Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

When You Wrestle with Your Conscience, Who Wins?

by Deacon James Keating, Ph.D.


Deacon James Keating discusses five elements of moral conversion and conscience formation.

Larger Work

Envoy Magazine


36 – 41

Publisher & Date

The Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, Granville, OH, March / April 2008

Vision Book Cover Prints

We're all in need of moral formation. Due to our wounded nature we have a penchant for choosing only what is expedient, self-fulfilling, or immediately gratifying. We have to learn to love the good. We also have a penchant for thinking in a way that welcomes the rationalizations that smooth the way for self-indulgent choices. It takes courage to welcome moral truth, as this kind of truth always demands transformation. To move from a life of thinking about and choosing primarily the self to one that entails thinking about and choosing what is good for others invites us to form our consciences anew.

This formation has to be intentional and explicit. If we don't explicitly choose the forum and sources from which flow the content of our consciences, these forums and sources will choose us! There is no such thing as conscience "downtime." Our consciences are always being formed and affected by what we choose, by what we pay attention to. This is because the conscience is simply the mind deliberating over what behavior will bring happiness. If we love what is true, the mind is ordered rightly; but our behavior can also bring sadness when we ignore the truth or intentionally go against it. The conscience is not some obscure and secret entity within us, arcane and too deep to be understood. No, the conscience is simply our mind when that mind is trying to decide between behavior that is right and behavior is that is sinful. All of our free decisions flow from what our mind has concentrated upon or taken in to it.

We become disposed to certain kinds of behaviors according to what we think about. We think about certain things according to how we understand the nature and purpose of life. For the Catholic, the purpose of life is clear: to become holy by receiving the love of Christ as this love is revealed in the Church. For the Catholic, then, conscience is not simply formed according to common sources, it is formed according to the mind being imbued with a love for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as that mystery is promoted, protected, and personalized within the Church. Do you possess a love-imbued mind? Of course you do, we all do. The main question is not whether we have such a mind, we do. The main question is what or whom are we loving? Is our love in accord with our baptized dignity? To identify what or whom one loves is crucial to having a well-formed conscience.

We begin to identify the true object of our love when we answer a simple question: To what or to whom do I give most of my attention? Is Christ this central object of your love? Do you give or entrust to Christ the searchings of your mind? Do you want the Mystery of His Person to be formed in you in such a way that He guides all your thinking? Or, do you instead give undue weight to the opinions of college professors, media pundits, partisan political platforms, self-appointed prophets on the political left or right, and improperly discerned affections or unreliable mood swings? Is your mind "lasered in" on Christ? To identify what or whom you love and then to purify that love, if necessary, is the first step to forming a faithful conscience.

So, to form a Catholic conscience, one needs first to be converted from any inordinate loves. That means we have to start loving the truth — a Person, Christ — more than we love our sins. It comes as a shock to some people that we actually do love our sins more than we love God. We sense revulsion at the reality of loving sin. What reality other than a form of love can explain our attachment to our sins, our anger at the thought of having to leave them behind, or our Herculean efforts to rationalize our sins when confronted with an invitation from the Christ to let them go? No, our sins comfort us, and we press the mind into service to defend that comfort at all costs, even at the cost of being in union with the Church and the Eucharist. St. Augustine incisively expresses all our love of sin and the power our sins have over us once we allow them to define our will and mind:

"Those trifles of all trifles and vanities of all vanities, my onetime mistress, held me back, plucking at my garment of flesh and saying softly, "Are you sending us away?" and "From this moment shall we not be with you, now or forever?" . . . And now I began to hear them not half so loud; they no longer stood against me face to face, but were muttering behind my back and, as I tried to leave, plucking at me to make me look behind. Yet even that was enough to make me hesitate to snatch at freedom, to prevent me from shaking them off and leaping upwards on the way to which I was called: for the strong force of habit kept saying to me: "Do you think you can live without us?" (Confessions, Book 8)

Since we are weak, we hide in our sins. We draw some comfort there so that in times of stress or fear or sadness we run to our sins to receive whatever anemic solace they can give to us. Christ, rather, calls us not to hide in our sins but to hide in His wounds. To hide in His wounds simply means that we allow His life, death, and resurrection to affect us intellectually, emotionally, and morally. When temptation enters, we are called to rush toward the healing balm of salvation. Such a self-evident choice, however, is oftentimes not taken. We let it pass by since to receive the consciousness that communion with Christ affords takes us through the pain of separation from the sins we love. It is too high a cost. This is why, for most of us, moral conversion only happens by way of a breakdown (some extreme form of suffering enters our life) or a breakthrough (some extraordinary grace is given). Paradoxically one can have a breakdown and receive it as a breakthrough (a thief gets caught and is so distraught that he no longer holds up his defenses against belief in Christ), or one can have a breakthrough and receive it as breakdown (one finally becomes vulnerable to Christ in prayer, receives Him in love, but as a result knows that he must suffer the change of his whole life). How then do we form the conscience anew once we begin to renounce our sins?

