December 2, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

It’s all a matter of conscience

Sometimes one of the most annoying things about being human is having a conscience. If we weren’t burdened with one of those, we could really enjoy life, right?

However, every society has standards of behavior that all its members must follow in order to remain in good standing. Some of these groups may be more casual about marriage customs or wearing clothing than the rest of us, but they do have their rules.

From what I’ve read, there are universal demands that emerge in almost any society. These include prohibitions against murder, abuse of children and theft when it involves a threat to the welfare of the community. It’s the shadings of truth that differ.

The Church teaches faith “formation,” that is, helping us learn to discriminate between a “right” conscience and a convenient one. After all, we humans are adept at rationalizing every thought and action to reduce guilt, avoid recrimination and generally do as we please.

We’ve become masters of creative spin. Politicians are famous for it, but the rest of us do it as well. One example I heard recently was how some teenagers define chastity. They vow they are “saving themselves for marriage,” but feel free to dress provocatively or immodestly, flirt like people cruising for sex, and place themselves in dangerous situations. Only sexual intercourse seems to be an unacceptable practice in this context.

Adults prevaricate, too. They may economize by serving the family soup and sandwiches for dinner in order to impress others with their expensive clothes, humongous houses or monster cars. They may sign Junior up for football so Dad can be proud, or put Sis in junior beauty queen contests so Mom can live out her fantasies, all the time claiming such activities are for the good of the children.

Sometimes, conscience not only can be twisted to fit one’s whims, but also used to further seriously bad results. Overly strict parents may forget the scriptural admonition not to nag one’s children, “lest they lose heart.” In their zeal for their kids to be good, clean, reverent and the rest, they may instead make them feel unworthy and unloved.

In short, obeying one’s conscience is a complicated and difficult task, but one we’re obligated by faith to do. Following God’s will requires us to be responsible for discerning what God wants us to do, and then doing it.

The number one thing to keep in mind is that the end never justifies the means. Never. Here we discover the fine line between self-defense and aggression or between self-interest and the good of the family, community or world. Serious actions demand serious judgment calls, and very few are black and white decisions.

Heroism, in the end, is stubbornly sticking to the truth of our conscience in whatever venue, whether it’s on the battlefield, in a parked car with a girlfriend or trading stocks in a chaotic market. And always, we need prayer to achieve a good conscience.

No matter what society we belong to, by the grace of God we all possess an innate desire for the good. How we define it may differ, but when our life has a prayerful connection to our Creator, I believe we’re on the right path.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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