Religious Freedom, Conscience Formation and “For Greater Glory”

In light of the STAND UP FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RALLIES that will be taking place in 160 cities across the United States of America tomorrow, I wanted to share with my new blog followers and Twitter followers some of my early posts on religious freedom and conscience formation. The primary purpose of this blog is to educate and evangelize the Catholic lay faithful in the New Evangelization. This purpose has begun to find its legs, but when I began this blog in late January, 6 of the first 7 posts were dedicated to religious freedom and conscience formation. As Catholics, we must partake in the political stage and not just sit on the sidelines and watch. These posts were written by me because in January the President and his minion, Kathleen Sebulius, announced the horrific HHS Mandate. Although this an attack on Catholics first and foremost, most of the other major religions have come to the side of Catholics to fight against this albatross that “El Presidente”  calls a “law.” The United States Bishops have vowed to fight this unjust mandate to the point of civil disobedience. As the laity, we must follow and support our modern day Apostles and stand with them against this tyranny and the radical views that are rooted deep in this administration’s foundation.

Yesterday I went to see the new film – For Greater Glory. It’s the story of the Cristeros and their fight for religious freedom against the Mexican government between 1926-1929. Essentially, it was the Socialistic Mexican president along with his government attacking Catholics in a vicious way. Bishops, priests, religious and countless lay men and women were slaughtered in church’s and on the streets by Federation troops. Blessed John Paul II canonized many of the martyrs of this war and Pope Benedict XVI has beatified others. This film is not an answer to the HHS mandate since it was in production before the HHS Mandate was announced, however, it is a reminder to us what happens when religious and civil freedoms are threatened. I suggest seeing the film as soon as possible. See here for movie times. In solidarity with our Catholic Mexican Martyrs who died not 100 years ago, we should all be present at the rallies tomorrow in our respective cities. Viva Christo Rey!

Below are my previous posts on religious freedom and conscience formation –

1. Dear Senator…I Want My Religious Freedom

2. Conscience Formation 101

3. Conscience Formation 102

4. Conscience Formation 103

5. The Erroneous Conscience

6. The Rise of the Faithful Catholics

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.

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Conscience Formation 103

In the previous two posts, I spoke about what conscience is not (see CF 101 – below) and what conscience is (see CF 102 – below). Now I want to focus my attention on how the conscience works. In our daily lives, most of the decisions we make come very easily; they are habitual. A virtue, according to CCC 1803,  “is an firm and habitual disposition to do the good.” Not only will a person perform acts well, but also the best of who he is will come through.  On the flip side of virtue, we have vice. A vice is a bad habit that pushes us to bad/evil choices.

Virtue and vice can slightly be compared to the Jedi and Sith philosophies in the Star Wars films. The Jedis were the more virtuous of the two since most of their decisions were well thought out, they lived for others, and they always tried to choose the good in all situations. The Sith were ones of vice and often chose evil things such as killing all the Jedis or conquering the entire universe. They were always about themselves as we see clearly in Return of the Jedi and how the Emperor has no concern for Vader or Luke. Not all Jedis were virtuous such as the case of Anakin Skywalker (see Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith). Anakin Skywalker was never virtuous, struggled with his many vices, and they eventually lead him to Darth Vader.  Anakin was given chance again and again to mend his ways, but chose not to and ended up in vice rather than virtue. Many of his choices contradicted the Jedi philosophy and he could never conform his behavior to do the good.

Although most of our decisions tend to be habitual, there is an importance for us to learn how to be virtuous in all that we do (let me tell you…it’s not easy). The virtues are like “spiritual muscles” that help us grow in responsible acts without any effort at all. Our bad habits, which we must learn to identify first, have to be avoided at all cost. Our bad habits will only be overcome with the grace of God. For us Catholics, we have the great Sacrament of Reconciliation (and the other sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist) that dispense grace upon us. Learning to be virtuous and avoiding vices are part of our spiritual training at Catholic Christians and a major characteristic of forming our Christian consciences.

Most of our daily decisions are made with ease habitually, but what about those major decisions, those important decisions that take time to deliberate and could have a monumental impact on our conscience? What do we do then?

When making those major decisions we must deliberate, choose, perform, and assess. As I stated in CF 102 (see below), Blessed John Paul II said that conscience is not a decision, but a judgment made with the intellect. Our conscience is about the discovery of objective truth, not about feelings and emotions. Emotions and feelings come and go. A fundamental element of Catholic morality is to inform our consciences and to continue inform them by careful deliberation. Before we make a major decision, we must gather all the information about the decision at hand and consider all the good and bad consequences that will stem from this decision. We should keep in account the Golden Rule, love your neighbor as yourself, and understand that evil actions will not produce a good result. In deliberation, we should look towards those individuals that have mentored us in the past as well as the teachings of Jesus Christ that are safeguarded in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Our decisions as Catholic Christians should be in conformity with that of Jesus Christ and his Church.

