CONSCIENCE

I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet I am not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me, is the Lord.--I COR. iv. 4.

Analysis

I. The meaning of conscience: 1. There are two rules or norms according to which a person must shape his conduct, namely, the Commandments of God and his own conscience. 2. Conscience is the judgment of the practical reason which decides that a particular action is in conformity with or opposition to God's law. 3. We are never permitted to act contrary to the dictates of our conscience, for as St. Paul says, all that is not of faith, i.e., according to one's conscience, is sinful (Rom. xiv. 23). If we eat certain food, thinking it is forbidden when it is not forbidden, we sin, says the Apostle. 4. But while one must always act according to the dictates of his conscience, it does not follow that in doing so he may not, under certain conditions, be guilty of sin, for there is such a thing as a false conscience.

II. Various kinds of conscience. I. Conscience may be true, erroneous or doubtful. It is true when it is in conformity with God's law; it is doubtful when it hesitates or is unable to decide whether a certain action is right or wrong; it is erroneous when it is out of harmony with the divine law. 2. It is never lawful to act with a doubtful conscience, because that would be carelessly running the risk of doing the wrong thing, and so of sinning. 3. A person's conscience may be in error with or without his own fault; if without his own fault, he does not sin by following it, e.g., if a person should eat meat on Friday not knowing it is Friday, or should miss Mass on a Holyday not knowing it is a Holyday. With regard to keeping the Commandments of God, however, no person of ordinary intelligence can be ignorant without his own fault. It is plain to every sound mind that God and parents must be honored, that murder, theft, impurity, adultry, stealing, etc., are wrong. 4. When one's conscience is in error through his own fault, because he does not wish to know what is right, or because he has neglected to use the ordinary diligence and interest to determine what is right, he has a false conscience and is in bad faith, and is guilty of sin every time he acts according to such a conscience. 5. Two kinds of erroneous conscience are especially harmful: a lax conscience and a scrupulous conscience. The former makes one think that grave sins are only slight matters, or even virtuous deeds. The scrupulous conscience, on the contrary, is one that sees sin in everything, or which magnifies mere trifles into enormous crimes. We must not, however, confound a scrupulous conscience with a timorous or delicate conscience, which is careful, not only to avoid grave matters, but even slight offenses.

EXHORTATION. l. Parents and superiors should endeavor, by instructions and good example, so to educate their children and subjects that these may be able to know what is right and what is wrong. Those who have not had the advantage of parents and instructors should seek good advice and necessary information.

2. Means calculated to form a careful conscience are: (a) prayer to God for light; (b) practice of virtue; (c) pious examination of conscience and frequentation of the Sacrament of Penance.

3. The chief means of overcoming a scrupulous conscience are: obedience and docility to the advice of the spiritual director. 4. Remember that we are now writing in the book of our conscience the sentence that Jesus Christ will pronounce upon us.




Sermons

CONSCIENCE

BY THE REV. J. H. HEALY, O.P., P.G.

Terse, indeed, is St. Paul's expression of what he thinks concerning what is being said of him. Statements were flying thick and thin, but they did not disturb him, although he knew that he must not be entirely indifferent to the effect his actions had on others. Anybody who essays the role of teacher, especially if the teaching involves the duty of correcting the proud and self- opinionated, is certain to be the storm center of criticism as St. Paul was. Yet it caused him very little worry. He was careful to let the people know that he is acting not on impulse, but through conscience and he is anxious moreover that they should know that his notion of right and wrong is based not on personal whims, or fancy, or expediency, or a desire to please an individual or group of individuals, but on the immutable law of God. True he had used his own reason in formulating his law of action, but this he compared with the law of God, and in so doing he teaches us the worth and the use of conscience.

WHAT CONSCIENCE REALLY IS

Conscience in its strictest sense, according to St. Thomas, is the application of knowledge to action. It is the mind of man, determining whether an action is good or bad; whether something should be done or left undone. It is the teacher of the soul. It approves or condemns. In arriving at its decision conscience uses the results of teaching and experience. The Christian recalls the commandments of God, the life and teaching of Him who was the Way, the Truth and the Life, the precepts of the Church, the lessons learned in church, or home, or school.

One of the choicest gifts of God to man is conscience. It is really His voice speaking to our hearts. No monitor can be more vigilant in warning us against evil; no parent more insistent on the doing of good always; no friend more anxious to insinuate the helpful and to encourage what is virtuous. Conscience is omnipresent. To the man tossed about by the angry waves in the ocean storm; to the man who would find escape from the trackless desert; to him who is almost deafened by the din and roar of business of pleasure or sin, conscience speaks clearly and unmistakably.

