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.
“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.