While trying to come up with a column over the Christmas holiday, the editor suggested I recycle one that I wrote a few years ago about the dulling of the conscience and how we are greatly endangering our own souls as well as the souls of others knowingly or unknowingly by our actions, inactions, thoughts and words.
It makes sense to revisit this problem because in a few weeks the Clinton-Gore administration will ride off into the sunset and we are left with memories of eight years worth of scandals that have truly anesthetized the conscience of Americans. Oh, what a price we have paid and so few realize it. By the percentage of Catholics who voted the pro-abort platform, we are also left with a definite, alarming urgency to retool the moral sense in the minds and hearts of many, many Catholics.
Yet, it isn't as simple as that for there are many misconceptions that have taken root and it all points to relativism, something Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has acknowledged as a great cancer both in the Church and society today. We're reminded of that great premise that permeated our airwaves over the Clinton scandal: "It depends on what 'is' is?" They are so clever in making everything relative and many Catholics have bought into this relativism and materialism ('the economy's good' line) and therein ly the great dangers of scandal.
Recently, I read an article in the Religion section of my newspaper which stated; "...if we let God take control, power shifts to where it belongs - in the conscience of the individual..." This is just a part of what has been a long distortion of Church teaching, that one's conscience is key to one's relationship with God. That one's conscience determines whether or not a sin is, in fact, a sin. Generally, one will find this combined with such items as 'truth is relative' to the individual, and "Judge not...".
The idea is logical, to a degree. And even the Church agrees to a point. IF a person truly doesn't think a sin is a sin, then it isn't 'deadly', that is mortal. It's still a sin, just not a serious sin. It's a venial sin. However, note that I said that the person 'honestly' doesn't know something isn't a sin. One can make an 'honest' mistake. Recently, driving between Oklahoma and Missouri, I 'honestly' thought the speed limit was still 75 mph. Guess what? Was I wrong? Yes. Did I intend to speed? No. But that didn't matter to the Missouri policeman who gave me the ticket.
This is the key. When the Church speaks of the primacy of conscience, they're refering to an 'informed' conscience. That is, the person 'knows' the Church, which teaches with the authority of Christ, that such and such is a sin. However, that person may well 'like' that sin. So they rationalize it. "God loves me just as I am."..."That's how God made me!"..."God wants me to be happy and this makes me happy."..."I'm tired of the Church making me feel guilty.", etc. So, under their own authority, they reject what their 'informed' conscience tells them, and 'kill' their conscience with rationalization. They are then guilty of a mortal sin since they:
a) KNOW it is a sin....but
b) do it any way.
Does it matter what others say?
Yet, today we hear many tell us that a sin isn't a sin unless we feel it's a sin, and woe to them who try to tell them otherwise. More than likely, they'll quote Christ in defense: "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;" (Luke 6:37).
This is what mercy is about. That is what we all hope for, since we're all sinners. But there is a terrible flaw in their logic. If a murderer was asked whether or not he felt that what he did wrong, and he said no, would he be acquitted? Can, say, a mafia hit man escape judgement by saying 'it was only business'?
What many, either intentionally or unintentionally, forget to see is Christ's other teaching: "Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4). How can one save themselves from a serious, mortal sin unless someone tells him?
This reminds me of something that St. Francis of Assisi faced: "As yet Francis did not preach sermons to the people they met; nevertheless in passing through towns and castles he exhorted all men and women to fear God and to do penance for their sins....When the people heard them, they said: 'Who are these men, and why do they speak like this?' They made this comment because at that time the fear and love of God had died out in the country and no one spoke of penance which indeed was considered as folly. This attitude was caused by the temptations of the flesh, the cupidity of the world, and the pride of life; the whole of mankind seemed engulfed in these three evil forces." (Legend of the Three Companions, #34, Omnibus of Sources; St. Francis of Assisi)
Are we doing any better today? It's important that we do not 'condemn' the sinner, as the mob did with the adulteress, but must act out of love and concern. Recalling that we too are sinners. "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?" (Luke 6:41-42).
Note, Christ is not telling us to ignore the speck in our brothers eye, but to work on removing our own log. As St. James says in his epistle 5: 20, "let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." I know I need that assurance, that hope.
Can we honestly call ourselves followers of Christ if we reject what He teaches in favor of what 'we want' to be the truth? If our 'informed' conscience is touched by the Holy Spirit to feel guilt and prompt us to repentance and conversion, can we say we are doing His will by rationalizing it away? Recall, Christ said; "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:31-32).
By rejecting the prompting of the Holy Spirit, aren't they blaspheming Him? Aren't they rejecting the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for an 'unholy' one of Me, Myself, and I?
St. Maximilian Kolbe once said: "Such souls (those who kill their conscience) when they are unable to throw off the impious burden they carry will avoid the Church or even rise up against her."
Can those who refuse to "bring back a sinner from the error of his way" claim Christ's teaching as a defense? Wouldn't they be like Cain? "Then the LORD said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother?' He said, 'I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?'" (Genesis 4:9).
Can a parent say they love their children and not teach them right from wrong? Can you say you love someone and not care whether they step in front a moving train? Can we say, "I love you...go ahead and play in the freeway"?
Let's recall that the Church teaches that we cooperate with the sin of another if we cause the sin by advice or counsel, command, provocation, or consent. And approve of it by praising it, concealing or remaining silent about it, participate with it, enjoy the results of the sin, of defend the sin.
But with this comes a warning. We must do this out of love. Though we might not 'like' what others do, we must 'love' them. Or, as St. Francis exhorts, if we cannot love them, we must at least wish them no harm.
Let's remind ourselves that one of the Spiritual works of mercy is admonishing the sinner.
To do so is not self rightousness (if done with humilty, not doing it as if to say "You're a sinner and I'm not!") It's dangerous, since one may not see your admonishment as one of love. But we must remember that we ALL will face Our Lord one day. What can we say when He says, "See, your brother (or sister) has entered into eternal damnation...why didn't you warn them?"
"And He said to His disciples, 'Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.'" (Luke 17:1-4). Have a Happy and scandal-free New Year.