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The Catholic Moment: The clunker and conscience

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

By Father Earl Fernandes

In 1982  my father came home from work one day with a brand new car for my mom. It was a maroon Ford Fairmont. We children were jumping up and down with excitement as we saw it for the first time through our living room window. My father had made a big decision; he made a practical judgment. He made it without consulting Consumer Reports. More importantly, he made it without consulting my mother. He should have consulted; the car turned out to be a clunker.

In the Christian moral life, we have to make many judgments about doing good and avoiding evil. Here we are dealing with the notion of conscience. In the Jan. 22 issue of The Catholic Telegraph, I mentioned the importance of protecting the conscience of Catholic healthcare workers. A preliminary question is: What is conscience? The subsequent question is: Whom should conscience consult?

What is conscience? A simple definition is given by St. Alphonsus Liguori, patron saint of moral theologians and confessors. Alphonsus follows St. Thomas Aquinas, explaining defining conscience as “a practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge, in the here and now, the good to be done or the evil to be avoided.”
Conscience is not what I feel is right; it is a judgment of reason. Something is not right or wrong because I feel that it is right or wrong. Conscience does not descend into sentimentalism.
Likewise, conscience is not everybody else’s opinion; we ought not to speak of a conscience by consensus. Majority opinion does not determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. Truth does not reside in the consensus; truth is objective and can be recognized by reason.
While we experience conscience subjectively, conscience is an objective judgment of reason about the good to be done and the bad to be avoided. We don’t arrive at a moral judgment without going through a process of evaluation of the values at stake.
My father never explained how he came to the decision to buy that Fairmont, but he must have weighed the pros and cons. But in moral decisions we need more than just weighing pros and cons.
To help us weigh issues in moral decisions, we consult certain sources of wisdom to make the best judgment possible. We “consult the experts.” We inform our conscience.
In addition to reason, we also draw on our bank of personal experience, from which we learn. Our own experience is limited. My dad might have liked the color maroon, but not everyone likes maroon. Each person has different experiences; we cannot, however, set our personal experience or our preferences as the standard of right and wrong. As Catholics, when making moral judgments beyond our personal experience, we further consider the experience of the whole community of faith, not just the men and women of our day, but of a two-millennial faith tradition.
Whom should our reason consult next? Our conscience is informed by our faith, which has been revealed to us. The source of revelation, the word of God, written (Scripture) and handed down (tradition), influences our judgments as Catholics about doing good and avoiding evil. The Scriptures and tradition are authentically interpreted by the church’s magisterium. Far greater than Consumer Reports is God’s word, which is living and effective. The church teaches and proclaims this word with authority, not to control people, but to assist people in making informed judgments. It  is like an act of love of a parent toward a child.

A well-formed conscience is one in which our reason has been informed by faith. Informing one’s conscience is the duty of every Catholic. On the highway leading to the heavenly Jerusalem, can we really afford to have our conscience be a clunker?

Father Fernandes is the academic dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and an assistant professor of moral theology.

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