Formation of conscience
In the recent past, many Maltese voters must have been baffled and perplexed at the readiness with which our MPs have voted for legislation that has undermined the institution of the family and removed the protection of human life at its most vulnerable.
We have even been faced with appeals for our MPs to be allowed to vote according to their conscience. The issue of acting according to the dictates of one’s conscience is becoming more relevant, especially in high-profile situations such as when MPs are voting on laws that remove the protection of the unborn.
Not so long ago, most people were quite clear-headed on what was right and wrong. There seemed to be a fundamental consensus about the inviolability of core values such as the primacy of human dignity and the right to life. This is no longer the case. We have reached the appalling situation where self-professed Catholics in the US legalise abortion. We should not be fooled any longer into believing that the same cannot happen here in Malta.
One does not need to be a moralist or a theologian to be confused at the claim of a ‘Catholic conscience’ when it leads people to make diametrically conflicting decisions. The maxim that states that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere” makes a mockery of objective reasoning and the proper exercise of one’s conscience.
Whenever there are contentious issues, some people also bring up Cardinal John Henry Newman’s famous quote in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in which he said he will drink a toast to the Pope – “still, to Conscience first and to the Pope afterwards”.
Sadly, this statement has often remained misunderstood and misinterpreted, as if allowing us a blank cheque to make up our own morality based on convenience and self-interest. It has been used in an attempt to cultivate complacency when justifying outright wrong decisions.
To be activated, conscience needs a midwife, as it were, a role played by the Church’s authoritative teaching
Few people understood this more than Newman, who grappled with his conscience all his life as it led him towards the Catholic faith. It was not an easy decision. On the threshold of his conversion in 1844, Newman said: “No one can have a more unfavourable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics.”
As the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said on the centenary of Newman’s death in 1990: “Newman had become a convert as a man of conscience; it was his conscience that led him out of the old ties and securities into the world of Catholicism, which was difficult and strange for him. But this way of conscience is everything except a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth.” That is why Ratzinger was captivated and inspired by Newman’s amazing life and spiritual journey.
This is the challenge we face. At its deepest level, conscience prods us to choose what is good and to shun evil. Yet, in a world that rejects objective truths, such an exercise is ridiculed with terms such as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘dogmatic’. It is a cheap resort to ridicule so as to avoid and evade rigorous reasoning.
And it is here that such an exercise becomes more controversial. For Ratzinger as for Newman, in order to be activated, conscience needs a midwife, as it were, a role played by the Church’s authoritative teaching.
This reality places Newman’s toast to the Duke of Norfolk in its rightful context. A well-formed conscience fortified by Church teachings is the bedrock that owns the primacy on which papal authority stands. It guarantees the truth that upholds and connects freedom with authority.
As Ratzinger said in 2005: “What characterises man as man is not that he asks about the ‘can’ but about the ‘should’ and that he opens himself to the voice and demands of truth.” Failure to do so leads to a defective conscience.
Fine-tuning our conscience is a lifelong endeavour. We will always be faced with the conflict of two opposing forces: the gravitational pull of self-interest, of egoism, and the pull of truth, of love.
Lent is an opportunity for us, especially those of us who profess to be Catholics, to reflect deeply on the examination of conscience, especially as it has become a rather neglected discipline.