First we deepen our prayer. We need to receive at ever-deepening levels the love of Christ. It is this love that will strengthen us against the inevitable temptations that will visit us again. The more vulnerable we are to prayer, the more our mind begins to be formed according to the new mystery of Christ and not the residue of past ways of coping with the stresses and fears of life. Christ has to reach our memory with His love or, in times of stress and fear and weakness, the residue of past sinful behavior will call to us and overwhelm us with false promises to come back and find solace in them. So, receive the love of Christ regularly in prayer. We can do this by attending to Scripture, or the Blessed Sacrament, or daily Mass, or by quiet contemplation in nature or in small group prayer. The method of receiving God's love in prayer may change over time, but the necessity to keep receiving it is always a requirement. Prayer keeps the conscience strong. This strength is given to the conscience because the intellect draws upon what it understands to be the truth to guide it to its end. For the prayerful conscience, the truth is clear: the teaching of Christ by way of His Church. Communion with Christ in prayer will render His truth more easily available to the mind over time. In so doing, our mind will become His Mind. We will take on the Mind of Christ. This is not a poetic phrase; this is the destiny of those who yield to Christ in love.

Second, we have to nourish our minds with sound sources of truth. We have to read the lives of the saints, attend to their pattern of conversion, and follow their commitment to suffer the coming of a new mind, His Mind. In the early stages of moral conversion, Christ will visit our mind and affect it with guilt feelings. After deciding to sin, we will suffer a rebuke by Christ from within. As it has for countless saints before us, this guilt will lead us to repent. Only when we mature in the spiritual life does Christ console us in our temptations and affirm us in His love to give us the grace to resist temptation. In the early stages of our moral conversion, however, He must visit our conscience with guilt. In this His Spirit is trying to teach us about the goodness of God, that only moral goodness and holiness can commune with God. The Spirit chastens us and bids us to run from sin. In effect, God is teaching us, "If you choose this action it will weaken our bond, our intimacy, our love. Don't choose this. No, run from this." Guilt is only "neurotic" or damaging to us when it is disconnected from the truth. If one feels guilty over actions or feelings that were not freely and knowingly chosen then this is a form of neurosis and not a sign of Christ's purifying presence. Alternately, we can also be bereft of guilt feelings when mental and spiritual health would call for them. In this case one would be in possession of a dead conscience. This is exactly the occasion that invites the "breakdown or breakthrough" that I mentioned above. Grace needs to enter our minds and bid us to rise, just as Jesus' voice invited Lazarus to do (Jn 11:1ff). If Christ's voice can reach the dead, it can surely reach the dead conscience. As we progress in the spiritual and moral life, Christ will more and more console us when we fall into sin, he will be gentle with us and direct us to the sacrament of reconciliation or, for lesser sins, to the power of the Mass. At this point in our spiritual life it will be Satan who begins to rebuke and attack our sense of purpose, our commitment to the moral life, and even our own goodness. Satan comes in our spiritual maturity with words that try to poison our life of grace, "You know you are not good enough to become a saint. You know you will always fall into sin. Why not give up? God doesn't want to help you. Just hide in sin again — it's not that bad."

It is Christ then, in the early stages of conversion, who labels our behavior as evil even as He calls us to Himself for purification of desire. "You are my delight now. Give me that sin. Do not be discouraged. Such behavior will only block all the love I want to give you. Surrender those evil desires and receive not condemnation, but Myself." Satan will also attack our identities and confuse us with words about our personal unworthiness. That is why he is the accuser. He loves to say, "You are no good. You are unworthy. You are a shameful person." Notice that Christ always cherishes us as persons. He never attacks our sense of self with words of judgment, but condemns our sins only as obstacles to His love. Generally, this is how we know the differences in the voices within: Christ condemns sin. Satan condemns the self. In sin we say in despair, "I am far from God," and God responds, "In your sin, my love is close to you, purifying and lifting you."

The saints give us deep insight into the geography of moral conversion and conscience formation. From them we learn that Satan is not creative and that he has been attacking the human race at the same weak points since the beginning: "God doesn't love you, don't trust Him, trust my voice only." Those of us who are receiving our identities from Christ become more and more adept at recognizing this boring message as "him again" and, over time, we refute it and then ignore it. St. John Vianney actually used to refer to Satan's attacks upon him in humorous ways, indicating that Vianney knew that his communion with Christ was secure. Vianney knew that nothing could separate him from the love of God.