After deliberation, we should then choose the best course of action that reflects Jesus Christ and person that we are as God’s creation. A key factor in the choosing step is PRAYER. Prayer allows us to communicate with God and He with us. Prayer aids us to remember that we are created in God’s image and dignity. It also slows us down to focus on him and the decision at hand. Listening to God helps us make rational decisions and not just go with our gut or what feels good at the moment. There is an old saying – God gave us one mouth and two ears. Its is so we will listen twice as much than we talk. We should that the Holy Spirit will direct us towards God’s will for our lives.

Once a choice has been established, we must now perform the action. In this step, we see the importance of responsibility coming into play. Listening to our conscience is important because if we go against our conscience, we sin. We should never react here. Temperance (self-control) is a fundamental aspect of this step. We must always be as mature as possible. Being responsible and staying the course is the most difficult part of this entire process.

The last step in our conscience formation process is to assess our actions. Our conscience is not just about deliberating, choosing, and performing the actions we will perform, but it also aids in the actions that we have already committed. When we follow the steps given above, our conscience will be clear for we know we made good choices, the virtuous choices. If we have not made the correct decision, our conscience will let us know by calling us to reconciliation and penance.

If you pray the Liturgy of Hours (official prayer of the Catholic Church), Night Prayer includes an Examination of Conscience. It’s here where we can review the day and examine our good decisions and actions that contrasted those decisions. You don’t have to pray the Liturgy of Hours to do this either. Making a simple examination a “habit” will ensure that your day was reviewed before you laid your head to rest. It will also help you to grow in holiness and to do God’s will in your life.

As Christians with God’s help, we must form our conscience, continue to form it and to follow it. The formation of our conscience is a life long process and it is not always correct. Blessed John Paul II in Veritatis splendor said, “conscience is not an infallible judgment, it can make mistakes.”

After this post, you should understand more clearly why the HHS Mandate from the Obama Administration is such an evil proclamation that violates our religious freedom (this is the BIG issue).  As Catholics, we know by our consciences that sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacients are intrinsically evil – that means they are always wrong! How does the Obama Administration want us to violate our consciences when we clearly see these methods as evil?! This is what Cardinal-Elect Timothy Dolan meant when he said that the President has given us a year to violate our consciences. As Catholics who should be forming our consciences, we must stand up against this tyranny that is upon us. Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix said in his letter to the Diocese of Phoenix, “We cannot- we will not – comply with this unjust law.”

Conscience Formation 102

I must first throw a shout-out to my favorite football team, The New York Football Giants (Big Blue, G-Men), who won Super Bowl XLVI last night. I sat home last night dressed in my Giants shirt and Giants hat and screamed and yelled at the television like a lunatic for 4 hours. In the end, the G-Men pulled out a victory and to say I am happy is an understatement. They beat the Patriots for the second time this year and the second time in a Super Bowl in the past five years. GO BIG BLUE!!

Now that I got that out of my system, let’s look at What Conscience IS.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1778, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

According to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (16), the meaning of conscience – “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which be must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes, in his depths.”  This law that GS is speaking of is the Natural Law. It’s the law that is written on our hearts and directs us to good and avoid evil. The Natural law connects us with the Divine Law of God and it allows us to know human nature through human reason.  The Natural Law is unchanging in any time or place, which means it’s objective (compared to subjective…relativism). It helps us to preserve life, develop individuals and communities, and sharing life with others. Keeping these three points in mind, we see the Natural Law clearly displayed for us in the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments preserve life, assist with individuals and communities, and shares in the life of others. Read the Ten Commandments and you will see these points.

The above definition from GS helps us to define three intertwining points of conscience that helps with the comprehension of moral truth. The three points are “Conscience is awareness of God’s call to be, Conscience is awareness of God call to know and do the good, that is, to love, and Conscience is a practical judgment of the intellect.”

First, “Conscience is awareness of God’s call to be” is rooted in the very core of the human person where we exist with the God as the Trinity. This call from God comes as an invitation for us to answer him, for we are created in his image and likeness; we are his children. The conscience is personal as is our relationship with God.   Second, “Conscience is awareness of God’s call to know and do the good, that is, to love” should be displayed by us who strive to mirror God in all that we do. When we love, we do the good and avoid evil. This happens when we follow the natural law that God has written on our hearts. As conscience is personal, it’s also to do the good and avoid evil. Lastly, “Conscience is a practical judgment of the intellect.” The practical judgment of the intellect helps in those situations that occur to us on a daily basis. Blessed John Paul II said that conscience is a judgment and NOT a decision. Assisted by God himself, this internal call helps with the good actions and evil actions we have committed, about to commit, or have committed in the past. There is great deal of practicality to the conscience. It helps us to do the good and avoid evil.  The three points together show us how to love God by doing the good and avoiding evil while still remaining practical. Through our conscience we must seek out moral truth.

However, our conscience is not merely an individual entity, but we must strive to unite our conscience with that of the human community. As the human community, we must seek out truth itself, especially the moral truth that allows us to know the objective norms of morality and in turn will allow us to seek the common good.  As part of the Christian community, the individual must learn to live among others seeking what is best for them as well. Christ established the Church as a community of believers here on Earth and from the beginning of the world, we were meant to live in a community.  We were not to live alone. Within in the community there are many issues that must be discussed, such as how a nation will deal with illegal immigration, or the economy, or religious freedom. An essential point of the Christian community is to be responsible to for one another and to aid in the moral procedures and laws that will affect the life we live together.

