Saturday, September 1, 2012
I am coaching my son’s 5th grade football team this fall. This past week, I talked a lot about developing habits – the things we do automatically, without giving it any thought. Like buttoning a button and tying shoelaces, or good table manners, covering your mouth when you sneeze, and saying please and thank you. The same is true with playing football: we want to develop good habits like lining up correctly and moving at the right time. The goal is to develop good habits, so that they become automatic, they don’t have to stop and think about it; they just do it and do it right, which allows them to focus on more important things (like what to do when a bigger kid is running at them). The same happens in our moral life, when we chose between right and wrong, between good and evil. If we choose to do what is right and good over and over, then we develop the habit of doing good and avoiding evil. These habits of doing good are called a virtues. Virtues are developed by regularly choosing good. And it is God’s grace that helps us to develop virtues and to sustain them, particularly in the face of hostility and pressure. At times, however, we are faced with a big or important decision that requires more than a simple habitual or conditioned response, and certainly it requires more than relying on gut instinct, feelings or emotions, or following what is most popular. In such decisions, we need to exercise our conscience. Simply put, our conscience is a judgment of what is right or wrong, good or evil. I like to think of conscience also as the awareness we possess to decide what is good and right and the awareness to seek repentance and reconciliation when we have failed to what is good and right. We are called to form our conscience, in order to properly choose between good and evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.” (CCC 1802) Today’s readings give us some important insights about forming our consciences. And the U.S. Bishops have encouraged clergy to take this weekend’s readings as an opportunity to teach on conscience formation, particularly as we approach the November election. The first reading from Deuteronomy asks, “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” This passage affirms God’s faithfulness to us—his promise to be with us as we “search” for what is right with a sincere heart. For our part, we have to approach our searching with a sincere heart and a willingness to seek the truth. If we do these things, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will be with us. Today’s first reading also emphasizes the “statutes and decrees” that God has given the Israelites, saying that these statutes and decrees are given so “that you and your descendants may live.” The first reading also emphasizes that we may not pick and choose which of these commands we will follow. In forming our conscience, today’s first reading reminds us that we must seek to know and understand what Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church says on any given situation and that we are obliged to follow them, because this is God’s command to us. Today’s Psalm emphasizes the importance of “doing justice,” which is an important aspect of conscience. The Psalmist sings that the “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” When we have to make a decision about something, we should also explore what is “just.” How this or that choice will enhance—not degrade—the life and dignity of each person made in the image of God. We especially have a duty to act to defend the weak, unborn, poor, and migrant. In forming our conscience, we must examine the facts and background of the situation and consider what is just and right to do. Another aspect to forming our consciences is prayer and reflection. In today’s second reading, we are instructed to “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in (us) and is able to save (our) souls.” (vs. 21) The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ in their statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, urges us to hear “the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil.” (no. 17) Being attentive to God’s voice requires that we take regular time for prayer, and that we bring with us to our prayer and reflection time the important decisions that we face. Referencing the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s Gospel, Jesus criticizes those who honor God with their lips but whose hearts are far from him. He quotes that “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (vs. 6) Conscience formation is not about going through the motions, or about searching for evidence to support a decision you have already made. It is about taking seriously our lifelong obligation to do what is required to continually form our consciences, in order to follow God’s will. We are obliged to follow our conscience in making moral decisions, and this requires us to have a well-formed conscience. That we: • Have a sincere desire to embrace goodness and truth. • Study of Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church. • Examine of the facts and background information about various choices. • Prayerful reflect and discern the will of God (FCFC, no. 18). In their statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops name a number of issues about which we should form our consciences. Some of these include: • Continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and other threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable, sick, or unwanted; • Renewed efforts to force Catholic ministries—in health care, education, and social services—to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need; • Efforts to redefine marriage and enact measures which undermine marriage as between one man and one woman and an institution essential to the common good; • An economic crisis which has devastated lives and livelihoods, increasing unemployment, poverty, hunger, deficits and debt, and the duty to respond in ways that protect the poor and future generations; • The failure to repair a broken immigration system with comprehensive measures that promote respect for law, human rights and the dignity of immigrants and refugees, and which keep families together, and advance the common good; • Wars, terror, and violence which raise serious moral questions about the human and moral costs of force, particularly in regards to the Holy Land and Middle East. To learn more about these issues and what the Church teaches on them, I encourage you to read the bishops’ statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. It is available on the U.S. bishops’ website. In the meantime, work on building those great virtues in your life, so that choosing what is good and right becomes a habit. And when faced with a more difficult decision exercise your full-formed conscience. May God bless you.
Posted by Jeffrey Fortkamp at 10:00 AM