Instead of heeding Satan's voice, always choose within your heart, your conscience, the activity of receptivity. Choose to receive the love of God, the mystery God wants to share with you about Himself and about your communion with Him.

Since God is love, if you do not love you cannot relate to God. This is why our conversion to love God is so crucial to conscience formation. God's activity of self- offering, "This is my Body, this is my Blood," offered in sacrifice, is offered in the service of making you holy. Our response is to offer ourselves in return, learning the ways of holiness so that we might be able to relate to God for all eternity. We are the grains of wheat that die and, in doing so, give life to those around us. On the cross Christ saw love through to its end. Jesus died praying, so must we pray as our selfish egos die. As our desire for our favorite sins is dying, we must hasten such in prayer. We are called to die to our sin in prayer. Like Christ dying on the cross, our death to our favorite sins must be a sacrifice offered to the Father in and through the same power of Christ's crucifixion. With Him, In Him, and Through Him, we push through the temptation to sin and welcome His strength and light on the other side of temptation. In His grace, the desire to justify our personal choices to sin are let go. When the selfish self is threatened with destruction by death, our real self, the one Christ is calling us to, is held in existence by the communion Christ had with the Father. To secure this identity, we must make the same passage. We must suffer the love of God so that our very identities are defined by divine communion and that communion alone.

Third, we need to thirst after the truth as given to us in the teaching of the Church and in our worship of God at the Eucharist. The work of conscience formation is the work of the divine voice, not a human voice. God's Word or voice is an event of change and life. You must seek God's voice and listen so that you can be changed by it. This voice is promised through the teachings of the Church. Of course God can reach the conscience by way of other sources as well. Our conscience can be moved by grace simply by listening to the radio, or receiving advice from a friend, or contemplating an act of charity. Fundamentally, however, the promise of Christ's authentic teaching is given to the pope in union with the bishops under the Word of God. Once our minds have been moved by the love we now have for Christ, we want to be nourished by this solid food of church teaching. We no longer chafe at being given such moral teaching; instead, we are overwhelmed with gratitude that God would love us so much as to provide us with this way to stay in union with Him. This is the true sign of moral conversion: one is grateful to God for Church teaching on morality and is no longer hostile or apathetic toward such a gift. There are many today who dissent from the moral teaching of the Church and claim to be prophetic presences among us. Certainly portions of our moral teaching develop over time with the help of theologians and saints, but any individual claim that one is a prophet is humbly kept only to the self and shared with one's bishop. That is the proper context for such communication. It is quite irresponsible and arrogant as a deacon, for example, to enter the pulpit and "set the church straight" with personal ideas on how moral teachings need to be "updated." If one is a true prophet, one will love the Church enough to understand that such prophecy has to be confirmed by the pope and bishops first; otherwise it is simply "my" opinion. No man is ordained to give his opinion; all catechists are called forward to pass on only the great gift that is doctrine. When the disposition of docility is secured in the teaching ministry of any parish, then those who wish to form a Catholic conscience there can be assured that such will be possible.

Fourth, we attend to the relevant science or to secular experts for assistance with answering our moral questions. A Catholic conscience is one that seeks truth. In vital matters of moral decision-making it is not only theological, spiritual, and anthropological truths that inform. Catholics must also seek out the relevant sciences as well. In the area of sexual ethics, medical morality, politics, and more, we must first make sure that our facts are straight before any decision can be made. What is the medical reality of my pathology? In my particular case, can I remove nutrition and hydration at a certain point? What have well-founded psychologists discovered about the teaching of sexual abstinence, lifelong chaste celibacy, the spacing of children for married couples? Consulting relevant experts completes one's moral formation of conscience, since to make decisions based only upon religious piety mocks the truth and does not reverence it. Consultation is simply that, seeking an opinion, and in the end, only the truth binds the conscience (CCC 1785).

Fifth, in the formation of conscience the sacrament of reconciliation plays a significant role. We should celebrate this sacrament frequently, since movement toward holiness will always stir the ire of Satan. Temptation to sin and cooperation with sin need the remedy of the Divine Mercy. This love of God, poured out upon all those who sin and seek healing, not only effects reconciliation with God but assists in undermining ignorance. When we receive the mercy of God, we receive correct teaching as well. One can be forgiven only for a true violation of charity and justice. By celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, the truth is reinforced for us and in us. We come to truly know what is good and what is evil and then receive the grace to sustain us in the good (CCC 1458).

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law (ccc 1778).

Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. 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).

Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God (ccc 1781).

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart. (ccc 1784).

© Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College

This item 8367 digitally provided courtesy of