Damn You, Jiminy Cricket!

I don't consider myself a tremendously original thinker but I should like to think that one thing I brought to my students these last three years is a way of thinking about God that they found (1) credible and (2) relevant. I used to say that I was offering to them a way of thinking about "God after the death of god." The coupling of "Death" and "god" seemed to titillate a bunch of adolescents and gave me just enough of an ingress to make a case to them. 

When I took over the moral theology course at the end of the semester, I found a new bugbear: conscience. Many students, it seems , have a notion that the conscience is this Jiminy Cricket-esque figure who dwells somewhere deep within us. While it may not sing and dance and lead us out of the belly of a whale, our conscience is the final arbiter of what it is that we do. The Jiminy Cricket conscience is the rule by which we measure all things, the gold standard establishing the level and nature of our commitments. 

Thinking back upon yesterday's post, I am struck even more with how much Bill Keller's reference to 'conscience' strikes me as this type of conscience. "If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy," he writes, "being part of an institution out of step with your conscience - just go." Jiminy Conscience, that little guiding voice within each of us, infallibly leads us to freedom.

Or does it? 

One thing frequently neglected - not surprising - is the teaching of the Church on conscience. One's conscience is not a stand-alone entity. It is an action, a judgment of reason, and one that can be formed well or formed poorly. Just as one can 'get good' at evaluating art, or wine, or food, so too can one 'get good' at evaluating the moral quality of an action. Contrary to the belief of many - de gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there is no dispute) - the Church believes not only that it is possible, but mandatory, for each of us to develop her or his conscience. 

A great part of conscience formation demands that we take seriously the role of the conscience in our lives. Undeniable: the Church teaches that one "is obliged to follow faithfully" what one knows to be just and right. Yet, I must ask, how often are we tempted to treat 'justice' and 'rightness' more as a matter of taste than as something objective, something that we can come to know - even if asymptotically - if we put forth due effort? Before decrying the Church, or rejecting its teachings, have very many of us actually made an earnest effort to figure out what the teaching is before we appeal to our consciences to say that the teaching is wrong? 

Father Jim Keenan, in his wonderful text Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, helpfully lays out how one might maturely go about appealing to conscience in a disagreement with a teaching of the Church. Enumerating them:
  1. We are obliged to know what the Church teaches and, after learning the Church's position, discern whether we still have grounds for disagreement. 
  2. We must be able to say exactly what the disagreement is. 
  3. Not only must we know what the disagreement is, we also need to know why we disagree and how our position is more consistent with the mission of the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 
Very often, I find, people simply don't know what the Church teaches on a given topic with which they think they disagree or they are unwilling (unable) to articulate the disagreement very well. As I said yesterday, I'm not saying that the Church is never wrong but it does take courageous work to learn where the disagreement is and to call the Church back to its mission. Sometimes, that is, disagreement may be the most profound act of love one can demonstrate. 

I curse Jiminy Cricket with a slight roll of the eyes: I still love the little fellow. As a metaphor for the conscience, however, he is profoundly misleading. He is not a stand-alone agent, a separate little voice outside of us. He is, rather, an integral part of who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming. Each of us is called to form our consciences - think P90X! - and if we feel no option but to dissent, let it be done with charity. Voting with our feet will not help to recall the Church's mission. We must vote with our lives, demonstrating where the Church fails to take account of some information about or some new insight into humanity, and living out that truth boldly and charitably. 


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