Conscience and grace: A Lenten meditation

George Weigel

The scriptures of Lent in the Church’s daily liturgy invite two related reflections. The weeks immediately preceding Easter call us to walk to Jerusalem in imitation of Christ, so that, at Easter, we, too might be blessed with baptismal water and sent into the world on mission. The preceding weeks, those immediately following Ash Wednesday, propose a serious examination of conscience: What is there in me that’s broken? What’s impeding my being the missionary disciple I was baptized to be?

This Lent, that examination of conscience might well include some serious thinking about what “conscience” means.

That often-contentious subject has returned to the center of the world Catholic conversation, thanks to the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning, and the ongoing discussion generated by Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia. In that conversation, voices have been heard urging a view of conscience that is curious, even dangerous: under certain circumstances, conscience may permit or even require that a person choose acts that the Church has consistently taught are intrinsically wrong – such as using artificial means of contraception, or receiving Holy Communion while living the married life in a union that’s not been blessed by the Church.

Those propounding this idea of “conscience” urge us to recognize three things: that the spiritual and moral life is a journey; that when the Church teaches that some things are just wrong and no combination of intentions and consequences can make them right, the Church is proposing an “ideal” to which the most “generous” response may not always be possible; and that confessors and spiritual directors should be compassionate and discerning guides along the often rocky pathways of the moral life.

No reasonable person will contest the last claim. I’m grateful that I’ve been the beneficiary of such thoughtful guidance, and more than once. But the other two claims seem problematic, to put it gently.

If, for example, “conscience” can command me to use artificial means of contraception because of my life-circumstances, why couldn’t conscience permit, or even require, that I continue to defraud customers if my business is in debt and my family would suffer from its failure, even as I work my way into a better, more honest financial situation? Why couldn’t “conscience” permit me, on my journey toward the “ideal,” to continue to indulge in extracurricular sex while my spouse and I work out the kinks in our marriage? Inside the idea that “conscience” can permit or even require us to do something long understood to be wrong, period, where’s the circuit-breaker that would stop a couple from “discerning” that an abortion is the best resolution of the difficulties involved in carrying this unborn child to term, although under future circumstances they would embrace the “ideal” and welcome a child into their family?

The further claim being made here – that God can ask me, through my conscience, to do things that do not cohere with the teaching of the Church – fractures the bonds between God, the Church’s teaching authority, and conscience in perilous ways.

Christ promised to maintain his Church in the truth (John 8:32; John 16:3). Has that promise been broken? The Council of Trent taught that it’s always possible, with the help of God’s grace, to obey the commandments – that God wills our transformation and helps us along the way to holiness. Has that teaching been rescinded? Replaced by a “paradigm shift” into the radical subjectivism that’s emptied most of liberal Protestantism of spiritual and moral ballast? Vatican II taught that within my conscience is “a law inscribed by God?” Is God now telling me that I can violate the truth he has written into my heart?

To suggest that the Church teaches “ideals” that are impossible to live undervalues the power of grace and empties the moral life of the drama built into it by God himself. Lent does not call us to confess that we’ve failed to live up to an unachievable “ideal;” Lent does not call us to be self-exculpatory like the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14, who went away unjustified. Lent calls us to embrace the humility of the Gospel publican and confess that we have sinned, knowing that God’s mercy can heal what is broken in us if we cooperate with his grace.

COMING UP: Getting ready for Synod-2018

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The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.