Conscience counterfeits

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2020

The call to repentance occurs throughout the Scriptures. Jesus begins his sacred ministry where John the Baptist left off (cf. Mt. 3:2): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17) The baseline for repentance is a well-formed conscience.

A well-formed conscience is the voice of God. Strictly speaking, we don’t examine our conscience as much as we judge the acts of our conscience and measure those acts against God’s law, our moral code. Our attention to the first principles of God’s law cultivates a good conscience. But conscience can be killed and replaced by counterfeits.

A child can have a better sense of right and wrong than an adult. There’s an old saying: Children love God’s justice because they’re innocent; adults love God’s mercy because they’re not. But children are not immune to efforts to distort and replace their consciences with counterfeits.

Peer pressure can be harmless and amusing. “What’s the matter, are you afraid to climb that tree? I dare you. I double dare you.” But forms of peer pressure can be very damaging. Just one ringleader can persuade others that destructive acts of vandalism are only playful pranks.

Sometimes the adults vandalize the children. School officials have notoriously subverted the innocence of children by displacing their consciences with sexually explicit “family life education” and “gender ideology.”

A displaced conscience can also be occupational. In business, it is axiomatic to buy low, sell high. Honest commerce is praiseworthy and can be enjoyable. Merchants in many parts of the world expect customers to bargain as part of the game. American tourists inadvertently offend merchants if they offer to pay the sticker price. But we can easily rationalize patterns of dishonesty as accepted business practices. Habitual lies disfigure consciences. Little lies eventually become big lies, and consciences weaken. And a damaged conscience cannot be compartmentalized. It ultimately affects every human relationship, including marriages and families.

We often are oblivious to the cultural patterns that substitute for conscience. For example, Americans are practical and enterprising with a “can do” attitude. We get things done. The slogan, “You do what you have to do,” reflects American pragmatism. But the slogan has limits. As a first principle, the “ends justifying the means” ethic distorts conscience.

Every so often, we hear horrific reports of China selling human organs harvested from Chinese prisoners. (Alas, Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in baby body parts is old news.) How many Americans would consent to a life-saving kidney transplant at the price of cooperating with such evil? But we’re capable of great evil if the slogan “do what you have to do” becomes the first principle of conscience.

Laws can also replace the first principles of conscience. We tend to think civil laws carry more weight than God’s law. Certainly it is more difficult to recover from a violation of IRS regulations, for example, than a violation of God’s Commandments. Of course, there need not be serious contradictions. A just law reinforces consciences, and Saint Thomas calls the law “a kindly tutor.”

When laws are unjust and impose evil behavior, an admixture of respect for and fear of government authorities quickly confuses and subverts a conscience. If it’s the “law of the land,” it must be reverenced (unless, of course, the law violates politically-correct sensibilities).

Aided and abetted by the mainstream media, political-correctness bullies consciences with lies and half-truths. Any opposition to the LGBTQ agenda on conscience grounds, for example, renders a person “judgmental” and “hateful.”

In our day, among the most prominent substitutes for conscience are bureaucratic structures and expectations. Up to a point, bureaucracies can be useful. Intelligent organizational arrangements foster communication and consistent employment practices. But most of us have direct experience with overstaffed, overbearing, and smothering bureaucracies. Burdensome policies, procedures, and protocols quickly replace common sense and healthy consciences. The authorities (often disguised in the relative anonymity of committees) do not trust individuals to comply with their agenda, right or wrong.

When a culture abandons and ceases to promote the value of a good conscience according to God’s law, the multiplication of policies, procedures, and protocols becomes inevitable in a complex modern society. When bureaucracies bloat and overreach, they effectively become alternative religions, accommodating the sensitivities of the constantly changing winds of political correctness.

So bureaucrats hire “ethics officers” ostensibly to provide moral guidance, but mostly to prevent lawsuits and enforce political correctness. The lawyers insist that we establish policies, procedures, and protocols “to ensure [fill in the blank] never happens again.” Ubiquitous sexual-harassment and child-protection programs, presuming to replace the authority of the Ten Commandments ,are indicative of a culture that has lost its moral compass.

Deliberately ambiguous terminology commonly replace reliance on traditional tenets of morality. In an ethics training module for a Catholic religious order, these questions are posed: “Am I engaging in inappropriate behavior in private or in public? Am I engaging in inappropriate behavior in gyms? Am I inappropriately using a masseuse, or using escorts? Am I doing anything inappropriate on my phone/device (especially if it is owned by the [order])?” Notice how the questions carefully avoid offending against the gay agenda, and illustrate the complete subversion, perversion, and replacement of the morally precise traditional examination of conscience.

In a very amusing scene in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, the anti-Christ street preacher Hazel Motes insists that anyone who still believes in conscience “had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it….” In sloth and fear, too often, we are eager to comply.

It’s not too late to return to God’s law and reset our consciences with a rigorous application of the Ten Commandments as the Church traditionally presents them. There is nothing more pleasing to God than a conscience reconciled to his law. There is nothing more consoling for us to be at peace with God with a clear conscience.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17)

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Jan. 31, 2020 4:40 PM ET USA

    All my fellow parishioners are angry at me for standing up in the pew before Sunday Mass and saying in my school-teacher voice, "CAN WE PLEASE BE QUIET? Thank You." The noise of all the chit-chat was drowning out the organ. The Church suddenly got quiet until Mass began. Afterwards 3 outraged Church ladies (no men) told me off. I said I wasn't sorry and would do it again, as we seemed to have forgotten respect for the Blessed Sacrament. They called me self-righteous and huffed off.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jan. 28, 2020 3:01 PM ET USA

    "Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal." Amoris Laetitia, 303. The current and new conscience paradigm?