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Working on a good conscience

By Lara Pickford-Gordon,

What is the role of conscience with the violence and the high homicide rates for countries in the Caribbean region?

The question from Deacon Robert Harvey, of the Diocese of Castries to Fr Matthew Ragbir of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, did not elicit a simple response. And Fr Ragbir made it clear in his presentation on ‘The Formation of the Human Conscience’ at the Antilles Episcopal Conference’s (AEC) first webinar, ‘Introduction to Integral Human Development’ on September 7 that conscience is not a simple matter.

Responding to the question, he mentioned cases in Trinidad in which women who ended relationships were murdered along with the person with whom they began a new relationship.

“We’ve seen that pattern happening…it is more than just conscience,” Fr Ragbir said. He referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s statements on “pedagogy of desire” and that virtues formation, journeying with persons and accompaniment were also involved.

In the case of men whose relationships have ended, they needed help to understand, “I am rejected and what do I do with that now?”. Fr Ragbir said, “there is a lot of accompaniment, the good we have to work on”.

A lot of work was also needed in the society to help people understand their desires and how these can “run amok”. Fr Ragbir said it was not about repression.

Conscience, Fr Ragbir said, was a complex topic with competing anthropologies; his presentation would just be “brush strokes”.

He pointed to the importance of conscience to the Catholic citing the words of Church leaders. Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia 303 stated: “every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an even greater trust in God’s grace.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said: “Although we must always be bound by conscience, some of the greatest crimes of our day have been committed, and are being committed, by an appeal to individual conscience as though there were no higher norm.”

Pope John Paul II warned in Veritatis Splendor (93) of “a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and preserve the moral order of individuals and communities”.

Fr Ragbir commented, “We are in this climate of moral relativism and moral corruption and a real confusion.”

Before delving into what is conscience, Fr Ragbir discussed, among other things, “who is the human person” and ‘what is good’. He said conscience may be confused with “emotivism…This feeling of moral approval or disapproval which we all experience in some way or psychological conditioning.”

One explanation from some theologians is the Church is speaking of a “particular moral conscience”, the morality of a particular act. “As the Catechism says, conscience is a judgement of reason…whereby the human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete action that he or she is going to perform in the process of performing or has already completed. Judgement of conscience is a practical judgement and therefore it applies to concrete situations that one must love and do good and avoid evil.”

He highlighted Gaudium et Spes (16) for reflection: “In the depth of his conscience, woman/man detects a law which she/he does not impose upon her/himself, but which holds her/him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience, when necessary, speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.”

While people may have a general moral conscience i.e., awareness of basic truths and principles, Fr Ragbir said there is the obligation to form the conscience. Conscience however as a judgement or act is not exempt from the possibility of error. Developing a good conscience requires seeking truth and making judgements in accordance with this truth.

In this regard, he said moral education is very important. “How we cultivate the good is very important; how we build responsibility in our children and each other, is very important,” Fr Ragbir said.

Formation of moral conscience has two aspects, formation in the general basic principles of morality and implications in our lives, and formation to recognise the moral quality of a concrete act.

“How do we do this? It is a heart converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgement of conscience… To prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect knowledge of God’s law is certainly necessary but not sufficient.” There must also be “connaturality” between the human person and the true good.

Fr Ragbir suggested some requisites for the formation of conscience.  Conversion of heart was needed –faith, hope and love – a prayer life.  Knowledge of scripture and tradition (Sacred Magisterium) which requires study, “an adequate understanding of theological and philosophical anthropology, ‘Who am I?, What am I made for? Where am I directed to? What is my life about?’ …this is a moral education, it really is an education in the good,” Fr Ragbir said.

Community is needed and lived faith, sacramental life (especially Eucharist and Reconciliation). The example and encouragement of saints and virtuous persons, “the way people lived with good choices”, support of people of God, fraternal and sisterly correction.

Conscience is a light but does not empower people to choose good. Fr Ragbir emphasised that the virtue of prudence is necessary. “That enters when our own dynamisms are open to the power of the Spirit and fruits of Spirit flourish within us, we act prudently”. His final point was formation of conscience required “grace, grace and more grace”.