by Father Robert Lauder
There is a section in Bernard Cooke’s “Sacraments & Sacramentality” (Mystic, Ct. Revised Edition, Twenty-Third Publications, 1994, pp. 241, $14.95) in which he discusses the nature of conscience and how celebration of the Eucharist can shape and form our conscience. I was immediately interested in reading Cooke’s ideas on the formation of conscience because I discuss conscience with students in a course I give at St. John’s University. The course is not a course in ethics but rather a course on the mystery of the human person. I think some reflection on conscience may help students appreciate that by their moral decisions they are creating themselves.
The working definition I use when I discuss conscience with the students is the following: Conscience is the habitual way that a human consciousness judges in moral matters. Everyone has a conscience. That conscience may be greatly influenced by parents, schools attended, siblings, friends, books read, films, television and today especially by contemporary technology’s creation of social media.
What I stress immediately in class is that conscience is a habit, and so it is not changed easily. I give two examples from my own life in which my conscience changed dramatically, and both changes took a long time to happen. Both involved a kind of conversion. I stress that I am not trying to influence the members of the class to agree with me or to change their views on what is or is not immoral but only trying to get them to reflect on how consciences do not change easily.
The first example I offer is capital punishment. For years I thought capital punishment was moral. My basic view was if a person murdered someone then we took that person’s life. I embraced the view expressed in the statement “an eye for an eye.” What made me change my mind? I did some reading about capital punishment, some reading about Sister Helen Prejean, who was a public figure opposing capital punishment, and heard her give a lecture. Pope St. John Paul II taught that capital punishment was almost always wrong. Pope Francis teaches that it is always wrong. That confirmed me in my new view that capital punishment is not moral. The other example I offer is that I no longer think what I once thought about nuclear war. I once thought there could be a nuclear war that would be moral, but I now believe that nothing can justify killing millions and millions and millions of people.
In his book “Sacraments & Sacramentality” Bernard Cooke offers some important insights into how a Christian conscience is formed. Stressing that a Christian conscience is not some feeling of guilt or some embracing of a set of rules, Cooke suggests that the formation of a Christian conscience may take a lifetime. New situations arise frequently, and they can present special challenges to our consciences. Cooke points out that the proper celebration of Eucharist can be a powerful experience that greatly contributes to the formation of a Christian conscience. Noting that celebration of the Eucharist does not work like magic, Cooke writes the following:
“But if Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated genuinely and humanly, it is a convergence of the meaning of our life experience and the meanings and demands of the gospel. Eucharist should be the focal point of Christian decision making, from which we acquire the ability to make Christian choices. Eucharist should be the key to formation of Christian conscience. (p. 162)…
“What makes the Eucharistic context of decision special, something more than just a growth in human decisiveness, is the action of Christ’s liberating Spirit in the consciousness of the celebrating Christian community. The Spirit moves Christians, individually and corporately, toward the freedom that comes through union with God. Since this is the ultimate goal intended by any genuine Christian choice, Christ’s Spirit cooperates with Christian decision making as its animating force.”(p.164)
If Cooke is correct in his view that celebration of the Eucharist has a special power to form and shape Christian conscience, and I think he is, then formation of a Christian conscience is certainly a task that will take a lifetime. It’s not primarily learning a set of rules and laws but rather cooperating with the Holy Spirit in responding to God’s self-gift with the gift of ourselves. That gift of self may take different forms as our life situation changes. Forming a Christian conscience is crucial to the adventure of following Christ. I am hoping that our basic response to the vocation of cooperating with the Holy Spirit should not be fear of failure but rather a profound gratitude and a deep joy. The formation of a Christian conscience is a blessing and grace essential to the ongoing love story between God and us.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.