In giving us His Son, His only Word, He spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word — and He has no more to say... because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. - Saint John of the Cross (1675-1726)
CCC 1776 "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil., sounds in his heart at the right moment...For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God...His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
There has been a lot of talk among Catholics, Christians of denominations, and People of Faith in general about the concept of conscience. I have been blessed with being involved in teaching The Faith for 6 years now. Beginning with studying as a Marian Catechist under the Apostolate begun by Father John Hardon (and guided, spiritually, by Archbishop Raymond Burke) and up to the present day as a member of the RCIA team at St Joseph's Church in Modesto, I have had the privilege of learning more and more about the richness of Catholic Spirituality. It is wonderful to know the Bible but it is not enough. It is wonderful to know Sacred Tradition but it is not enough. It is fabulous to practice the spiritual axiom of obedience to The Bishop of Rome, but it is not enough. Rather, each is like the leg of a three-legged stool. Take one away and the stool will not be strong enough to hold the weight of a human creature. Take two away and it collapses.
However, it is not unusual for well-educated Catholics to misunderstand Church teaching on Conscience. Because of a misrepresentation of Vatican II (and the documents are on line, not a secret and not guarded by an Albino Monk from Opus Dei trying to save the secret of the Knights Templar from becoming common knowledge), many Catholics my age and younger are under the impression that ultimately a Catholic has only their own conscience to answer to in terms of what is right and what is wrong. As a result, we have well-intentioned people - like the Kennedy girl on NBC Dateline or those women in Boston who are convinced they are priests - who honestly believe they are within their 'rights' at children of the Light to do whatever they want, as long as they are following their conscience.
Over the next few days or weeks, I am going to try and share a concise summary of The Church teaching on conscience. I will always reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published under the direction of JPII in 1992 (the year I got sober, btw). If I reference the CCC, it is Biblical. Nothing comes from the Catholic Church that is not Biblical in origin or nature. We are not idol worshiping pagan Christians who secretly eat the children we adopt from our enemies who have discarded them (yes, an early charge leveled against us by the wonderful pantheistic pagans of the Roman Empire, fostered by the Stoic Philosophers....thank you for your Apologia, St Justin Martyr and for your willingness to die for Truth). We are the Church founded by Jesus Christ, upon the rock that is the faith of St Peter and upon the Rock that is The Lord Himself.
Beginning with the idea of where a conscience comes from, the Church teaches that a moral conscience is derived from the Natural Law. She teaches that every human creature has a deep knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. We just know it. We know, for instance, that walking up to someone on the street and punching them in the face because we do not like their outfit is wrong. We know that snatching a pen from the hands of the student in the next desk because we either do not have one of our own or because we like their pen better is not right. When the young man in Tracy sought refuge in the health club, the people there did not think, "Good Lord, there could be a gang of thugs after him with guns...throw him out and lock the door".
Instead, they acted according to the natural, moral conscience bestowed upon them at the moment of their creation by a God who created them in His Own Image.
We have, over the centuries, labeled those people who seem incapable of making these kinds of decisions - what the rest of us would consider 'no brainers' - as sociopaths, psychopaths or deviants. We look at grown men who want to have sex with 12 year old girls, adult women who sell their sons into slavery, teenagers who beat dogs to death for fun as outside the pale.
Because we know that they should know. We know that there are certain things that do not need to be taught - reinforced? yes. Taught? No.
Every society, whether it be a society of 4 or 5 living in a cave in France 50 million years ago or the Campfire Girls and Boys of America (I was a Campfire Girl - WoHeLo!), establish norms of behavior according to the basic moral law imprinted upon our hearts. What the Church teaches can be seen - it is not something so esoteric that it can only be imagined.
This voice, this law that calls us to love, is not one that begins with ourselves; rather, the Church teaches that it is something with originates outside of our own tiny, finite minds. We have been created with the capacity to love and to respond to love.
In AA, we teach newcomers who are determined not to believe in a Higher Power, that if they put aside their own prejudices and determination to run the show they will discover that deep within their psyche is a still, small voice that says, "You are worth loving.....and worthy of love".
That is our conscience.
The question becomes, therefore, why would God give us this great gift of His Law and make it a part of our very DNA? If nothing happens in God's Universe in error, and God is intimately concerned with all aspects of our lives, why would this be so important when creating human beings?