I’d like to begin this First Sunday of Lent with a very recent quote from Pope Benedict: "One great problem facing the Church today is the lack of knowledge of the faith, 'religious illiteracy.’ With such illiteracy we cannot grow. ... Therefore we must re-appropriate the contents of the faith, not as a packet of dogmas and commandments, but as a unique reality revealed in its all its profoundness and beauty. We must do everything possible for catechetical renewal in order for the faith to be known, God to be known, Christ to be known, the truth to be known, and for unity in the truth to grow."
There are many reasons for this state of widespread religious illiteracy but I am finding more and more young people wanting what they have not yet been given, the truths of our faith. One particular truth young people crave is how to have a clear conscience as described in our 2nd reading, from First Peter.
We need to know that our conscience is that still, small voice in the back of our minds that enjoins us at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil, and judges our particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those what are evil. We all know that removing dirt from the body cannot compare to having a right relationship with God which produces a clear conscience.
So, let’s look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about our conscience. It’s this, that deep within our conscience we discover a law which we do not lay upon ourselves, but is already given within, a law we must obey. This voice of our conscience is always calling us to do what is good and to avoid evil. This voice sounds within our hearts at just the right moment. This voice, our conscience, is a law written on our hearts by God. It is written deep within our most secret core, in, as it were, our sanctuary. In this internal sanctuary we are alone with God whose voice echoes in the depths of who we are.
If we are prudent and if we are sufficiently spiritually awake we will recognize in this still, small voice the voice of God. Then we will be able to recognize this nudge from God and withstand distractions that can deceive us that we are following our conscience, but in reality we may not be.
A good conscience, which produces a clear conscience, enables us to assume responsibility for the acts we perform. So, if we commit evil, the just judgment of our conscience will be an internal witness to the truth of the evil of our particular choice. If all is spiritually well with us, and we can admit the faults we commit, the good conscience then turns us to the forgiveness that must be asked for, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the help of the grace of God.
Another teaching of the Church on conscience is this: Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as to personally make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience, especially in religious matters.
In this process of detecting the guidance of our conscience we need to know that we can have “erroneous judgments” of conscience. If a person takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin, such a person is culpable, or responsible for the evil he commits.
Therefore, we all have a moral duty to be informed and make enlightened moral judgments. A well formed conscience is upright and truthful. Since all of us live in a culture that is blind to good and evil, the education of our consciences is even more indispensable.
The whole enterprise of having a clear conscience is not just a matter of self-esteem. It is the voice of God, leading us from within to be in an ever deepening relationship with God. Going against our conscience, and believing our self-deceptions, leads us further and further away from God and His grace. An early warning system of the potential of losing grace is this: if we dismiss the priority of worshiping God and honoring the 4th commandment, then we are vulnerable to running amok and letting ourselves be led by an erroneous conscience. On the other hand, living by a well formed conscience is the surest path to being at peace with ourselves and with God. And don’t forget the role the sacrament of penance has to play in a good conscience.