Erich Fromm is widely quoted for having said that the paradoxical and tragic situation of man is that his conscaience is weakest when he needs it most.
And of course our recent history proves the phrase right because it continues to show us that there is a time when our conscience as a nation was at its lowest when we needed it most.
The sad experience has taught us the necessity of acting with the right and well informed conscience both as an individual and as a nation. The same experience should help us as we journey through the year 2010 to understand well the words of Robert Ingersoll: Courage without conscience is a wild beast.
In our Sunday liturgy we reflect on the importance of a well informed conscience in our interpretation of the law.
The same liturgy shows us the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law, where the former calls for love and mercy in the first place. We get this meditation from the following readings: Hosea 2:16, 17, 21-22; Psalm 103; 2Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:18-22
Though there is no generally accepted definition of conscience and its role, we do experience it daily when we shut out all the noise and clutter from our lives.
Metaphorically, it is that little voice within us that guides us by telling us the right thing to do in different situations.
Henry Mencken, the famous political commentator described it as ‘the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking’.
Often times when we act ethically we call it “acting in conscience” referring to the judgment we have done prior to the action. Conscience is a judgment and not a mere feeling.
And as any judgment must be well informed in order to make sense, so is the conscience. Uninformed conscience can lead us into error.
That is why next to the obligation of following our conscience, there is even a more serious one of forming or educating our conscious well basing ourselves on objective and defensible norms of behaviour
Catholic theology gives us a good guidance as far as our conscience is concerned. In this optic, conscience is “a judgment of reason which at the appropriate moment enjoins a responsible person to do good and to avoid evil”.
In the same way, a responsible person must be in touch with his or her conscience and retain the right to act according to his or her conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.
This right of conscience does not, however, simply allow people to summarily disagree with anything that they do not want and then say they are ‘acting in conscience’!
That would be the fallacy of appeal to conscience, which ignores the important question: “what kind of conscience?”
While a correct conscience will be guided by right reasoning, an erroneous conscience may make judgments that do not stand to reason.
That is why we can talk of a good conscience, whose judgment is made to do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right circumstances, and a bad conscience whose tendency is to make judgments without regard for moral norms or relevant information that may affect the moral character of an action.
In addition to being correct and good, conscience must equally be morally certain. In fact, responsible people ought to search for enough information so that they exercise their judgment on what to do in particular cases guided by tangible information.
The contrary would mean that they are acting with a morally uncertain conscience which cannot claim to be correct or good.
It is with this in mind that our liturgy calls us to move through this year 2010 as responsible people with an obligation to act on a good conscience, on a morally certain conscience, and to the possible extent, on a correct conscience.
The theme of our readings stresses the point made by Jesus that the new covenant between man and God must be understood in the new light which does not go by the letter of the law but rather by the spirit of the law which considers love, justice, mercy and a good conscience.
By this Jesus did not intend to minimize the importance of the rule of order and law in our human society.
He says. “I did not come to abolish the law” and he affirms that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments … will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”, and greatest the one who fulfils them (Matthew 5:17-19).
Jesus on the other hand scotched publicly the idea of using any law as an excuse not to love, not to show mercy and compassion. He illustrated this amply in the parable about the conscience of the Good Samaritan.
And that is what the Church requires of us: to cherish the conscience of the Good Samaritan of the Good Samaritan.