TRUE CONSCIENCE

Is is very necessary that from earliest days we expend every effort in trying to acquire a true conscience. And by true conscience we mean one that almost by instinct knows the will of God. No matter what action or course of action presents itself, no matter how far from the ordinary it may be, a true conscience will always prescribe what is essentially right. A true conscience covers all the affairs of one's life, business, social, political, as well as religious. It will urge a man to be scrupulously honest in his business as in his private affairs; it will make him as mindful of the rights and feeling of his inferiors as he is mindful of those of his peers and superiors. It will make him respect the name and reputation of a political adversary, as it does of a social friend. It will prevent his using means that are not intrinsically honorable to accomplish a purpose, no matter how laudable it may be in itself. It will not permit him to take undue advantage of any weakness on the part of another. Rather will it force him to protect the weak and the mentally deficient. A true conscience will provoke a man to perfect the gifts with which God has endowed him. It will make him understand that these are to be used not only for his own improvement but for the happiness of others. It will make him realize his opportunity whenever there is a chance to do good. A true conscience will keep a man aware of what are his obligations as a soldier of Jesus Christ. It will "lake him feel a personal responsibility for the spread and the defense of the kingdom of God on earth, the Catholic Church.

FALSE CONSCIENCE

An erroneous is called a false conscience if the ignorance is due to a deliberate neglect to acquire knowledge, or to an effort to make the law of God accommodate itself to the lower standards of a certain set of people. In a day when there is so much loose thinking and when a desire to be broadminded makes some flippant, and some almost blasphemous, it is easy to imbibe notions that affect conscience. In certain circles there is a tendency to condone sin and to apologize for many of the lapses of society. Reasons are given which really discredit one's intelligence. What we are too cowardly to oppose, we may gradually begin to believe to be not seriously wrong, and in a short time find ourselves doing the thing which we once would have condemned in self which in our broadmindedness we tolerated in another. Careless reading, too, is responsible for many a false conscience. Many wish to appear learned, to cultivate in a social way the acquaintance of many who are openly atheistic in their views; they dabble in a literature that they do not understand, or whose sophistry they are unable to detect until gradually their views of life, notions of right and wrong are changed. Conscience meanwhile is being benumbed with this association, until at last it Justifies what it once abhorred. Today, many a person who proclaimed loudly the soundness of the position of the Church on divorce, is actually living in open adultery, and her false conscience justifies her. This is the conscience commonly called lax.

THE SCRUPULOUS CONSCIENCE

There is a kind of erroneous conscience disturbing alike to confessor and penitent--the scrupulous. By this is meant the willful exaggeration of the malice of a sin, the seeing evil in actions where none exists or the effort to make an act vicious on account of a motive. Sometimes scrupulosity is due to some physical defect. Effort, of course, should be made to remedy this. When It is not due to physical defect it is due to obstinacy in one's opinions or a failure to follow the advice of a confessor. A timorous or exact conscience is very different: it really sees evil, shrinks from it, makes one dread contact with it.

There is no finite happiness that can equal the joy of a good, clear conscience. It is, therefore, the duty of all entrusted with the instruction of character to strive for the formation of a good conscience. Attention to the individual, painstaking care in the beginning, will be a great help. No matter who or what we are, we should never tire in our effort to procure a good conscience. It should be the object of our constant prayer--"God grant that I "may know Thy law": it should be our aim daily to make a study of our conscience to find It is seeing and judging things as God does: and when we receive our Saviour in Holy Communion, we should ask that the same zeal that prompted His life and the knowledge that enlightened Him be shared in by us. To receive the sacraments frequently will enable' us to say what Paul said, "I live! No, Christ lives in me."

Conscience is our Book of Life--its pages are filled by none but us. The deeds written there are reflected on the great Book-- they determine the sentence that awaits us at death.


