Homily no. 29 – ‘Morality and Conscience’ (CCC 1749–1802)

Pentecostés. Óleo sobre lienzo, 275 × 127 cm. ...

Pentecostés. Óleo sobre lienzo, 275 × 127 cm. Madrid, Museo del Prado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our Pentecost readings today have such a lot of wonderful advice for us, based on this great gift of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Risen and Ascended Jesus from the Father.  This wonderful Holy Spirit is the gift of God Himself, sent upon the Church, given to us each in Baptism and Confirmation, and strengthened through all the graces that we receive in other Sacraments.  St Paul says, “there is no necessity for us to obey our unspiritual selves or to live unspiritual lives.  If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put an end to the misdeeds of the body you will live.”  The great gift of the Spirit assists us in our human actions — He works within us to re-align us with what is right.  God wants to help us to get our lives right!

Our human freedom — that we thought about last week as being an important part of what it means to be human — means of course that we are responsible for our actions.  We are not animals, we are human: spiritual and moral beings.  We believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong.  It may be that not all people (at this time) believe identically in the details of what is right and wrong; but all humanity does believe that they are meaningful categories, “right” and “wrong.”  We reflect on good and evil; we try to do the good.  This all points to an outside source providing a basis for ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and that ultimately is God Himself, the supreme Good.  But getting it right, doing good and avoiding evil, can be a fraught and tricky business.

We can distinguish between the ‘end’ and the ‘means to that end.’  So, we should neither do something that is wrong, nor use immoral means to achieve an end that might otherwise be considered good (e.g. mass bombing of civilian targets to end a war).  In fact, it’s a golden rule of morality that “One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC 1756).  Also, the circumstances can affect subjectively how wrong an act is.  Ignorance, or undue pressure, can diminish how much one may have been to blame for doing something wrong.  But to talk about doing “the lesser of two evils” is in general a false line of reasoning: one should do no evil, neither the graver evil nor the lesser; avoiding doing either.

It is a lifetime’s work to become more and more perfect in one’s actions.  It’s a natural part of our human make-up that we also have passions — feelings — “love and hatred, desire and fear, joy, sadness and anger.”  These feelings are important to being human, but also can sometimes make it complicated to see and do the good.  Doing good involves both the head and the heart; and sometimes the head must overrule the heart … we might feel drawn to doing something wrong, but knowing what is right can help us overcome the passion to do something wrong.  In this work, we certainly need the grace of the Holy Spirit to help us.  It is hard to overcome unruly passions if we are not regularly at prayer and receiving the grace of the Spirit.

Another important dimension of our humanity is our moral conscience.  The Second Vatican Council (GS n. 16) has a beautiful paragraph to describe our conscience: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.  Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary.  There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”  Our conscience is God’s insistent voice prompting us to do right, and avoid wrong.  It’s what makes us feel guilty if and when we have done something wrong.  God’s law is what is right for mankind; God’s commandments aren’t alien to us — they are good and perfect for us … and so when we go against them, we feel ‘all wrong’ inside.  Our conscience can prompt us to seek forgiveness, to go to confession, to make amends.  It can help us avoid wrongdoing in the first place, making us wary or scared of doing something wrong.  Our conscience is evidence of our soul, which is made “in God’s image and likeness.”  We must always follow our conscience, but we must also make sure to ‘inform’ our conscience.  We cannot just decide for ourselves what is right and wrong … even if we feel in our conscience, we still need to inform ourselves, to make sure that we use all the evidence around us, and that means most importantly the words of the Scripture, and the teaching of the Church … These are the most important aids to our conscience, so we can weigh up our decisions, informed by God’s good gifts, and His revelation, and not have our mind clouded by other attitudes, or our own sins, or inclinations.

St Augustine has a lovely line, reminding us of our dignity as beloved creatures of God.  He says:

Return to your conscience, question it. … Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness. 

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About Fr Philip Miller

I'm the Catholic Parish Priest at St Augustine's, Hoddesdon, Herts, UK, in the diocese of Westminster. This cycle of homilies is one of my contributions to this parish's life in the 'Year of Faith' (Oct 2012 - Nov 2013) called for by Pope Benedict XVI to renew the Church's understanding of the faith.
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