynic nor a skeptic, I am often surprised at how often Church teaching on these matters is shunted aside when it comes to dealing with difficult challenges to the truth. Conversion, which, of necessity, involves proper formation of one's conscience, is a lifetime endeavor. We call this endeavor "discipleship." In some instances, when one considers Purgatory, it is an endeavor that perhaps exceeds one's lifetime. Moral autonomy and being Catholic are not just difficult, but impossible, to reconcile.

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