The Ability to Make Good Choices

Note: This is Part I of two articles about making good choices.

In the midst of many controversies and division, the Church provides guidelines to help us think within our own personal situations. Vatican II calls this our responsibility to glean the working of the Holy Spirit in the signs of the times. In other words, the Church asks a basic question, “What would Jesus do?” Its acronym, WWJD, has been worn by the young as arm bands, baller IDs and T-shirts. Why? Because there are many issues today that we cannot find directly in the bible, because they have been brought about by technology and new discoveries coming from different studies in the sciences, the arts and spirituality. Some issues find its inception from the changing culture and its accompanying values as the move from a localized culture to globalization. In other words, just as the Church discerns the Spirit in these times, we are also asked in the best of our abilities to discern as well.

Where does this ‘ability’ come from? It comes from Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit (John 14: 15-31). He says that the Spirit will teach us (Luke 12: 12), and this Spirit resides in our hearts. We are the “Temples of the Spirit” (1 Cor 6: 19-20) so we can interpret the times according to the heart and mind of Christ. Many saints have contributed to the spirituality that we can encounter God in all things. One of them is St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the Spiritual Exercises, we find ways of knowing the will of God in our particular and individual situations. It is called the “Discernment of Spirits.” And many lay people have taken the Spiritual Exercises to heart.

This is more evident today when many people are educated and information is made available to all especially through the internet. In the past, the clerics have been the educated in society; but not anymore today. Many lay people are more skilled, intelligent and knowledgeable, and thus the members of the laity are able to sharpen their ability to discern the signs of the times. It is not a coincidence that the Church recognizes at least in writing the contribution of the laity in faith today. It is not even surprising that even in Theological Studies, the lay people are taking this course alongside many seminarians. There was a time Theology was an exclusive academic track for those vying for the sacerdotal order. And so, this is clear: it is high time to trust the lay people today.

The Conscience. In every individual person, there resides a sanctuary that cannot be violated by anyone. The Catholic Church document, Gaudium et Spes, identifies this ability as the “conscience.”

“In the depths of one’s conscience, a person detects a law which one does not impose upon oneself, but which holds one to obedience. Always summoning us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to one’s heart: do this, shun that. For we have in our heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of the human person; according to it, we will be judged. (9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of the person. There, one is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in one’s depths. (10) In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by the love of God and neighbor. (11) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humanity in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind obedience and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality.” (note: inclusive language is mine)

To simplify, the imagery or metaphor of sanctuary used by Gaudium et Spes #16 can help us understand conscience. In the very depths of our person, the conscience is a holy and sacred place where we meet God alone. It is a safe place for our individual self and no outside human authority may violate it.

The image of sanctuary gives attention to the personal encounter of the person with God in our moral discernment and our response to what believes to be God’s voice to him/her in the depths of one’s conscience.

In the proper exercise of conscience, a person should be responding to God. A person can refer to other external authorities for information and guidance, but ultimately the person responds to God and not to any authority. No other authority can take the place of God in a person’s conscience.

To summarize, we find three notions of conscience. We are distinguishing them so that it would be easier for us to understand it. But the conscience is all of them.

First, conscience is a capacity (synderesis). The tendency or capacity within us to know and to do the good. It involves our general sense of value and fundamental sense of responsibility which makes it possible for us to engage in moral discussions to determine the particular moral good.

Second, conscience is a process. It is the process of discovering the particular good which ought to be done and the evil to be avoided. It involves seeking to understand universal moral norms and applying them to particular cases. It may also include discovering exceptions and new norms in response to extraordinary situations. It also entails the use of human reason.

Third, conscience is a judgment. It is the specific judgment of the good which “I must do” in this particular situation. The primary objective of this judgment is not this or that object of choice, but being this or that sort of person through what I choose. This is the conscience I must obey to be true to myself. This is the sanctuary of the self which must never be violated.

Next post is Part II: How to make good choices using our conscience.

13 Comments

  1. I cannot comment on this as this is not my field. But I would like to ask a question because this confuses me. I have always thought that “conscience” is like “statutory construction” to lawyers – meaning that you use it to interpret a law when there is doubt as to what the law means but if the law is clear there is no need to interpret. If the Church clearly teaches that one thing is morally wrong, can I differ and say my conscience doesn’t say so – i.e. my conscience tells me that I’m right.

    Conscience can perhaps apply to betting on lotto – I believe the Canon law says, there’s no fault in betting per se, but when it becomes a habit then it could be sinful. But if say, I’m a doctor and somebody comes to me for an abortion (let’s say I’m in the U.S.) – I am sure that the Church that abortion is morally wrong but my conscience tells me, “oh, this girl is a rape victim, she doesn’t deserve this!”, can I in good conscience (and not incur mortal sin) perform the abortion? I believe I would have excommunicated myself for doing so (or not?), but if my conscience tells me I’m right then I won’t have to confess it?

    Is there a clear instruction by the Church on what I can decide based on my conscience without being in the state of mortal sin.

