Lord, you insist on sincerity of heart; in my inmost being teach me wisdom. Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.Our discussion on Sophie Scholl over at Cinema Catechism has led us to take up the matter of the conscience, and how one cannot, in all good conscience, acquiesce or do nothing in the face of evil, much less give into and cooperate with it, but must instead oppose it. And one cannot justify doing that which is objectively evil by insisting that such conduct does not violate his “conscience,” as if he could choose or create his own conscience. That is not the conscience, that is the will.
Create a pure heart in me, God, put a steadfast spirit into me. Do not send me away from your presence, or withdraw your Holy Spirit from me; give me again the joy of your salvation, and be ready to strengthen me with your Spirit. (Ps. 51:8-9, 12-14)
It is true that sometimes discerning right from wrong, good from evil, can be difficult, and even when it is clear, sometimes listening to the voice of conscience and resisting evil can be difficult because it might bring with it adverse consequences. But God does not leave us alone to fend for ourselves. Rather, as His Holiness Pope John Paul II teaches us, He has sent us the Holy Spirit to guide us, to be a light for our conscience and the grace of fortitude to follow it.
Encyclical Letter Dominum et Vivificantem
Blessed Pope John Paul II
27. When Jesus during the discourse in the Upper Room foretells the coming of the Holy Spirit "at the price of" His own departure, and promises "I will send Him to you," in the very same context He adds: "And when He comes, He will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment." (Jn 16:7f) . . .
30. Christ's prophecies in the farewell discourse found their most exact and direct confirmation on the day of Pentecost, in particular the prediction which we are dealing with: "The Counselor...will convince the world concerning sin." On that day, the promised Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles gathered in prayer together with Mary the Mother of Jesus, in the same Upper Room, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. . . .
33. According to the witness concerning the beginning, sin in its original reality takes place in man's will -- and conscience -- first of all as "disobedience," that is, as opposition of the will of man to the will of God. This original disobedience presupposes a rejection, or at least a turning away from the truth contained in the Word of God, who creates the world. . . .
36. According to the Book of Genesis, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was to express and constantly remind man of the "limit" impassable for a created being. God's prohibition is to be understood in this sense: the Creator forbids man and woman to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The words of the enticement, that is to say the temptation, as formulated in the sacred text, are an inducement to transgress this prohibition -- that is to say, to go beyond that "limit": "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God ["like gods"], knowing good and evil." (Gen 2:9, 17)
"Disobedience" means precisely going beyond that limit, which remains impassable to the will and the freedom of man as a created being. For God the Creator is the one definitive source of the moral order in the world created by Him. Man cannot decide by himself what is good and what is evil -- cannot "know good and evil, like God." In the created world God indeed remains the first and sovereign source for deciding about good and evil, through the intimate truth of being, which is the reflection of the Word, the eternal Son, consubstantial with the Father. To man, created to the image of God, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of conscience, so that in this conscience the image may faithfully reflect its model, which is both Wisdom and eternal Law, the source of the moral order in man and in the world.
"Disobedience," as the original dimension of sin, means the rejection of this source, through man's claim to become an independent and exclusive source for deciding about good and evil. The Spirit who "searches the depths of God," and who at the same time is for man the light of conscience and the source of the moral order, knows in all its fullness this dimension of the sin inscribed in the mystery of man's beginning. . . .
37. According to the witness of the beginning, God in creation has revealed Himself as omnipotence, which is love. At the same time He has revealed to man that, as the "image and likeness" of his Creator, he is called to participate in truth and love. . . .
42. The words of the Risen Christ on the "first day of the week" give particular emphasis to the presence of the Paraclete-Counselor as the one who "convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment." . . . By becoming "the light of hearts," that is to say the light of consciences, the Holy Spirit "convinces concerning sin," which is to say, He makes man realize his own evil and at the same time directs him toward what is good. . . .
The Holy Spirit undertakes [this "convincing concerning sin"] by virtue of the Redemption accomplished by the Blood of the Son of Man. Hence the Letter to the Hebrews says that this "blood purifies the conscience." It therefore, so to speak, opens to the Holy Spirit the door into man's inmost being, namely into the sanctuary of human consciences. (Heb 9:14)
43. The Second Vatican Council mentioned the Catholic teaching on conscience when it spoke about man's vocation and in particular about the dignity of the human person. It is precisely the conscience in particular which determines this dignity. For the conscience is "the most secret core and sanctuary of a man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths." It "can ...speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that." (Gaudium et Spes 16)
This capacity to command what is good and to forbid evil, placed in man by the Creator, is the main characteristic of the personal subject. But at the same time, "in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience." (GS 16)
The conscience therefore is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-a-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behavior, as from the passage of the Book of Genesis which we have already considered.
Precisely in this sense the conscience is the "secret sanctuary" in which "God's voice echoes." The conscience is "the voice of God," even when man recognizes in it nothing more than the principle of the moral order which it is not humanly possible to doubt, even without any direct reference to the Creator. It is precisely in reference to this that the conscience always finds its foundation and justification.
The Gospel's "convincing concerning sin" under the influence of the Spirit of truth can be accomplished in man in no other way except through the conscience. If the conscience is upright, it serves "to resolve according to truth the moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships"; then "persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct." (GS 16)
A result of an upright conscience is, first of all, to call good and evil by their proper name, as we read in the same Pastoral Constitution:"whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons" (GS 27);and having called by name the many different sins that are so frequent and widespread in our time, the Constitution adds:"All these things and others of their kind are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator." (GS 27)By calling by their proper name the sins that most dishonor man, and by showing that they are a moral evil that weighs negatively on any balance-sheet of human progress, the Council also describes all this as a stage in "a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness," which characterizes "all of human life, whether individual or collective." (GS 13) . . .
44. "Convincing the world concerning sin" does not end with the fact that sin is called by its right name and identified for what it is throughout its entire range. In convincing the world concerning sin the Spirit of truth comes into contact with the voice of human consciences. . . .
As the Council teaches: "A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested." (GS 37) "But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man." (GS 13) Man, therefore, far from allowing himself to be "ensnared" in his sinful condition, by relying upon the voice of his own conscience, "is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good. Nor can he achieve his own interior integrity without valiant efforts and the help of God's grace." (GS 37)