How does conscience work? – Eastertide5

In the second reading St John tells us If we cannot be condemned by our own conscience, we need not be afraid in God’s presence.  This is one of the most important verses in the bible, because it underlines one of the key reasons human beings are the crown of creation: that we are free.  Made by Good in the image of Good – because that is all God is – good is all that we desire, and the motivation of our every action.  Our conscience is where we realise that desire: 1) pushed by our desire to do good and avoid evil, 2) we use our knowledge of right and wrong to determine the good and evil of a situation, and 3) and judge about what then to do or avoid.

So to take the example of a pint of Guinness: first, motivated by our innate desire for the good, we recognise it as potentially good and nourishing; second, we use our knowledge about Guinness and our own moral and physical health to see what is good and evil about drinking it at that particular moment; and third we judge about whether drinking that pint is a good to be embraced or an evil to be avoided.  We make all our moral decisions like this.

This is why the question of moral decisionmaking is never to consider whether or not we should choose the evil, but is only ever what the good is to do, or the evil to run from.  So conscience is not like in the Flintstones or the Simpsons, ok?  You know with the equal angel and devil each side.  That’s not how our conscience works at all: firstly because conscience is not external but internal, within my heart; secondly because it is not two separate powers, but rather one, within the heart; and three, because there is no balance to good and evil.  Evil is always narrow, selfish, ugly and stupid – and it always makes us narrow, selfish, ugly and stupid.  Good is infinite, loving, beautiful and true – and doing good always makes us so.

This is also why nobody, ever, can force us to act against our formed conscience.  And this is really true, you know.  If the government ever passes a law to force us to act against our formed conscience it is gravely unjust, simply because such a law is an attack on our fundamental human rights.  And so it’s very grave that Victoria and Tasmania have started doing so, and that we’re talking about doing so federally.  Respect for persons means respecting their formed conscience, and their right to live their faith publicly.

You’ll also notice I keep talking about formed conscience.  Since our conscience is precious, we have a duty to take care of it – to learn what is right and wrong.  This doesn’t mean memorising hundreds of external laws onto the blank slate of our memory: the ten commandments are already there, desired, at part of every human heart.  Why?  Because we are made by Love for Love, and the ten commandments are simply the basic conditions for love – so every man and woman finds them already there in their heart.

Now its true that it’s fashionable at the moment to say this can’t be true, since rules and limits are nasty and oppressive.  Now this is really interesting, because I don’t know any sportsmen who win gold without submitting to rules and training, or doctors who don’t submit to the rules and discipline of study, or speakers of English who don’t submit to the rules of grammar.  In every other field, rules are the condition of freedom – so why is it that, when we get to morality, suddenly rules are bad and oppressive?  It’s irrational.  General fundamental moral truths – the ten commandments – are the basis and condition of freedom.  And the fact that we can sometimes find these good things, these basics of love, so hard or repulsive, tells us that we are weak sinners, and that we need Jesus to set us free.  And this is what St John tells us: Whoever keeps his commandments lives in God and God lives in him.  Jesus tells us the same today: As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.  Let us say not be afraid, but say yes to his thirst to be one with us: Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.