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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Conscience and Conduct

Many parishes celebrate “Come Home for Christmas” and “Come Home for Easter” reconciliation services. Of course, Confession is available all year long. Priests delight in being ministers of reconciliation. The Christian regularly needs to examine his conscience and behavior.

We do this, not in light of some nebulous feeling or even according to the values of the majority of our peers; we do so in comparison to the standard of Christ and his Church. In season and out, popular or not, the truth is proclaimed.

The first realization which must dawn upon us is that we are all sinners. From the last harsh word we uttered to the little lies we tell; from our lack of preoccupation in the liturgy to our passivity regarding the murder of the child in the womb — we are sinners. We need to be honest to ourselves and to God about that fact. In our consciences, we very often try to run away from this reality; after all, it is an admission of imperfection. However, humility requires this acknowledgment, even if satanic pride would deny it.

I use the word “satanic” here because I believe it is all too easy in our lax consciences to reduce all sin to the level of a simple fault, a mistake, or a stumble. All of these words fail to take into consideration that sin is more than our merely tripping over our own feet. We sin because there is a part of us that chooses to do it, likes doing it, wants to do it some more, and will seek to hide it. There is a malicious and wicked quality to it. Sometimes we might be so good at hiding our sins that we even hide them to ourselves. We rationalize that “everybody’s doing it” or “that I am not a saint.” And yet, if we are following in Christ’s footsteps, it was for going against the former that Jesus was put to death and for the latter that he allowed his passion and death. We are all called to be holy and his grace can make this seemingly impossible goal obtainable.

This leads us to our second realization, that if we are sinners, we have not been left to despair and to die in our sins; Jesus offers us the grace of his presence, a presence of healing, peace, and forgiveness. Here too our consciences must not collapse between the tension of either being lax or scrupulous. Our appreciation of sin and the sense of guilt or remorse which brings us to confess and seek pardon is a noble human gesture. However, once that forgiveness of God is given, we must forgive ourselves as well. We need to believe that God does what he claims to do. When Christ forgives our sins through the instrumentality of the priest, healing us and dissolving our breach with God and the community, the slate of our lives is wiped clean. Like a newborn baby we are made new. Temporal punishment may remain and so we are given a penance; but our standing in the Church and before God is healed and restored.

Although the seal of confession prevents me from naming particulars, the habit (no matter how rare these days) of keeping mental or written lists containing hundreds of particular sins, big and small, throughout the week, demonstrates an obsession with one’s sins, a sense of inferiority and depravity. We need to believe that God has made us wondrous creatures to behold, a little less than angels. When I was a teenager, I was so scrupulous that I even thought my feelings, beyond my control, were sins calling for remission.

Our sexuality, one of God’s greatest gifts to us, is sometimes cursed among supposedly chaste people because of the intensity of an attraction to others. Can we not praise God for his creation and leave evil thoughts behind? Even at Saint Peter’s in Rome itself, the beauty of the human form is displayed in great works of art. Having said this, it occurs to me that sexuality is one of those issues which we have to keep in tension. If we are not to be scrupulous about it, we must also not be lax. The commandments of Scripture and the natural law more than suggest an objective norm in living out our sexuality, reserving its fullest expression to marriage and in mandating that it always nurture fidelity and new life. I could have spoken at length this way about any of an assortment of concerns and sinful extremes, but it does seem that sex is the most popular topic these days.

If the lax conscience sins by presumption of God’s will and mercy; the scrupulous sins by questioning and even rejecting his forgiveness. We may fall into certain regular or habitual sins that need to be confessed; but, why tell the same sin committed many years and tears ago, over and over again? [I am not talking here about a general confession which seeks to examine the general thrust or orientation of our life.] Could it be that sometimes we do not believe that God can do what he claims? God does not forgive as we often do. Frequently, our offer of forgiveness is tainted by a threat or warning, “Okay, I’ll forgive you this time, but next time, pow!” When God forgives, he acts like he forgets. The all-knowing God puts our sins behind him, and no longer looks upon them. Perhaps we would do better if we tried to forgive in the same way? Years ago, I was watching the 700 Club on TV and there was an interview with a couple whose teenage son was ruthlessly murdered by another boy for what little pocket change he carried. In our own hearts, how many of us would have wanted to respond with violence in kind? They did not; instead, this young murderer, an orphan of the streets, was regularly visited in jail by only two people, the murdered boy’s parents. They prayed and even forgave him. The youth accepted Christ. They fought for his release and when that day came, they took him home and made him their own. How many of us could have done that? Perhaps that shows how much more conversion we still need?

We killed God’s Son by our sins, and yet he forgives us. Oddly enough, no matter how prayerful and devout, the failure to forgive ourselves may be the most dangerous kind of sin of all. How some people must hate themselves! I mean that. Only hate could make people rehearse their past transgressions in their minds over and over. Have they grown to desire the pain it brings? I do not know. If the lax have made themselves fools to their passions of self-love; the scrupulous have become slaves to their own self-loathing. Christ would have us be free. He would have us responsibly love ourselves as precious in his eyes because he has first loved us. Indeed, unless we love ourselves in this way, what becomes of the commandment, “To love your neighbor as yourself?”

I would like to say a few more precise things about conscience. It is neither the comical stereotype of an angel whispering on one shoulder and a devil on the other nor an arbitrary feeling that something is either good or bad. Conscience is an attempt of the mind to make an appropriate judgment about whether an action is either right or wrong. True judgment demands knowing the facts and deliberation over them prior to action. Odd as it may seem, we are obliged to follow our conscience even when a false judgment is made. However, as soon as we learn otherwise, we must accordingly adjust to agree with a now properly formed conscience. Judgment can be flawed for all sorts of reasons; we might be perplexed, coerced, scrupulous, lax, etc. We suspend judgment when in doubt and do not act until a certain conclusion has been reached. The Church maintains that conscience needs to be properly informed and a judgment must be made according to the appropriate law, i.e. natural law, Ten Commandments, and the law of love.

In all visible creation, only human beings have been called by God to accept responsibility for their actions. Neither pre-programmed robots nor animals of blind instinct; we have been given free will and an intellect capable of discerning God’s design from the natural order and revelation. Unhealthy extremes in conscience would include the static which would have the Church spoon feed everything, dismissing the enlightening power of God’s Spirit and responsibility; and the dynamic conscience which would go to the other side in embracing revolution or even rebellion in actions. These are the people who think the Church and its bishops are always wrong until they say something about which they agree. No one can tell them what to do, even God and his Church! The true path of conscience is between these two and is surmised by a 1973 document from the Canadian Bishops: “We can qualify this as the dynamic Christian conscience. This is the conscience which leads us to have a responsible attitude to someone, to Jesus, to the community, to the Church, etc. Every person who fits into this category feels a responsibility for a progressive search and striving to live out a life ideal according to the mind of Christ” (Statement on Formation of Christian Conscience #22).

We need to examine our consciences. Look at the blind spots in your life. Only you can make the resolution to change for the better. The power to loose and bind from sin, given to the Apostles, is not a principle of enslavement but of freedom. “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.