Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dissent has Consequences for Moral Life

Following is a guest post from Leon Suprenant, director of program development for School of Faith, a public association of the faithful based in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. You can reach him at (leon AT

Where Did We Go Wrong?

As Catholics we appreciate the gift of divine mercy and peace that is ours through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which “offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1446). In other words, we realize we’re spiritually sick, and so we desire the appropriate remedy.

As we pray the Act of Contrition after receiving the sacrament, we “firmly resolve with the help of God’s grace to sin no more.” We’re banking on God’s help, but in this prayer we’re telling Our Lord that we are absolutely serious about avoiding sin in the future. In other words, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to help reverse the cycle of sin in our life, to wipe it out at the source.

Given our resolve to “sin no more,” it would be extremely helpful to have some understanding of the underlying causes of our sins. I’m sure we all ask ourselves on occasion, “Where did I go wrong?” Surely we’re all prone to sin because of our fallen nature, and it’s also true that sin isn’t all that innovative or trendy. My sins and your sins are not all that original. Ask any confessor! It’s actually quite possible to trace most of our sins to some very basic moral errors.

That’s why paragraph no. 1792 is one of the most enlightening entries in the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church. It lists some of the main reasons why we go astray. Here’s what it says:

“Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct” (emphasis added).

Several of these items jump off the page to me. Doctrinal dissent has consequences in the moral life. My bad example (known as “scandal”) can lead others to sin. Ignorance is not “bliss” when it comes to the Gospel.

And this Catechism quote makes abundantly clear that an erroneous approach to conscience leads to errors in moral judgment.

Conscience is vitally important. It’s God’s way of revealing His truth to us in concrete circumstances, so that we can choose the good He desires for us. So having a well-formed conscience is about doing what God wants, not what “I want.” There are many voices--internal (e.g., our own preferences, memories, motivations, and disordered desires) and external (e.g., family, friends, and the media)--competing for our attention. We need a certain interiority to be able to hear the Shepherd’s voice, to discern God’s law that is already on our hearts.

Too often we do whatever is expedient, agreeable, or enjoyable, and then we claim that we’re just following our conscience. All we’re doing then is adopting a relativistic--and ultimately atheistic--mindset and giving it the veneer of religiosity. The rejection of the objective moral law is not an exercise of authentic freedom, but rather is the submission to slavery. As the Catechism teaches, this is nothing other than the licentious assertion of one’s autonomy from God and from the moral order.

And especially in light of the upcoming election, as we strive to take to heart Bishop Finn and Archbishop Naumann’s pastoral letter on “Our Moral Responsibility as Catholic Citizens,” Catechism, no. 1792 gives all of us a firm basis for examining our consciences. It leads us to ask these and similar questions of ourselves as we strive to be “faithful citizens” in the voting booth next month:

· Am I ignorant of Christ and His Gospel? Do I seek the Lord’s guidance through regular, humble prayer? Do I assiduously study and internalize the Bible as well as other reliable sources of Catholic teaching and spiritual wisdom?

· Is my primary loyalty to a political party or agenda, or to being a faithful disciple of Christ? Does Catholic teaching, as reflected in Bishop Finn’s pastoral letter, inform my political decision-making?

· Am I a slave to my passions? Am I mired in habitual sin that colors my attitude toward some sensitive moral issues?

· Do I try to justify conduct that Our Lord considers sinful? Is there a part of my life that I haven’t turned over to God? Are there Church teachings I refuse to accept? Do I strive to form my conscience based on the firm foundation of Catholic truth, or do I look for teachers who will “tickle my ears” (2 Tim. 4:3)?

· Do I strive to see Christ in those around me, especially the poor and the annoying? Do I really take to heart the fact that all men and women, including those in the womb, have God-given dignity and value? Do I treat others with basic kindness, patience, and respect? Do I serve only myself?

The Divine Physician doesn’t expect us to overcome these perennial difficulties on our own. In fact, we can’t. However, if we can diagnose the sources of our particular sins, we can better seek out and apply the right spiritual medicine.