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    1. I’ll approve your comment first because your comment is very important. But will respond when I return from my work in the National Penitentiary (can’t bring computer there, etc). I am leaving in 30 minutes. Thanks Gabe.

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  2. Are the CBCP bishops versed in these important nuances of discernment open to everyone? This is a serious question. I know Catholics have two diametrically opposed experiences of the church and they are fighting it out all the time.

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    1. Yes, this is basic morality. We teach this even in high school. In fact, I took this from our morality notes when I was a theological student. The logic is simple: at the end of the day, the person decides and we hope his or her decision is correct. But that presupposes that his or her conscience has been sufficiently formed and informed, and the person is responsible and accountable. This is a lot to say: it means it requires a lot of education and explanation.

      The premise of all these is also an issue: education. Let’s face it: not all people are educated. Some can’t be as critical as us. There is another thing: many Catholics cannot give an account of its faith; ask them about the basic of the faith, they do not know. The latter points at the fault of the church too: priests have not fully catechized or explained the faith to them. Some even, judging from their homilies, can’t explain the basics, for example, the Trinity, Christology or ecclesiology. So sometimes the solution is “obey” blindly. And this has been articulated by the 2nd Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II): they identified current Filipino Catholic faith as “not sufficiently informed” and thus the “goal” is to make the faith an informed faith. This is also the reason why, PCP II said that our faith has not become a leaven of transformation. Sounds familiar? Yes, because the faith has to be embedded deep into our selves. Apparently much is to be desired. So Christian spirituality, though it is meant to transform ourselves and our society, has not been able to do so. But we have to work on it, and labor for the love of God and our neighbor.

      Wait na lang for Part 2 about the process found in also in Church documents. Whatever controversial issue, by the very word itself, has within the Church, leaders who are also having different stands on matters. So the Church cannot make general and simplistic responses; thus the issue is tackled pastorally case-to-case.

      We know many people who fall as cases in many of these issues. Are there really people who, in reality, been unforgiven, ostracized, excommunicated? Many of these issues are complicated, that is why. People have been discussing about it, until “forever”.

      But we are left, in our practical lives, with ourselves and our situation while the “storm or the issue is brewing”. At the end of the day, we are asked to face God more than any other. Can we live with it; die for it, and face God with it? These are the questions that matter. The center is always our relationship with God. So pray pray pray!

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  3. errata: portion of 2nd paragraph above should read (missing word “teaches”):

    I am sure that the Church teaches that abortion is morally wrong but my conscience tells me, “oh, this girl is a rape victim, she doesn’t deserve this!”, can I in good conscience (and not incur mortal sin) perform the abortion?

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  4. Thanks so much for the reply Father, I excitedly awaiting the second installment. And maybe ask more about the sufficiently formed and informed issue.

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  5. Jboy,

    May I comment on your reply to Jim?

    What struck me was how PCP II described it that ‘current Filipino Catholic faith as “not sufficiently informed”’

    Well, maybe not just Filipinos, it seems. Two days ago we find in the internet a survey on how well different groups know (their) religion. Mormons are ahead. That is still okay. But surprise! Atheists and agnostics lead the Protestants and Catholics.This is the link:

    http://blackchristiannews.com/news/2010/09/new-pew-survey-shows-that-atheists-and-agnostics-know-more-about-religion-than-protestants-and-catho.html

    I feel this is because we Catholics take our faith for granted. Practicing our faith now is a far cry from the time when believers hid in catacombs out of fear but still resolute in their faith. Yet even as we speak, there are Christians in China and Arab countries where strong faith is the norm. Maybe they should have been surveyed too.

    We recall the author of Rome Sweet Home who was a high-ranking personality of another group. He started to study Catholicism not because he was attracted to it but to find loopholes so he could mount his attack.

    To the bewilderment of his community, the more he went deeper into his readings, the more he did get attracted to Catholicism. His wife who at first deserted him, also embraced the faith. To this day, the domino is till tumbling in their group.

    I am glad that in our parish, Adult Catechism is gaining ground.

    Do keep up your posts.

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    1. Hey Andy!

      Let me first share what I felt reading your comments: I was very touched and was teary-eyed for the encouragement. I heard about Rome Sweet Home and I want to include it in one of my readings.

      And true, Adult Catechism is gaining ground. In fact, the Wednesday Class in Loyola School of Theology is getting larger. Thanks and will pray for you and your family (esp your daughter who read my blogs).

      Jboy SJ

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      1. I’ve read the story about Scott Hahn, author of the Rome Sweet Home, he was called “Luther in reverse”, from his wife’s word, and was really touched by his story.

        While many Non-Catholics are going back to us, I am deeply saddened by knowing that indeed many Filipino Catholics are “not sufficiently informed”. Even if the Church is making all efforts from ground-up, it seems that we’re still far ahead of achieving our goal. I hope we can use all media particularly the internet in “re-educating” our kins and Christian brothers-alike… more power and God Bless!

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