FALSE CONSCIENCE

BY THE REV. W. GRAHAM
There shall arise false Christs and false prophets

INTRODUCTION

Listening to our Lord's warning words the mind naturally reverts to the many false teachers who, by word, example, or writing lead men astray. But, as in Christ's own words, "a man's worst enemies are those of his own household," so the most dangerous of all false prophets is within us--in a willfully false, or deluded conscience. It is a melancholy reflection but true, that the human conscience--the very source and fountain-head of morality in the individual soul--the index and regulator of human conduct, given by God to guide us on the path to heaven, may become, by human perversity, by the abuse of God's gift of free will, darkened and perverted, and instead of a faithful guide, turn out a false one, luring us from one abyss of vice to another. "Wo to you," says the prophet, speaking of those who fall into this stats, "that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness" (Isa. v. 20). That this misfortune may not be ours let us briefly reflect:

IN WHAT SENSE CONSCIENCE IS THE RULE OF CONDUCT

Every human being responsible to his Creator is endowed with a conscience, viz., a sort of inner light indicating to him the essential difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and though varying in individuals according to their religion, intelligence and education, yet it conveys to all--even the rudest--a more or less perfect knowledge of God's law, sufficient at all events to make them answerable for their conduct. Now, the law of God is the outward, eternal, never-changing standard of right and wrong; and in so far only is conscience a safe and trustworthy guide inasmuch as it accords with, is conformed to and harmonizes with this divine standard. If it swerves therefrom, either willfully or unwillfully, by one's own fault or otherwise, it is wrong or erroneous. Conscience is, therefore, the knowing and applying of God's law to the ever-varying thoughts, words, and actions of human life. It is not sufficient of itself; it does not dispense with the necessity of an external divine teacher to point out our obligations and duties. On the contrary, we help and learn from one another; and God has appointed an infallible Church to be our guide through her magisterial teachings in the difficult path of morals as well as of belief.

CONSCIENCE, A TEACHER

It is the medium through which we frame our conduct in accordance with the divine law, pointing out what is right and wrong in the various details of life. Hence all classes, high and low, learned and ignorant, appeal to their conscience as a teacher; and none are excused in wrong-doing, as it is a teacher that resides in every human breast. The very Gentiles, as St. Paul says, ignorant of revelation, yet "shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them and their thoughts between themselves accusing or also defending one another" (Rom. ii. 15).

CONSCIENCE, A MONITOR

Conscience is also a divine monitor ever making its voice heard when wrong is done or duty neglected. It can no more be stifled than the warning cry of physical pain, which tells us that something is wrong with the bodily organism. It ever persists in pointing out what is morally right and binding, sternly indicating the path of duty, even though it be a narrow and a thorny one. Just as a clock ever goes steadily on, reminding us of fleeting time, ever marking the hours that pass, so does conscience ever whisper to us the binding force of duty and God's law, heedless of the warring and jarring voice of interest and pleasure and all the other false prophets around us.

CONSCIENCE, A JUDGE

Furthermore, conscience is to each one of us a judge--a judge, too, that we can neither bribe nor silence--a judge who sternly and unrelentingly will decide against us in all acts of wrong-doing or neglect of duty, even though all the world were to condone or applaud our conduct. "If thou do ill shall not sin forthwith be present at the door?" (Gen. iv. 7.) Nay, it will abide there if not pacified, as the tormenting worm that never dies--the enemy with whom, it we are wise, our Lord counsels us "to make peace" whilst we "are on the way," i.e., in this life.

HOW CONSCIENCE MAY BE PERVERTED

But often, alas! this divine monitor--this sacred index of duty, like so many other God-like gifts--like those of intelligence and free-will, is corrupted--perverted. It is indeed true that the law of God, the eternal standard of right and wrong, or moral good and evil, by which conscience regulates our behavior, never varies, never changes--like God Himself, it is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; but the conscience that applies it may vary and change. The light of God's sun in the heavens is never dimmed-- it is ever shining; but dense clouds may obscure it--the eye that perceives it may be diseased or darkened--the instrument that conveys the light to the eye may be deranged or broken; so, too, with conscience and the law. By nature men are born conscientious beings--just as they are born rational. Even the wicked like to justify their conduct to themselves or others, i.e., they naturally wish to be esteemed conscientious, and as they will not follow a true conscience, they set up a false one--they frame a standard of conduct, of right and wrong, to suit themselves. "Thou hast made me to serve with thy sins," says the Almighty (Isa. xliii. 24). You have abused the sacred name of conscience to justify unworthy deeds. "Yea the hour cometh," says our Divine Lord, "that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God" (John xvi. 2).

