Sunday, May 1, 2016

a matter of conscience

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our Gospel today we hear our Lord say: 'If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words.' The implications of what he is saying here is fairly clear: if you love Christ you will show that love by the obedience you show to his teachings. And if you do not obey his teachings, you do not love him, despite what you may say, or even have convinced yourself of. St Matthew records Jesus speaking on a similar theme in chapter seven of his Gospel: 'Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' Faith in Christ is clearly essential; but that faith must be shown by obedience or it is essentially meaningless.

Now, we all know well what it is that Christ is speaking of when he says here we must obey his word – and indeed elsewhere that we must be obedient to the will of the Father. It is what we have set out for us in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament; and there is also the moral law of the Old Testament, things such as the ceremonial law and dietary law being clearly set aside in the New Testament. And as well as this there is the Church Christ founded, the 'bride of Christ' as Scripture calls her, to which Christ promised he would send his Holy Spirit, as we hear in our Gospel today. It of these we speak when we talk about Scripture and Tradition.

With such clear guidance, given to us by God Himself, you might well wonder how it is that anyone can do wrong. But of course, we all of us do. First, because we are weak and frail creatures, sharers in the fallen nature of our first parents, and obeying Christ's word can often be hard. And because of that we face temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil which try to persuade us that the short-lived pleasures they offer are of greater value than eternal life. The voice of the world is particularly strong in the current age, telling us that a great many things that are contrary to the word of Christ are good and not evil.

And then there is, of course, the fact that a great many have a very poor idea of what it means to act according to their conscience. They seem to think it means that they can act exactly as they please and as long as they do not feel guilty about it they have done no wrong. But an appeal to conscience is not a licence to do whatever we want. Those who think that do not even understand what the word really means. The origins of the word are from the Latin 'con' meaning 'with' and 'scientia' meaning 'knowledge'. To act according to conscience then means to act according to knowledge; it allows us to make a judgement of the morality of our actions – and the decision as to whether an action is good or bad is not based on some internal, subjective feeling, but according to some objective standard or norm.

A man may, for example, justify an adulterous relationship for all manner of subjective reasons: his wife doesn't understand him; the marriage is 'dead' and he is only staying for the sake of the children so really he is 'free'; the excitement of the illicit relationship makes him happy and there's no harm as long as his wife doesn't know; he feels capable of loving two women and it is love that is really important; it really doesn't mean anything to him, so what does it matter? But by the objective standards of Christian morality it is wrong.

Obviously, things are not always so clear cut. When you pass a beggar on the street, for example, ought you to give him or her money? We have a Christian duty to help those in need. But what if it seems clear the person is an addict and you are sure any money you give will go to feed that addiction? Or you have good reason to doubt that the person is actually in need but is in truth a professional beggar? In the first case your giving might actually serve to hurt the person by allowing them to buy drugs; in the second it could be seen not only to encourage them in an unproductive way of life but also reduce your ability to help those who are genuinely in need. But you might also consider that the first needs money as well for food and a bed at a shelter; and the second, having chosen this way of life, relies on your charity for the necessities of life … or perhaps may have been set out on the street to beg by some other person who will treat them with violence if they return home with less than expected. What is right or wrong there is not so obvious; but in such circumstances as long as you strive to do your best, as opposed to being too mean to share your loose change – or because you'd rather hand over a euro or two than feel mean about passing someone or take the trouble to think things through – then you act in good conscience.

But if we are to act according to conscience – to act with knowledge – the we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of that knowledge and make sure that those under our care have it too. And if it seems like a lot to learn, even so it is not too much for us to bear; for as St Paul tells us in first Corinthians we will not be tested beyond our endurance. What God asks of us, he also gives us the grace and the strength to carry out. But most of all we should not shrink from the task because it is, fundamentally, an act of love: an act of love for God, an act of love for Christ our Saviour, who suffered and died for us, an act of love so that we may show love by ever more perfect obedience to the one who said that if we loved him we would keep his word. Amen. 

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