Circular Letter: Lent 2022
Listening to God within: The Voice of Conscience
The French statesman, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that democracy was possible and worked in America in his day because people of many different creeds were united by a moral consensus based on Christian ideals. They accepted the natural law, and in their belief in the transcendent, divine Lawgiver, they acknowledged Him as Judge over the actions of men. All just laws have their basis in the eternal law of God, who created and governs the universe according to His Logos. Unlike irrational creatures, God allows, indeed, requires personal beings (Angels and men) in as much as they are rational, to participate in His governance of the universe. For by their comprehension of the first principles of His law, they are capable of such cooperation. These principles of natural law are laid in the heart of man and form the foundation of his conscience, by which he ought to freely participate in the eternal law of God through the exercise of right reason. Thus by his choices and acts in conformity with God’s law, man can by God’s grace reach the communion of love with God and neighbor to which he is called, freely, in accordance with his dignity as a human person. As the Second Vatican Council teaches,
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it, he will be judged. (Guadium et spes [GS] 16, cf. Catechism 1776)
Over the last few centuries, the tendencies toward both intellectual and moral relativism – the denial of objective truth and objective morality – have been undermining the moral integrity of individuals and, hence, the very existence of society. In America today, we see a moral crisis which is ultimately based on a crisis of faith and conscience. Many, having abandoned or never having believed in God, claim an absolute right to “freedom of choice” and “freedom of conscience”. Indeed, if there is no Creator, there can be no moral law, but only “might makes right”. Thus, they conclude freedom is “a license to do anything they please, even evil” (Vat. II, GS 17). Authentic freedom, however, presupposes and begins with the acknowledgement of this original Creator and Lawgiver.
It is true that man must be respected in his freedom of conscience because God Himself respects man’s freedom. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (CCC 1782). But this freedom does not release man, in the words of St. John Paull II, from “a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties’” (Veritatis splendor [VS] 34).
St. John Newman discerned the spread of the false notion of freedom of conscience already in the 19th century:
When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all… Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again… Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will. (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk V)
The crisis of conscience exists not only without, but even more alarmingly, within the Church itself. The problem has arisen from currents of thought which lead to “detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth,” discerns St. John Paul II.
It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine… Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices. (VS 4)
This dissent was manifested on a distressingly large scale after the publication of St. Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, which declared that the use of artificial contraception is morally unacceptable, that is, contrary to the natural law. Hosts of priests and even Bishops, having imbibed the moral skepticism of the world around them, rebelled against the Magisterium in the name of “conscientious objection” and taught generations of the laity to do the same, to the great detriment of the Church, the family and souls. Today, it is manifested in those who think they can be “good Catholics” and still promote the intrinsic evil of abortion, no matter what the Pope says!
In contrast to this moral nihilism, St. John Henry Newman exhorted men to seek precisely in this innate voice called “conscience”, the voice of God within, “a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (Grammar of Assent). Conscience is therefore not a subjective “guilty feeling” of the individual, but a judgment which witnesses to the transcendent Being who has authoritatively spoken the law of our nature into our being. While in a certain way veiled, this divine ‘voice’ calls for obedient compliance, just as much as everything should act according to its nature. For unbelievers, as Newman notes, this inner urgency may even serve to dispose them to belief in God and the Gospel. He writes,
If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away… and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive. (Grammar of Assent)
The Guardian Angel and the voice of conscience
Mother Gabriele Bitterlich teaches that God enlightens us in our conscience through the ministry of the Guardian Angel. Just as St. John Newman shows how the voice of conscience points to God, so also does it point to the Angel as the ambassador of God on our behalf. Thus in the Book of Exodus, we see that God commands obedience to the Angel as the bearer of the authority of God Himself: “Behold, I send My Angel before you, to guard you along the way and bring you to the place that I have prepared. Give him reverence and listen to all that he says. Offer him no defiance; he would not pardon such a fault, for My Name is in him. But if you heed his voice and carry out all I tell you, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. And My Angel will go before you” (Ex 23:20-23). Commenting on this text, Mother Gabriele writes:
If God speaks in this way, then… It is a proof of His trust in the Angel, whom He appointed to guard and admonish us, and to prepare the way for us…and whom He clearly presents to us as a bearer of His authority.… It is a proof that the Angel is endowed with higher intellectual powers, capacities and authority, because God has placed him above man and commands man to listen to the Angel, for “My name is in him” (the authority of God). It is a proof that God interrelated Angels and men, so that they might fight together against the enemies of God. It is a proof of the actual help of the holy Angels in the entire realm of the human race, for their activity of admonishing, teaching, caring and fighting. (Our Guardian Angel, pp. 1-2)
Walking in obedience
Bearing God’s authority, conscience not only gives us light into what is good and evil, right and wrong, but also commands our obedience. The path to holiness goes only by way of obedience to God and His will for us. If we are faithful to the lights and graces God gives by means of conscience and the holy Angel, He will lead us to the perfection and blessedness to which we are called. Cardinal Newman writes, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” To be a disciple is to follow Christ according to the lights He gives us, and to allow Him to transform us into His own image. This transformation implies a spiritual journey upon which we may advance from light to light, from truth to ever greater perceptions of the truth.