Men, e.g., are by nature religious beings, and as a body feel the crying need of practicing some form of worship or other. Men, in very early days, finding that the worship of the one true God imposed too many restraints, required more self-sacrifice than they were willing to yield, set up patterns of their own vices and called them gods--Bel and Jupiter and Venus and the rest--and then knelt down and adored them. Hence the origin more or less of all the false, man-made religions of the world. So is it with what we call a false, seared, or deluded conscience. All men, as I observed, like to be deemed conscientious, and finding a true, an enlightened, and well-regulating conscience too severe a judge, too prying a monitor, frame a more accommodating one for themselves. For remember "There is a way that seemeth to a man right and the ends thereof lead to death" (Prov. xvi. 25). God did not give us a mind proof against error and vice; no more did he give us a conscience proof against deception. All these powers, mind and heart and conscience, must be molded and trained and educated in the right way. If a Christian chooses to remain in willful ignorance of what it is his bounden duty to know--if he is blindly obstinate against light and truth--if he listens only to the voice of his own individual or national prejudices against plain reason and good sense--if he frequents bad company, reads bad books, studies anti-religious and immoral literature, how can he hope to preserve a true, God-inspired and enlightened conscience? All these influences, singly or combined, will pervert or stifle conscience, blunt a man's moral perceptions, and inevitably make him lose the fear or even the discernment of evil. "The wicked man when he is come into the depth of sin, contemneth" (Prov. xviii. 3).

HOW TO CORRECT A PERVERTED CONSCIENCE

Thank God, however, the eternal principles of virtue, justice, and truth, the perception of the essential difference between good and evil, right and wrong, are too deeply engraved in the human heart to be altogether erased. Even from the depths of what seems a hopelessly hardened conscience, a divine voice is heard calling out in this wilderness of sin for repentance and reform. The inextinguishable voice of true conscience cries aloud, as in St. Augustine, sunk in the mire of sin, for healing, light and guidance.


I. WE MUST SEEK GUIDANCE IN THE CHURCH

Now to heal a perverted and preserve a well-regulated conscience, to keep this clock of the heart in good working order, two things are necessary. First, in the principles that regulate our conduct or behavior we must look for guidance not to the false prophets of the day, the secular teachers and thinkers and human religion-makers with their false lights, their ever-shifting, every-varying, and contradictory opinions, but to the pillar and ground of truth--the holy Church of God--firmly set upon the mountain top or the lighthouse on the sea-girt shore, to be our unerring guide in belief and practice--the hard, trackless paths of faith and morals. In her manuals of instruction, in her prayer-books and catechisms, we must seek for light and leading, and that, too, humbly and submissively, even as little children, if we would "enter into the kingdom of heaven," i.e., in this world the peace and joy of a well-regulated conscience.


2. WE MUST APPLY TO OURSELVES THE SAME STANDARD WE APPLY TO OTHERS

The second rule is to apply to ourselves in everyday life the same standard of right and wrong that we apply to others. How quick we are in seeing through the flimsy veil and of raveling the hollow arguments by which men strive to mask their vices and justify as blameless what we clearly see to be theft, avarice, lust, envy, or lying, no matter under what specious names they may be cloaked. Well, let us be equally keen sighted and rigorous in our own case. "For in that we condemn our neighbor (justly it may be) are we not condemning ourselves?" The law of conscience, as the law of love, must be the same for all. Acting on these two simple rules, we shall preserve an enlightened and well-regulated conscience that will be to us what God's law was to the prophet-- 'a light to our feet and a guide to our steps"; or what the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day was to the Israelites--a sign guiding us safely through the desert of this life to the promised land of the next.









The Erroneous Conscience
"The hour cometh when whosoever killeth you,
will think that he doeth a service to God." (John 16 : 2.)


That which can alone justify us before God, and make us happy in this life, is the testimony of a good conscience. "The light of thy countenance is signed upon us," says the Psalmist; and the light is no other than that of our conscience, since it is like a lighted candle which God has placed in the midst of the hearts, so that nothing which it contains may remain hidden therein. But how is it if this light is, sometimes, an ignis-fatuus?" Take heed that the light which is in thee be not darkness." (Luke 11 : 35.) Many, without doubt, are led astray by the erroneous light of a misguided conscience, and think they are serving God when they are, in reality, offending Him. These are they of whom our Saviour says, today: "The hour cometh that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth a service to God." (John 16 : 2.) Such people are really in a dangerous state, for they err and know not that they do so; the light of conscience does not enlighten, but rather blinds them. I shall, this morning, endeavor to depict the miserable condition of these unfortunate beings; and demonstrate to you,

I. That an erroneous conscience renders sin easy of commission; and
II. That it increases the responsibility of the sinner in the eyes of God.

May the Father of lights enlighten us that we may be able to distinguish, at all times, a false from a true light, a good conscience from a misguided one.

I. Nothing is easier than to form to one's self an erroneous conscience, because in it

1. The understanding ; and,
2. The will imagine to have formed what is good.

Hence it is that even learned and pious people have many times been deluded by this false light.

