For nearly 20 years I had the privilege of teaching moral theology at the Major Seminary of St. Mary of the Lake and at various universities. Moral theology is the assessment of human actions directed by reason and faith, leading us to our heavenly destiny. It is a field where immediately you have persons taking sides with whatever issue is presented because it affects what we do and why we do it. Moral theology involves the practice of our faith so there is always great passion.
I was having dinner at my friends’ home when their young daughter came up to me and said: “Fr. Jerry, what do you teach at the seminary?” I said that I teach moral theology. “What is that,” she asked? Not wanting to be too complex, I tried to answer as simply as possible, I said: it is understanding what is right from wrong.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, “If they’re seminarians, they should already know what’s right from wrong.”
Hopefully, we all have a basic sense of what is right and wrong. However, we know there is a complexity to the moral life and discerning the right thing to do is not always easy. But the church offers us guidance and direction. I have often said that if we would all follow the church’s teachings – no matter how difficult – we would be a wonderful society. The mission of the church, established by Jesus, is to lead us to salvation. Of course, this encompasses our actions in the world in which we live.
One area that always demands attention is the area of “conscience.” From the very depth of a person, the core of his or her being, there is God’s voice directing the person’s response in this world. If we could imagine defining ourselves before God through the manner of our actions, we might begin to understand how serious and vital conscience is to the practice of the faith and our freedom.
Conscience cannot be taken lightly; many of the saints whom we venerate were martyred because they would not violate their consciences. St. Thomas More refused to follow the dictate of King Henry VIII because it would violate his conscience. As he approached the gallows, he said that he was the king’s good servant – but God’s first.
The term conscience is often misunderstood. Many think that conscience has to do with feelings. An act is right or wrong if I feel that it is right or wrong. Many acts in our life may not feel good, but they are good.
Some feel that right or wrong depends on the law, however, slavery is wrong even if the law permitted it. Our conscience relies on principles based on reason and divine faith. Our consciences are the subjective determination of actions based on the objective norms. In forming our conscience, we follow the principles of natural law and divine teaching. But in the end, our decision is based on our response to God.
The Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” states: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. 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 and social relationships. (No. 16).”
During the Vietnam War there were a number of individuals who claimed the status of conscientious objector. The government recognized that individuals did not even have to have a religious affiliation but an intellectual assessment that demanded that they not participate in war. It was against their conscience.
Doesn’t it seem strange that our own government, the same government that recognizes conscientious objection, is today requiring individuals to violate their consciences in the imposition of mandates which would require that they support actions which go against the very core of their being, their consciences?
We have recently seen the attack on religion by the government trying to define religious faith and institutions in such narrow manners that not even the ministry of Jesus himself would qualify for an exemption.
This alone attempts to “dictate” – and I use the word purposefully – to religion what is or what is not the mission and ministry of the church. It is not the right of the government, especially in a democracy, to define the church or interpret the church’s teachings. The government begins to establish what is or what is not faith, what is or what is not to be believed, thereby establishing a faith.
I wonder what the Founding Fathers would say to this unwarranted intrusion. Here is what Thomas Paine said: “Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty…. As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”
But outside the realm of religion there is equally an attack on the freedom of conscience and personal liberty of those business owners who have serious moral objections to the actions of the HHS (Department of Health and Human Services). These individuals are being denied their right to conscience and are often lost in the battle between church and state.
It’s time we express our outrage to our elected officials. We need to urge them to change the current position of HHS. Do so — for your church, for your neighbor, for liberty and for conscience itself. We cannot lose on this issue for our conscience is calling us to do the right thing. Hopefully, the power of the vote still carries some influence.