Act up to your light [of conscience], though in the midst of difficulties, and you will be carried on, you do not know how far. …If we follow the voice of God, we shall be brought on step by step into a new world, of which before we had no idea. This is His gracious way with us: He gives, not all at once, but by measure and season, wisely. “To him that hath, more shall be given.” But we must begin at the beginning. Each truth has its own order; we cannot join the way of life at any point of the course we please; we cannot learn advanced truths before we have learned primary ones. (Parochial and Plain Sermons vol. VIII 13)
If to the contrary, however, we do not obey the lights of the Angel and conscience, even that light which we had will be lost.
…Religious men are always learning; but when men refuse to profit by light already granted, their light is turned to darkness. Observe our Lord’s conduct with the Pharisees. They asked Him on what authority He acted. He gave them no direct answer, but referred them to the mission of John the Baptist—“The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?” They refused to say. Then He said, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” That is, they would not profit by the knowledge they already had from St. John the Baptist, who spoke of Christ—therefore no more [light] was given them. (ibid.)
Moreover, we must obey our conscience promptly and trustingly, denying our selfish inclinations, otherwise we will find a thousand excuses and justifications to follow what is really only our own self-will. Even if we later repent and again seek the truth, it may be too late, as St. John Newman explains:
At first our conscience tells us, in a plain and straightforward way, what is right and what is wrong; but when we trifle with this warning, our reason becomes perverted, and comes to the aid of our wishes, and deceives us to our ruin. Then we begin to find, that there are arguments available in behalf of bad deeds, and we listen to these till we come to think them true; and then, if perchance better thoughts return, and we make some feeble effort to get at the truth really and sincerely, we find our minds by that time so bewildered that we do not know right from wrong. (ibid.)
In order to learn obedience to conscience, therefore, we must purify our heart and our will, sincerely seeking only what is good and true, and the will of God for us.
Conscience and the authority of the Church
Because our sense of right and wrong is so easily influenced by our state of soul, the Catechism states: “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC 1783). Therefore, we ourselves are responsible to seek out the objective standards by which our conscience may be formed and educated in accordance with the truth. This is a life-long task entrusted to us by God. But He Himself offers the remedy for our ignorance in Sacred Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Church. We read in the Catechism:
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (CCC 1785).
But even with the authoritative teaching of the Church with regard to faith and morals, often it is difficult to discern in concrete cases what God wills of us. For the Church teaches principles and universal truths, while conscience deals with particulars and concrete actions to be done or abstained from. Given the delicacy and lack of clarity of conscience, each person must therefore make a sincere effort through prayer and study, to discern by God’s grace His will in a particular instance.
One example of a great moral struggle for clarity of conscience can be seen in the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter of Austria, who was executed for refusing the oath of fidelity to Hitler. A simple farmer and father of three, unlike most others of his status, he attended daily Mass and dedicated his evenings to meditating on Scripture and Catholic authors and teaching. He followed closely the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) and discerned very early on that one “cannot be a good Catholic and a good Nazi”. Though every single German and Austrian Bishop encouraged the faithful by a pastoral letter read in all the parishes to vote for Hitler and the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, in his village Jägerstätter alone voted no. When called to military service, he refused, fully aware that he was signing his own death sentence. Though no priest nor even his Bishop would tell him he was doing the right thing, he chose to die in order to remain faithful to God rather than to sin against his conscience. The Church posthumously vindicated his decision by beatifying him in 2007.
Listening inwardly and the discernment of spirits
Mother Gabriele counsels that in order to hear God and the Angel speaking within, we must train ourselves to be interiorly silent and open for the subtle voice of God in our hearts.
Before God, man should always remain a learner and a listener. This means that one must knowingly and deliberately train oneself to be so. Two things are required at the beginning: one must learn to obey lovingly and to keep silence lovingly. When man is interiorly filled with disorder, with disquietude and racing thoughts, with a craving for external noise and change, he will barely perceive anything other than the instigations of the evil foe exciting him to want to have ever more, to enjoy himself, to stimulate himself ever more. GOD speaks to us through His word, which we take in by listening or reading. He also speaks to our heart in Holy Communion, in a quiet meditation; but He is always Majesty. He does not shout. The Angel, too, speaks to our heart. We can hear him when we have become interiorly calm and receptive. (Our Guardian Angel, p. 24)
Over-activity and worldly preoccupations can distract us from the voice within. Thus, the Catechism citing St. Augustine states, “It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: ‘Return to your conscience, question it…. Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness’” (CCC 1779).
