The Erroneous Conscience

The Erroneous Conscience is the last post in a series that I have been writing the past couple of weeks. Technically, this should be Conscience Formation 104, but I chose the title from the theme. I have given my readers and anyone else that stops by the blog some good things to think about over the past three posts. Today, I will discuss the characteristics of an erroneous conscience as well as what the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us in regards to this subject. At the end, I will use the film, The Emperors Club, to clarify my points.

The first characteristic of an erroneous conscience is ignorance. Ignorance can occur if someone bypassed an important point or was never taught the truth about a moral issue. A young person may never have been raised to know that stealing property that belongs to another is a serious moral issue. I speak of this particular issue because I’ve seen this first hand and have dealt with students that did not understand why it was wrong to take the property of others. In this case, I am speaking of the stealing of cell phones and IPODS/MP3 players.  These individuals had a distorted view of freedom since they thought freedom allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do at that moment. Stealing for the sake of stealing destroyed their relationship with God, although they may not have seen it at the time. Stealing not only violates freedom but also destroys the dignity of the person doing the stealing and the dignity of those who lose their belongings. Just ask St. Augustine of Hippo who writes about stealing in The Confessions. He talks about how he would steal apples from other orchards just for the sake of stealing, even though his family had plenty of apples in their orchards.

The second characteristic of an erroneous conscience is insincerity. This is where an individual makes no effort to learn the importance of truth or goodness when it comes to moral issues. Idleness and intellectual stubbornness dominate this person. Let’s say someone tells this person something in secret about a moral action, instead of speaking to a mentor or someone that has experience in this particular situation, this person pulls out his megaphone and tells everyone what he knows. This person should have taken the time to figure out a good course of action instead of doing what he did.  If insincerity is not corrected, the person can fall into bad habits that increase in magnitude, often leading to some very evil actions. Let’s take the same scenario from above – a person who perpetually steals has turned into a thief. The stealing has become a habit and the person has no recompense to even correct the behavior. He will say – that’s what I do. This habitual sin leads to greater sins and will potentially destroy the individual. However, there is the chance that the person can repent and do the good (as in the case of St. Augustine).

Paragraph 1792 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that that these factors can also lead to poor conscience decisions: “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, mistaken notion of autonomy [“No one can tell me what to do…I am my own law”], rejection of Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and lack of charity (love).”

To clarify the erroneous conscience, I now turn to the film, The Emperors Club. The film is about an educator, William Hundert (Kevin Kline) who teaches Greek and Roman Philosophy at St. Benedict’s School for Boys. It’s an elite school where many of the students go on to Ivy League institutions upon graduating. Mr. Hundert clearly loves to teach and has a passion for Ancient Philosophy.  During the early part of the film, a student transfers into the school and begins to give Mr. Hundert a difficult time about the subject matter. The name of the student is Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) and he is an overall nuisance to the classroom. Because he seems to be “cool” and pushes the authority of the school, his fellow classmates like him and follow him blindly.

It seems that Mr. Hundert eventually gets through to Sedgewick (his father is a US Senator who never has time for his son).  There is an interesting dialogue between Mr. Hundert and Senator Bell about education and formation in this film as well. Sedgewick’s attitude and grades improve so much that he is chosen to be one of three boys in the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest that assesses knowledge on Roman History. Now there is moral dilemma on the part of Mr. Hundert, but you are going to have to watch the film to see it…I can’t give the whole story away. During the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest, Mr. Hundert realizes that Sedgewick is cheating and tells the headmaster. The headmaster tells Hundert to ignore it (another moral dilemma…Senator Bell is in the audience). Mr. Hundert eventually asks Sedgewick a question that does not pertain to Roman History and knocks Sedgewick out of the contest.  After one of the other boys wins the contest, Mr. Hundert proceeds to Sedegwick’s dorm room to question him. Watch how Sedgewick admits to cheating (starts at 00:58).

It’s very clear from what we have discussed above, that this boy was never properly taught the importance of forming his conscience. He is clearly insincere in his attitude towards his teacher and the actions that he committed. He knows that he can get away with it because of who is and his position in life.

As the film moves on, 20 years later, Mr. Hundert is asked by the school (they are going to receive a big donation) to re-do the contest that Sedgewick Bell competed in as a boy. Actually, it’s Sedgewick Bell that wants to “regain his intellectual integrity.” By this time, he is a very successful businessman and decides to hold the contest at a country club that he owns. All the boys from the graduating class are found and invited. They are all very successful men by this time in life. Once again, the contest is held, and once again, Mr. Hundert realizes that Sedgewick is cheating. Hundert fools him again with another question and the boy who lost it as a child again loses it as a man. To make matters worse, Sedgewick announces after the contest that he is going to make a run for the same Senate seat that his father once served in. He uses Mr. Hundert for his virtue, principles, and integrity.  As you can see, Sedgewick Bell never developed a well formed conscience and continued to cheat and lie later in life. He remained ignorant and insincere although he made it seem that he discovered the errors in his decisions as a boy.  His cheating becomes so habitual that his entire moral code is a distortion of truth and goodness. Sedgewick Bell is the poster child for the erroneous conscience.

This clip is the scene between Mr. Hundert and Sedgewick after the second contest…but Sedgewick gets a surprise he never intends to receive…someone overhears the conversation. Can you figure out who it is?

Our conscience is important and it must be developed well. This will not happen over night – it’s a life long process. It will also make mistakes since it’s not infallible. As Catholic Christians, we must do all that we can to form our conscience.  We must strive to have an upright conscience by acting virtuously, using our God-given reason and freedom, look to others as models of holiness and virtue, hold each other responsible in a community and pray that with God’s grace we are given the necessary tools to have a pure and good conscience.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Tom’s blog so you can be one of the first to read the latest and greatest in the New Evangelization.