1. Conscience is the teacher and regent of the soul which is to remind it of good, and to punish it for evil. But it sometimes happens that this teacher of the soul becomes a seducer. The Scribes and Pharisees were continually quoting Scriptures against our Lord. They piled up sophisms and syllogisms one upon another. They could not comprehend that Christ could be greater and older than their Father Abraham. They held fast to their Law, and supposed it was impossible for them to err if they observed it strictly; but the words of the prophet Isaias were fulfilled in their regard;--"They have not known nor understood;" for their eyes are covered that they may not see and that they may not understand with their heart ;" (Is. 44: 18) and therefore, "they are all gone aside, they are become unprofitable together." (Ps. 13 : 3.) The source of their error was in their wilfully refusing to bend to the truth, rather wishing to bend the truth to suit themselves.

2. That which self-will effects in the learned is sometimes produced in pious people by self-love. They frequently imagine they are seeking God when, in reality, they are seeking themselves. Beloved brethren, behold the rock that you should carefully avoid. And if the pious are scarcely secure against this danger, how much more reason have the tepid and the wicked to fear? How often do we not endeavor to hide sin under the cloak of virtue? How often do not pride and love of dress conceal themselves under the mask of decorum and necessity? How frequently, too, the most dangerous pleasures under the garb of friendship and civility! And what will not one do when conscience excuses and condones his vice? Behold what the Jews have done under the direction of an erroneous conscience? They crucified the Redeemer of the world, and thought they were doing a service to God! They committed the greatest crime, and considered that they were only showing their zeal for the observance of the law. I ask you yourselves, my beloved Christians, how often have you not supposed you had done good, when you found afterward it was evil! The worst of this condition is that in it one commits sin quite calmly and tranquilly. A murderer, an adulterer, a highway robber, knows that he sins, and this knowledge may lead him back again in humble repentance to the feet of God, but the tranquillity of an erroneous conscience never awakens the sinner to the enormity of his sins.

II. But does, perhaps, the erroneous conscience excuse the sinner before God? No; for

1. He could; and,
2. He should have known right from wrong.

1. Opportunities are never lacking by which one may arrive at the knowledge of his duties, and distinguish right from wrong. For this purpose, we have, in general, the Church, the Bible, the books of the Holy Fathers, the writings of theologians. In particular our duties are defined and explained from the pulpit, in the confessional and in the special instructions of those who are charged with the care of souls. He who can say with the Psalmist, "I have sworn and am determined to keep the judgments of thy justice," (Ps. 118 : 106) should remember what precedes it; "thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths." (Ps. 118: 105.) No one can excuse himself and say, "I was not able to see." (Ps. 39: 13.) But how is it if this blindness is a punishment of sin, and the possessor of an erroneous conscience is already of the number of those unfortunates of whom the Wise Man has written:--"These things they thought, and were deceived, for their own malice blinded them." (Wis. 2: 21.)

2. There are many things which one should know, but does not know, either through carelessness to know, or through sloth to learn, or pride to inquire.--(St. Bernard.) Many have not a real knowledge of their sins, because they do not examine their consciences thoroughly. Others too are slothful, and will not attend at sermons, or instructions in Christrian doctrine. Others, again, are ashamed to learn what they do not know. If then, through ignorance of essential matters, an erroneous conscience is formed, what can excuse these thoughtless, idle or bashful people? In such sinners, ignorance and malice are always found associated together. The Jews did not know that Christ was the promised Messias "for if they had known it, they would never have crucified him." (1 Cor. 2 : 8.) But are they on this account less guilty? Could they not, and should they not, have known it?

We are now convinced, my dearly beloved, what great damage an erroneous conscience may cause. If we be Christians, we shall immediately bestir ourselves, regulating our actions according to the sound rules of a true conscience. It is in our own hands to possess a true or an erroneous conscience. We can, and should know, our duty; and since we fail so easily in this point, let us endeavor to free ourselves from self-will and self-love, otherwise, we may frequently consider as zeal what is in reality a grave fault or defect. If we do this, we may say confidently with the Apostles: "Our glory is this, the testimony of our conscience." A testimony which does not come from the conscience but from on high for "not he that commendeth himself is approved, but he whom God commendeth." (2 Cor. 10 : 18.) A testimony which our conscience does not give us, but by which we clearly recognize it as originating from God, and proving us to be the true sons of our heavenly Father, co-heirs with the Light and Life of the world! Amen.







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