To distinguish the voice of God and the Holy Angel from the voice of the evil one or our own self-will requires careful study, meditation and the discernment of spirits. But there are certain rules which we can follow:
The Angel always points to GOD, to His word, His teachings, and His commandments, to the promises which we have given to GOD, to resolutions which we have made, and to the chance of having an opportunity of proving our love and fidelity to GOD. In doing this, he does not show too much consideration for our personal habits or likes, but always directs our gaze to the great values of eternity. When he admonishes us and we do not heed him, his admonitions will become fainter and fainter and will finally cease altogether. (Our Guardian Angel, p. 25)
But for those who sincerely seek God, His mercy and fidelity will come to meet their weakness and lead them on the path of truth.
Those who thus proceed, watching, praying, taking all means given them of gaining the truth, studying the Scriptures, and doing their duty; in short, those who seek religious truth by principle and habit, as the main business of their lives, humbly not arrogantly, peaceably not contentiously, shall not be “turned unto fables”. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. VIII)
Teaching by Example
“Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom / Lead Thou me on! / The night is dark, and I am far from home— / Lead Thou me on! / Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene—one step enough for me.” In what is perhaps his most well-known poem, St. John Henry Newman expresses in verse what he taught and lived in an eminent way: fidelity to conscience. This fidelity to conscience was lived not without great personal cost. As an Anglican cleric and professor at Oxford, Newman was a national figure. He was revered, almost venerated, as a profound preacher and writer, a subtle theologian and saintly man of international renown. Without desiring it, he became the leading protagonist of the “Tractarians”, who sought to restore the Anglican church to her more traditional theological and sacramental (Catholic) roots. With gentle pastoral wisdom, he led both students and professors to intimate communion with God through prayer and discipleship: cor ad cor loquitur!
When through his study of the Fathers of the Church, his doubts no longer allowed him to remain an Anglican cleric in right conscience, with great heaviness of heart he retired to a small village near Oxford where he lived in obscurity, prayer and study, until he reached the moral certitude that the Roman Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ. With much labor and intellectual honesty, he sought only the will of God and uprightness of conscience, as he himself justifies his conversion before his Anglican confreres, “I never, I do trust, aimed at anything else than obedience to my own sense of right” (Apologia pro vita sua). Even this great step, in obedience to the call of conscience, was not made without great emotional upheaval. Pope Benedict XVI writes of the sufferings he endured even at the beginning of his journey as a Catholic, when he had already “reached the port”:
His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. Newman had always been aware of having a mission for England. But in the Catholic theology of his time, his voice could hardly make itself heard. It was too foreign in the context of the prevailing form of theological thought and devotion. [Only in his 80th year, with the election of Pope Leo XIII, was he recognized in Rome for his great theological contributions and made a Cardinal. Posthumously, he had a great influence on the Second Vatican Council.] In January 1863 [nearly 20 years after his conversion!], he wrote in his diary these distressing words: “As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life – but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion”. He had not yet arrived at the hour when he would be an influential figure. In the humility and darkness of obedience, he had to wait until his message was taken up and understood. (Address to Roman Curia, Dec 20, 2010).
But Cardinal Newman was never bitter, never repented of the ways God was leading him by His grace and through the voice of conscience. Instead, he learned to love and accept the sweet yoke of the Cross from the hands of his loving Father and to surrender himself wholly and unconditionally to the divine Truth: “Lead, Kindly Light! … I loved to choose and see my path, but now / Lead Thou me on! / I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, / Pride ruled my will: remember not past years!” He found great peace and undisturbed certainty in the teachings of the Church, and the greatest consolation especially in the presence of the Most Holy Eucharist. For himself, he asked only that God would have mercy on his weakness, and lead him ever further in the way of holiness.
Especially now as we enter the time of Lent, God gives us extra graces and lights on our way to Him. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16). There in those depths, we want to commune with God, especially in Holy Communion, and ask Him to lead us by His “kindly light”. There, hidden from the eyes of the world, we can speak with God and He with us, there we prove our fidelity, there we prove our love for God by obedience to conscience in the daily little choices and deeds, in the acceptance of the Cross and the sincere effort to follow Christ. Mary, Mother of the Church and our Mother, stands beneath the Cross of Her Son and the cross of each of His members. May we find in her our light and consolation, and the strength to say “yes” to all that God asks of us in the voice of conscience.
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