Conscience Formation 103 and 104 will come later this week.

I encourage you to leave comments and questions. I also encourage my colleagues and friends who are reading my blog to leave comments so we all have a deeper understanding of Conscience Formation.


Conscience Formation 101

I am by no means a moral theologian (The Scriptures is my thing), but with the current state of affairs we Catholics are facing, I feel it’s my mission to at least take a shot at explaining some of teachings of the Catholic Church on Conscience Formation.  Over the past two weeks, you have heard the Bishops of the United States speak of us “violating our conscience” since the Obama Administration decided that all religious institutions, specifically Catholic institutions, have to offer sterilizations, contraceptives, and abortifacients in all healthcare plans. This is in complete violation of our religious freedoms and the First Amendment.

With all that being said, I can say that there are colleagues from Franciscan that can teach and write on moral theology ten times better than me as well as friends of mine outside of Franciscan, so I am hoping that they will add to what I have said in the comment section of these next few posts so my readers will attain the most complete understanding of Conscience Formation. For the next few posts, I would like to focus on a few points: What Conscience is Not, What Conscience Is, How Conscience Works, What Leads To An Erroneous Conscience and How To Avoid One.

In today’s day and age, there is plethora of wrong ideas about what the term conscience truly means. If you were to Google search an online dictionary, more than likely you would find this as the definition of conscience: “the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to ones’ conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong.” Many, like the above definition, are in complete contradiction with the Christian idea of conscience.

For today’ post, let’s focus on what Conscience is NOT. Conscience is not…the majority opinion, a feeling, a superego, a gut-instinct, “Jiminy Cricket” and a myth. Let’s take each of these one at a time.

Conscience as majority opinion is simply doing what the crowd is doing. It must be just fine if everyone is doing it. With the majority opinion, personal responsibility is lost to what the group is doing. The right behavior is directed by whatever opinion is popular with the group. Pope Benedict XVI says, “Truth is not determined by a majority vote.” Moral decisions should not be decided by how many people or legislators vote on a given point.

Conscience as a feeling is a very popular idea today. In the 1960’s, there was a saying, “if it feels good, do it.” Since the 1980’s, there is also another saying generated from a popular athletic company – “just do it.” This view of conscience states that the individual is the epicenter of his or her morality and they only answer to themselves. Conscience as a feeling is deeply rooted in Moral Relativism. Moral Relativism is the idea that what you think is right…is right. Nobody can tell you that you are wrong. There is no objective truth in Moral Relativism! This has been a battle that Pope Benedict XVI has taken on with the secularists of the world. Furthermore, “feelings” are just that – feelings. Feelings come and go with every passing second. According to Peter Kreeft, conscience “is first of all a knowing, an awareness of the truth about good and evil.”

Conscience as superego comes from Sigmund Freud who thought that the superego conscience were rules we followed as a child that are still in our mind and we hold on to them with our subconscious. All the rules from our parents, teachers, coaches, and employers are still left over in our minds. According to Freud, the rules we followed as children were to seek love from authoritative figures. He also said we never fully understood the rules – we just walked through motions. When we would break these rules, we would feel guilty. This guilt comes from psychological conditioning and not that we have contradicted God’s love for us.  In complete opposition to this viewpoint, the Christian conscience is an answer from God’s call. The Christian’s conscience is personal and self-chosen. Conscience is based on our reason.

Conscience as gut-instinct is about how you feel at the moment. This is could be a good place to start with conscience, but it is very limited and we must seek a more mature and Christian understanding of conscience. As Christians, we must use our reason to make decisions and also hope in God’s love throughout our entire life. “The education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (CCC 1784).

Conscience as Jiminy Cricket is often portrayed in movies or television shows as the angel and demon that stands on our shoulders. It’s the “internal voice” that we listen to do either good or evil. Our guardian angels do not whisper in our ears and tell us what to do. God does not speak to us through our Smart Phones either.  God might “speak” to us in a small way, but we must train ourselves to hear it, as we would train for a competition. A coach can only teach us so much before we can take it and make it own. God respects our freedom and allows us to use our free will to make the decision. 

Conscience as myth is the complete denial that a personal conscience even exists. These doubters see conscience as a way that organized religion keeps people under control by using guilt. (This is a favorite of the people who have either left the church or have a poor understanding of conscience. These individuals use the term – “catholic guilt.” Let’s be honest – guilt is guilt! There is no such thing as “catholic guilt.” I despise that saying by people. When I do something wrong and feel guilty, it’s not “catholic guilt” that is making me feel this way, it’s my own sin. It’s mine and I need to repent of it.) When the conscience is seen as a myth, individuals think they can do whatever they want without any sort of personal responsibility to hold them accountable. They usually push others aside for their own desires. Morality dies when the conscience is denied.

Conscience Formation 102, 103, and 104 will be posted  soon. Check back in a couple of days or even better, subscribe to the blog and you will be notified when the next post is up and ready.