(The Nationalist, 12 May 2006)
Every human being has the right and the responsibility to form and to follow their conscience.
Conscience is a practical judgment about what is the right thing to do in a given situation. By it we seek to do what is right before God. Conscience is at the service of truth; it is not a declaration of independence from it. Conscience is a stern guardian, but at times it is replaced by a parody – a presumed right of self-will. Conscience is not “doing your own thing” in the name of personal freedom, subject to every fancy, fashion or fad that comes along. That is arbitrary, selective and individualistic, undermining common values and community.
Many things in our society point to an underdeveloped, weak, or smothered conscience:
fraudulent claims for insurance, for social welfare, and for compensation have come to be seen as OK as long as you can get away with them;
an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay is sometimes dishonoured at both ends of that equation;
lying is excused and condoned by all sorts of subterfuges: necessity, public relations, toeing a party line, fidelity to orthodoxy;
in a good number of court cases, it is fairly clear that somebody is committing perjury.
Our conscience may have been dulled by the repetition of evil, such as by hearing of murder again and again; we have lost a sense of the horror involved in taking another person’s life. One of the great underdeveloped areas of conscience has to do with social morality, in questions of economic, social and political decision-making. Robert Maxwell, the media tycoon, said at a board meeting: ‘There’s no such thing as moral obligation; there is only legal obligation’. That was while he was swallowing up his employees’ pension fund.
One cause of this may have been the repeated neglect or suppression of conscience in minor matters. Jesus said, ‘Those who are faithful in that which is little are faithful also in that which is great’.
Conscience is not an easy option, but demands that we:
make a real effort to inform ourselves and overcome our ignorance;
work through the differing and difficult demands that conscience makes of us in any situation;
seriously consider the effect of our decisions on others;
face difficult choices and be prepared to be held accountable for them;
be prepared to go against the current of public opinion and to stand alone, if necessary;
fight against habits of sin which stifle conscience or blind us to its claims;
be prepared to go against our self-will, our selfishness – the most difficult challenge of all.
Conscience recognizes that all truth is God’s truth, however it is mediated. It makes us mature human beings, responsible and accountable, without self-deception. It makes us free, because, as Jesus said, ‘The truth shall make you free’. It makes for good human relationships, good health of soul, mind and body. Saint Augustine said, ‘Happiness is joy in the truth’.
For those in a hurry: ‘The least of your duties to God is that you do not use God’s blessings to help you to do wrong.’ (Hadrat ‘Ali, a Sufi mystic, Living and Dying with Grace: Counsels of Hadrat ‘Ali, Shambhala, Boston, 1995)