Conscience Must Be Properly Formed

Author: Mary Beth Bonacci


by Mary Beth Bonacci

Why do the consciences of young people not rebel against this situation, especially against the moral evil which flows from personal choices?...The normal thing would be for conscience to point out the mortal danger to the individual and to humanity contained in the easy acceptance of evil and sin. And yet, it is not always so. Is it because conscience itself is losing the ability to distinguish good from evil? --Pope John Paul II, Cherry Creek State Park

We've been talking, it seems like forever, about defending human life, especially unborn life. I've emphasized it a lot because Pope John Paul II emphasized it a lot -- and still emphasizes it a lot. He obviously thinks this is a major problem, especially for youth. But, in this particular passage, he asks an interesting question. How did it get this way? How are so many youth getting sucked into this anti-life mentality? Don't today's youth have consciences?

His questions bring up question we've been asking. What exactly is the conscience? How does it work? Are we supposed to follow our consciences no matter what?

I remember hearing my friends say, "Well, I know you think it's wrong," ("it" meaning "sleeping with my boyfriend/having an abortion/shoplifting/dumping the Catholic Church to become a Unitarian Moonie/whatever morel issue we happened to be disagreeing on that day.") "But my conscience doesn't bother me, so I think it's okay." Sometimes that would make sense to me for a while. But then I'd see an ax murderer/serial killer on TV, and I'd hear him telling Geraldo Rivera that he had a clear conscience. So I knew something wasn't quite right.

Pope John Paul II calls conscience, "...the voice of God, calling us to free ourselves from the grip of evil desires and sin." Wow. We've got God talking directly to us, telling us how to live. It doesn't get any clearer than that.

So what about our friend the clear-conscienced serial killer? Is God telling him that it's really okay to be a serial killer, just as long as he feels good about himself? Somehow, looking at what we know about God, I'd tend to doubt that. God tends to have some pretty clear ideas about right and wrong.

The trick, according to the pope, is that our conscience has to be "properly formed." He says that, in modern society, "the danger arises of wanting to manipulate conscience and it's demands." We hear over and over that there is no objective reality, there is no right and wrong, we can determine our own values system, good is whatever is good for you. And each time we hear that, it bends our conscience a little more. It's like a mirror that slowly warps, so that eventually it makes people look like midgets with enormous heads and no chests, and you have to sell it to the circus because no one else wants it. Modern society can distort our consciences so that we no longer hear the voice of God, but just some kind of ridiculous distortion.

Personally, I don't like that. I like the idea of having the voice of God talking to me through my conscience. He certainly makes more sense to me than most of the other voices I'm stuck with. So it's important to maintain the purity of the conscience. Jesus said, "The eye is the body's lamp. If your eyes are good, your body will be filled with light; if your eyes are bad, your body will be in darkness. And if your light is darkness, how deep will the darkness be." (Mt 6:22-23)

How do we keep the "light" in our consciences? Believe it or not, the pope has the answer. (He makes my job really easy.) He says, "A rebirth of conscience must come from two sources: first, the effort to know objective truth with certainty, including the truth about God; and secondly, the light of faith in Jesus Christ, who alone has the words of life."

In other words, first you have to understand things, including God, the way they really are. You can say, "Well, my God is a god of greeness, and he doesn't care what I do as long as I always wear green, have a lot of money and water my lawn." It may make you feel good, but it has nothing to do with the real God out there. You don't have your own god. There's only one. And the same with the world. Just because you don't acknowledge something as a sin, doesn't mean that it isn't, or that it won't do the damage that sin does. You need to learn about things as they are, and accept that.

And second, illuminate it all with a love for Jesus Christ and His Church. Remember, we can try to learn a whole lot, but we'll never know as much as He does, and we'll never love as much as He does. And He works today, in and through His Church. So when the Church teaches something for 2,000 years, it probably means He has something to do with it. Listen to His Church, listen to Him, and talk to Him.

And when you do all of that, you can be pretty sure that He'll be talking with you.

Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

This article appeared in the November 11, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

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